NBA basketball can be a very strategic game. Here are some of the frequently asked questions about hoops strategies.

Defensive Strategies
Offensive Strategies
Near the End of the Game


How many timeouts does each team get in a regular NBA game?
Each team has six timeouts for each game, four of which are mandatory and are used at specific times in each of the four quarters. Each team also has two 20-second timeouts which can be used (one in each half, and they cannot be carried over or saved). In overtime, each team receives three full timeouts.

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Basketball U How many fouls can a player commit before he must leave the game?
Each player is permitted to commit six fouls in a game, after which he must leave the game.

What does it mean when a team is "in the penalty"?
There are two ways a team can be in the penalty or in a penalty situation:

Each team is allowed to commit four fouls in each quarter with no penalty. On the fifth team foul committed that quarter, that team is in the penalty or in a penalty situation.

The penalty situation also occurs if a team commits more than one foul in the last two minutes of a quarter. Even if a team has not committed any fouls and there is less than two minutes remaining in the quarter, they are in the penalty as soon as they commit their second foul.

When a team is in the penalty and one of their players commits a foul, the opposition gets to shoot two free throws.

Allen Iverson
Allen Iverson shoots a free throw for Philly.
NBAE Photos

Why do players sometimes shoot free throws after being fouled, and sometimes not?
There are two reasons why a player will shoot a free throw after being fouled:

1. If he is fouled and the other team is in the penalty, then he shoots two free throws.

2. Every time a player is fouled in the act of shooting a basket that does not go in, he is awarded with two free throws, regardless of whether or not the team is in the penalty situation. If the player attempting a shot is outside the three-point line when he is fouled, he will be awarded three free throws. If a player is fouled in the act of shooting a basket successfully, he is awarded either two or three points for the basket (depending on where he was shooting from), plus he is awarded with one free throw because he was fouled. If he successfully makes this free throw, it is called a three-point play, or a four-point play (which is quite rare).

If he doesn't shoot a free throw after being fouled, then the opponent is not in the penalty, or he didn't get fouled while in the act of shooting.

What does it mean if a team has a "foul to give"?
If a defensive team has not committed four team fouls in a quarter or one foul in the last two minutes, they have a foul to give. A defensive team with a foul to give may wait until the clock runs down and the offensive team starts to initiate their play (usually with five to seven seconds left) before committing the foul. This will force the offensive team to inbound the ball from the sideline and leave them less time to set up and attempt a shot.

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Defensive Strategies

What is zone defence?
The key principle in zone defence is that a defender guards an area of the court rather than a player. There are two common types of zone defence:

A 1-3-1 zone is used to double-team in the corners and take the offence out of a comfort zone where they can pass or shoot. The first "one" is the player who meets the point guard bringing the ball into the frontcourt. He will defend the player with the ball until it is passed or the player moves to either the right or left side of the court. The ball-handler will then be defended by one of the "threes" who is on the foul line extended. These defenders are responsible for restricting penetration in the middle of the court. The final "one" is the player who is located on the baseline, under the basket. This player, usually a centre or power forward, must protect the hoop.

In a 2-3 zone, the "two" refers to the two players who meet the ball-handler as he crosses halfcourt. These players work as a tandem, double-teaming if the point guard picks up his dribble or covering for their teammate if the ball is passed to the side they are responsible for. The "three" refers to the three players positioned on the baseline to defend the post and rebound. Often smaller teams will employ a 2-3 in order to double-team the post and have three bodies close to the basket to crash the boards.

Carter and McGrady
T-Mac and Vince form a defensive matchup.
NBAE Photos

What are coaches trying to accomplish with defensive matchups?
A matchup between players usually means that those players are going to guard each other. Often teams will match point guards to point guards, shooting guards to shooting guards, small forwards to small forwards, power forwards to power forwards and centres to centres. Some teams like to play with smaller players and try to be a quicker team or a perimeter-oriented team. Other teams may elect to go with big players and be intimidating inside. These strategies not only change from team to team, but also they change within teams depending on their players, and whom they are playing. The coaches are trying to create matchups that give their teams the advantage.

Why do teams double-team some players?
Sometimes there are players who are playing so well offensively that one defensive player is not enough to stop him, so teams will try to double-team that player. This means that another player on the defensive team will leave the player he is guarding and run over to help his teammate, thus double-teaming the offensive player. The double-teamed player may have to pass to a weaker player and force the weaker player to score. There are some teams that will double-team poor players who may turn the ball over when trying unsuccessfully to pass the ball out of the double-team.

What does it mean to "rotate out of a double-team"?
If the offensive player being double-teamed passes the ball, the defensive team is at a disadvantage because they only have three players trying to stop four players. The team on defence will try to rotate out of the double-team, meaning they will scramble to recover and match up with all five players again. Sometimes this results in defensive players having to guard offensive players that they normally wouldn't.

What is a full-court press?
A full-court press is an attacking full-court defence with the purpose of trying to force a turnover or accelerate the pace of the game. Often teams will trap the point guard in the backcourt in order for him to pass the ball. After the point guard passes the ball, the defence does not want him to get the ball back so they will initiate a full-court press.

What are some key things to watch for on defence?
Teams try to avoid allowing the opposition to penetrate through the middle of the key. The reason is that the offensive player has so many options in the middle of the key. He has the option to attempt a basket, pass to the post or pass to the open three-point shooters. Instead, defensive players try to force offensive players to the baseline. On the baseline, defenders can receive help from teammates and there are fewer options for the offensive player.

