Learning corner: Basketball basics

Published On November 6, 2012 | By Shane Ohalloran

Each year, the arrival of Autumn conjures images of brilliantly colored leaves, the season’s harvest bounty… and Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and the rest of the Celtics grinding out games at the Garden.

This year’s edition of the C’s may be off to a bit of a rough start at 1-2, but there’s no time like the present to brush up on your basketball knowledge. As the weather turns colder—and seemingly without a hockey season in the offing—you’ll be glad you know something about the game that Springfield, Mass. native James Naismith invented in 1891 to keep his football players in shape during the winter months.


Image via Wikimedia Commons.

You probably already know that basketball is played five-on-five. And while some teams defy the conventional logic and use different types of lineups, most coaches play a lineup that includes a point guard, a shooting guard, a small forward, a power forward and a center. These positions are denoted with a number (1-5), starting with the point guard at No. 1 and ascending in the order listed here to the center at No. 5. Typically, these players will also ascend in height in the order they’re listed here.

Each has distinct responsibilities on offense. For instance, point guards (like Rajon Rondo) are tasked with bringing the ball up the floor and initiating the offense by calling a play, driving to the hole, or passing to a teammate. Shooting guards (like Jason Terry or Courtney Lee) usually make their money with a reliable jump shot, and spend most of the time on offense around the three point line to space out the offense.

Small forwards (like Paul Pierce) are a diverse group of players, with varying play-making and shooting ability. Most, like Pierce, are well-rounded scorers who can shoot from distance or use their dribble to get to the basket. A power forward (like Brandon Bass) is typically a rebounding specialist, although there’s a recent trend in the NBA towards perimeter-shooting power forwards. Centers are the biggest guys on the court—think Shaq or Dwight Howard—who typically can’t shoot whatsoever but overwhelm opponents with sheer force.

Areas of the court

Image via http://quintin2012.wordpress.com/.

Ever wonder what a commentator means by ‘low post’ or ‘low block’? He’s referring to the area near the basket on either side of the painted lane. That’s where the league’s big men do most of their work.

What about the ‘elbow’, or the ‘wing’? The elbow is the area where the free throw line and lane line intersect. This area is also sometimes called the high post. Some, like Pierce, are extremely reliable shooters from this range. Others, like the Gasol brothers, set up there with their back to the basket and quarterback the offense.

The ‘key’ also refers to the painted lane area, so the ‘top’ of the key is the part of the three-point line behind the free throw line. Defenses beware when a good shooter gets an open look from the top of the key.

The ‘baseline’ is the out-of-bounds line that makes up the shorter two sides of the rectangle that is the court.

The pick and roll

The most basic play in basketball is called the pick and roll, or screen and roll. The pick and roll came into fashion in the 1990s, and now every NBA team runs some version of it.

The object of a pick and roll is, in theory, to force the defense to make a choice between giving a ballhandler space to drive or shoot and giving a big man space to run to the basket for an easy catch and finish.

The play starts when a big man (although some teams run pick and rolls with two guards) sets his feet at a 90-degree angle from the ballhandler and faces the defender to be screened. The ballhandler then dribbles behind the screener, while the screener rotates his body to put it between the defender and the basket. Meanwhile, depending on how the big man’s defender reacts, the ballhandler should either have a clear path to the basket or an easy pass to the big man, who has “rolled” to the hoop.

One variation of this play is called the pick and pop. The screen is set the same way, but rather than run to the hoop, the screener floats away from the defenders into an area where he can take an uncontested jump shot. The Celtics run this play with devastating efficiency for both Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett.

Players are also allowed to set screens for their teammates who don’t have the ball, so that they can put themselves in position to receive a pass and score.

The nitty-gritty

In the NBA, a player’s sixth personal foul of the game means they’re automatically ejected. Each of those fouls also contribute to a team’s five team fouls per quarter, after which the opponent is awarded free throws even if the foul didn’t occur in the act of shooting.

Before team foul number five, a non-shooting foul (also called a ‘foul on the floor’) results in the fouled team having possession of the ball. In the end of close games, teams often foul opponents intentionally as a game management strategy: if your opponent misses at the free throw line, you’re ahead in the deal.

A game consists of four 12-minute quarters for a total of 48 minutes, and there are a total of 82 games in the regular season.

You can put your new basketball knowledge to the test on Wednesday night as the Celtics take on the Washington Wizards. The game tips at 7:30 at TD Garden.



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