Everybody knows that to improve your basketball game, you’ve got to practice. But practice isn’t just done on the court. You’re also practicing when you’re watching the NBA — not for fun, but with a critical eye to spot ways you can improve your own game. By watching closely how the NBA pros move on the basketball court — such as how they handle the ball, how they dodge other players, and how they know just when and how to make a shot — you can gain an enormous amount of knowledge in order to improve your own skills.
You shouldn’t only study the latest matches. You should go back to the classic games that have showed off basketball at its most intense and highest level. For instance, you might want to scrutinize some of the most exciting playoff series games in recent history. There are key insights you can gain from them if you watch closely.
One thing that you can easily see from these playoffs games is that it helps to space your energy out over the course of a game and a season. In the 2002 Lakers vs. Kings playoff, Robert Horry was the master of this. Watching the jaw-dropping three pointer Horry scored at the last second (literally) of game three, you wouldn’t even notice he was at the end of an exhausting match. Horry’s finesse was a matter of pacing himself, and it was also a matter intense devotion to developing a fine-tuned muscle memory.
And it’s key not just to pace yourself over the course of a game, but over the course of season’s worth of games. In the 2012 East Finals, the Miami Heat won the first two games handily, but then lost three times in a row to the Boston Celtics. With Lebron James facing the end of a career make-or-break first year in Miami, he was able to dominate in the last two games and secure his place as one of basketball’s all-time greats. That’s a stunning example of spacing out your energy.
The Right Tactics and the Right Attitude
To really shine on the court like an NBA star, you’ve got to have the right attitude. When thinking about how to go about this, it helps to consider the different styles of play as seen in basic poker strategy. In both poker and basketball, an aggressive and mentally-tough approach will serve you well, and help you to achieve long-term success. Studying poker can also make you realize that success on the basketball court isn’t just about the strength, speed, and skills you have — it’s also about the strategic thinking you can bring to your team.
When you’re playing basketball, you’re only focused on the immediate moment. But if you think back on a game, you realize that you and your team made dozens, if not hundreds, of small and large choices which affected your strategy. It can be hard to figure out how to untangle all these choices, so watching others play basketball can really teach you about making decisions on the court.
The importance of strategic thinking can be picked up by closely following almost any game in the NBA. Let’s look closely at a specific game to see what there is to learn about playing strategically.
The recent match of the Chicago Bulls versus the Orlando Magic is a good demonstration of the importance of strategy in basketball. In this match, there was one clear tactical failure: In the last minute of the game, Orlando Magic coach Steve Clifford benched one of the team’s best players, Nikola Vucevic. Clifford may have thought the Magic was able to win with Vucevic, but his absence allowed the Bulls to clinch a tight 110 – 109 victory.
In fact, even with Vucevic out, the Magic still might have been able to win, had Aaron Gordon not fouled Lauri Markkanen as he was attempting a three pointer. Markkanen was able to score two points from his free throws, leading the Bulls to victory. It’s tough to know what was going through Gordon’s mind, but it’s clear his foul of Markkanen was a reckless, hasty choice.
What can be drawn from the failures of the Magic is the importance of playing to win until the very last moment, but also of keeping your cool and not panicking if things go wrong. If you panic, you’ll only make your situation worse.
So, the next time you see an NBA game on TV, don’t relax, but watch closely — and take notes on anything significant that happens. You might just improve your own game in the process.