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Offensive Strategies

When an offensive player receives the ball on the wing and is facing the basket, what are his options?
Teams will set up offences to allow players an opportunity to get into a one-on-one situation on the wing (area close to either sideline).

1. Shooters and Screens: Players who are excellent shooters will normally have their opponents' quickest defenders covering them. Therefore, great shooters need to have specific plays designed to free them up for a good shot. Most good shooters are proficient at "running off screens", which means they use the stationary players on their own team (who by standing still are setting screens) to make it hard for their defender to follow them around. In this way, they create space between themselves and their defender, which allows them the time needed to receive the pass and take a good shot.

2. Penetrating Players: There is always an advantage for teams that have offensive players who can beat their defender with penetration, meaning they use their quickness and speed to beat them to the basket. When an offensive player beats his man with penetration, he will either have an easy basket, or a defensive player from the weak side (the side away from the ball) will have to come over and help his teammate. This could result in the penetrating player passing the ball to his open teammate for an easy basket.

3. Offensive Matchups - Creating Mismatches: Creating good scoring opportunities in basketball is all about what types of matchups are occurring on the floor. If you see a player scoring basket after basket, chances are he has an offensive matchup that works in his favour - this is sometimes called a mismatch. Some common mismatches in basketball:
When a shorter defender is covering a tall post player (who plays close to the basket), it is easier for the taller player to shoot.
The NBA is filled with players who are very quick when they get the ball on the perimeter. Mismatches occur frequently on the perimeter when slower defensive players cover offensive players who are very quick.

Dirk Nowitzki
Dirk Nowitzki likes to run a variation of a pick-and-roll with Dallas teammate Steve Nash.
NBAE Photos

4. Run-and-Gun: Some teams like to push the ball up the floor and take the first possible shot. The philosophy is to score easy baskets and layups when the defence is not set. Teams use this with quick players who can outrun the opposition. Some teams like to score fast breaks off turnovers, but run-and-gun teams push it all the time.

5. Halfcourt Offence: More deliberate teams make the defence work by reversing the basketball from side to side. This tires the defence while the offence waits for the defence to make a mistake. This allows the offence to wear down the defence before they attempt to score.

6. Isolation Plays: If teams have a star player, they may like to get him in situations where he has the ball and room to create plays and score. In an isolation play, three players stand on the weak side of the floor, bringing their defenders with them. The other two players will be involved in the isolation (usually one in the post, one on the perimeter) where they will play a game of "two-on-two" on the strong side of the floor.

What is a pick-and-roll?
A player sets a pick (or screen) by remaining stationary between his teammate who has the ball and a defender. This frees the ball-handler to attempt a basket. A pick-and-roll is an offensive play where a player first sets a pick for his teammate who has the ball, then moves towards the basket (or "rolls" to the basket) to receive a pass.

What offensive strategies can a team use against a zone defence?
There are two common strategies used to beat a zone defence.

1. Pass/Swing the Ball: No defensive player can move faster than a passed basketball this is the theory behind swinging the ball. By moving the ball quickly from side to side (known as "reversing the basketball") the defence has to shift quickly, exerting energy and tiring the defenders. When the defence begins to tire, it is easier to catch defenders off-guard, making it possible to drive to the basket. If defenders try to anticipate where the ball is going, they may shift before the ball is passed. By using a ball fake for a pass, the offence may be able to pass to an open teammate for a layup.

2. Drive-and-Kick: Offences attack a zone defence by driving to the basket and "kicking" the ball to open shooters. A player with the ball on the perimeter attempts to drive to the basket. By doing this, he will draw at least one defender, sometimes two. When the defence reacts to the driver, the zone collapses and packs into the key, leaving shooters open on the perimeter. Perimeter shooters can make the defence pay by making three-point baskets.

What is the triangle offence?
The triangle offence was created by coach Sam Barry of Southern California in the 1940s. One of Coach Barry's guards was Tex Winter, a man who would bring the "triangle" to the Chicago Bulls in 1989 as an assistant coach to Phil Jackson. The Bulls enjoyed great success with the triangle offence, winning six championships in the 1990s.

The triangle or triple-post offence is designed to bring out the best skills and talents of an individual player within the framework of a team offence. It assumes all players have the versatility to play any position on the court, which was possible for the Bulls with talented mid-sized players such as Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Toni Kukoc. The offence consists of constant player motion, cuts and passing. The object is to space the floor to create opportunities to drive, pass, shoot or cut. Players must recognize mismatches of size and/or quickness between the offensive player and the defensive player.

The offensive team sets up the triangle on the strong side with a low-post player, a baseline player and a player on the 45-degree angle, forming a triangle. Each of these players, when with the ball, has the option to shoot, pass or drive. If the ball is passed, the passer cuts to the basket or screens away for a weakside player. The passer is replaced in the triangle by a weakside cutter coming to the strong side. It is important for there to be constant passing and movement by the offensive team.

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Near the End of the Game

Why do the last minutes of a basketball game take so long?
When a game is close, the teams will use fouls and their remaining timeouts strategically to give themselves an advantage. When a team commits a foul that stops a basket from being scored, the hope is that the fouled player will not make his free throws. By calling timeouts, teams can strategically plan plays aimed at scoring quickly (if the team is losing) or that attempt to run down the clock (if a team is winning). The maximum number of timeouts per team during the last two minutes of the fourth quarter, or last two minutes of overtime, is two.

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