Keep Your Eye on the … Everything Else

What it’s like to watch an NBA playoff game without watching the ball.

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 22:  James Harden #13 and Chris Paul #3 of the Houston Rockets stand on the court as the officials review a play at the end of Game Four of the Western Conference Finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 22, 2018 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
The off-ball action during an NBA game can be deeply fascinating. Or it can be a few dudes just standing around.
Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

When the smartest basketball minds watch basketball, they don’t just watch the basketball. The stuff that happens away from the rock—screen setting, spacing, movement—is often just as crucial to a team’s success. Zach Lowe, ESPN’s hoops bhagwan, is one of the best at recognizing all this action that’s hiding in plain sight. During the Cavaliers’ series against Toronto, Lowe described the interplay between Cleveland’s Kevin Love and Kyle Korver as “an improvisational off-ball dance of circles, zig-zags, and screens set in every direction until the defense falls in on itself.”

While we’d been watching the same games, I hadn’t noticed this off-ball waltz in real time. During the games themselves, all I saw was LeBron committing Hague-worthy crimes against Canada. Love and Korver could have been rehearsing a scene from Our Town in the paint and I wouldn’t have noticed. Like a dog at Roland-Garros, I just can’t take my eye off the ball.

Determined to remedy this, I forced myself to ignore the orange sphere during Game 4 of the Western Conference finals between the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors. My goal was to appreciate the subtle things occurring on the periphery, and I wouldn’t allow myself so much as a peek at the ball until I became a basketball genius.

The game started with a 12–0 Warriors run, an onslaught that included Steph Curry hitting an open 3-pointer. Thanks to my monklike restraint, I was able to see the play behind the play.

As Curry curled behind Kevin Durant, James Harden hesitated and stayed close to Golden State’s other, taller all-universe shooter. Trevor Ariza had Durant covered, however, and this brief pause was enough for Curry to spring free.

Later in the quarter, Curry found himself isolated against Ariza. At least, that’s what I thought was happening. I just saw the Warriors waiting around the 3-point arc as Marv Albert and the crowd worked themselves into a lather about something happening beyond my field of vision.

It was rather frustrating! Like a Dickensian urchin, I could only venture a guess as to the delicious treats being enjoyed at Christmas dinner. Perhaps it was figgy pudding, or even an Ariza foul on a Curry layup attempt?

(It was the latter.)

I didn’t need to see the ball to figure out Houston was having some trouble. Each offensive possession was a retread of the last, with four Rockets standing around as the fifth tried his luck on his own. Ariza grabbing at his shorts was the extent of Houston’s off-ball action.

Finally, after Houston fell behind 7–0, the Rockets’ P.J. Tucker decided to cut to the basket without the ball. As Golden State’s Kevon Looney sunk into the lane to cover him, Draymond Green noticed Chris Paul standing in the corner and directed his teammate to guard him instead. With the kick-out pass no longer available to Harden, the all-star bricked the ensuing contested layup.

Green is the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and that was an example of one of the roughly 8 million things he does each game to justify that honor. He later found himself in a spot of bother, however, when Harden stole the ball from him after a missed Rockets shot. My eyes immediately darted to, well, nothing. Later, I would see that Harden had passed up a wide-open 3-pointer.

This was a baffling play to process, but I can take solace in knowing that it was probably far more confusing for people who were actually watching Harden.

Houston had another putrid possession shortly thereafter. With my attention diverted from the ballhandler, I watched a wide-open Ariza calling for a pass that would never come as the rest of his team clumped together above the 3-point line. Harden, meanwhile, simply loitered at half-court. I briefly wondered whether someone had called a timeout, but a shot careened off the rim, indicating this was an actual, honest-to-God sequence from a 65-win team.

Houston, it turns out, was not an ideal team for this experiment. While they are loaded with offensive firepower, isolation plays are their bread and butter, and their entire game plan seems to be an elaborate rebuttal to the poetry of John Donne.

The Rockets had the fifth-lowest assist ratio in the NBA during the regular season, meaning their possessions rarely ended with a player passing to a teammate. Golden State, meanwhile, led the league in that category. The Warriors did some good stuff early in Game 4, especially when Green, always a willing passer, orchestrated from above the key.

But after jumping out to a big early lead, the ball started to stick for the Warriors. Klay Thompson injured his knee in the second quarter, and he failed to bounce around the court with his usual locomotive verve upon returning to action. I assume there was some cool stuff going on where the ball was, but I was none the wiser. The few balletic interchanges and tricky switches didn’t make up for the overwhelming amount of idle sauntering. Basketball without the basketball had begun to wear on me.

When Harden dunked Green all the way down into the water table, he obviously had the ball, and so I had to wait for the replays to understand just how nasty it was.

With that, I decided to give up my monklike self-restraint, and I’m so happy I did. I got to see Curry turn Oracle Arena into a kiln by scoring 11 straight points in the third quarter. I also got to enjoy watching the Rockets —the same Rockets who’d been standing around like hungover groomsmen during the first half—claw their way back and win the first competitive game of the conference finals, 95–92.

Of course, the best basketball minds are capable of watching both the ball and the action occurring around it at the same time. Even an obtuse hoops brain like my own can do it in fits and spurts. Still, my experiment was worthwhile in that it reminded me just how fun basketball can be (so long as you actually focus on the ball from time to time).