Breaking down the rules and play differences between NBA and FIBA-styled Olympic basketball

Kelly Dwyer

For those tuning into the basketball side of things during the 2012 Olympic Games in London, we offer a primer on the differences in rules and play between NBA hoops and international basketball.

With NBA players dotting nearly every game televised, even if you aren't paying strident attention to Team USA in men's basketball, the 2012 Olympics will look very much like the North American pro version of the game we hope you know and already love. If you're in need of a primer, though, in understanding what actually are myriad differences between the NBA and international game, we're here to help. Here, writing from Indiana, where we're still trying to figure out why all these backboards need to be made of glass and not the side of a barn.

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The most striking difference you'll see in watching this summer's Olympics after spying the NBA's postseason and 66 games of not-at-all overworked NBA regular-season action won't be the smaller court or the shortened 3-point arc. Rather, it's the style of play that will not only act as a small shock to system of NBA fans, but a level of discomfort for even the most internationally minded members of Team USA.

Though coaches hold great sway in international ball, their offense is more of a read and react kind, as opposed to the heavy-handed ways NBA coaches tend to call plays (though that has relaxed over the last few years, aided by the NBA's insistence on closely calling hand check calls). The result of all of this is a series of backdoor cuts and ball movement in opposition to a less aesthetically pleasing (but often more efficient and effective) NBA style heavy on screen and roll basketball, and attention paid to mismatches. Of course, the differences don't stop there.

The lane (or "painted area," as Hubie Brown cheerfully continues to put it) was trapezoidal until 2008, when FIBA switched to an NBA-friendly rectangular lane, though style of play and zone allowances made it so even the more orthodox of low-post bangers still have their issues going to the NBA-styled righty jump hook on left low block. The switch, not coincidentally made after Team USA lost the 2002 and 2006 World Championships and earned bronze in the 2004 Olympics, is still a boon to Team USA, though it hasn't appeared to be much of a detriment to an international game that has been NBA-obsessive for decades.

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Another mitigating factor, should Team USA attempt to post LeBron James up on some unfortunate soul from time to time, is the shortened 3-point arc. As it was in the NBA from the 1994-95 to 1996-97 season, the arc is a uniform 22-feet throughout, as opposed to 22-feet in the corners and 23-feet, nine-inches from up top. It might not seem like much, but that extra 21 inches can mean the world when you're doubling-down and helping on someone like James from the low post. As a reaction, though, so-so 3-point shooters like Carmelo Anthony (32 percent, career, four ticks below the NBA's average) and Deron Williams (excluding his rookie season, 34 percent) could see their marks jump up given a weeks-long sample size and extra step inside to fire away.

Working amongst an All-Star team's worth of rotation parts, with significant depth all around, some Team USA players might be quick to hack away against those smaller international players that just cut away from the ball. FIBA only allows five fouls before the foul-out occurs, though, and any yapping comes with this warning — technical fouls count toward that total, unlike the NBA. An NBA player might not realize that late in a fourth quarter, forgetting all about that first-quarter technical he picked up, when he reaches at an opponent thinking he still had a foul to spare. Also, the penalty (and resultant free throws) occurs on the fourth team foul, and not the fifth as in the NBA.

FIBA limits those calls because the game is shorter, by eight minutes, than the NBA term. Ten-minute quarters, featuring a wrinkle with the 24-second shot clock that could catch NBA players off guard. Unlike that league, FIBA doesn't reset the clock to five or 14 seconds (depending on if the shot clock is below those numbers) after a foul. So if a member of Team USA takes in a foul on the floor with just a tick left on the shot clock, his teammates better be ready — they'll get the ball back out of bounds with just a second left to shoot.

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(And if the referees can't decide who a close foul should go on in the fight between offense and defense, FIBA institutes a college-styled alternating possession rule which is sure to rankle some NBA players until they realize they don't have to line up for the dreadfully inaccurate NBA jump ball tosses. As with the shot clock issues mentioned above, should the offense get the ball after it's their turn on an alternating possession, the shot clock won't restart.)

The most obvious changes come about with something that seems an anathema to NBA fans — the fact that a defender can basically swipe the ball off the top of the goal or tip it in even if it's over the imaginary risen cylinder that the NBA uses. If the ball has fallen slightly in the goal, no dice, and players have to leave it alone. But if it's bouncing around? Anyone's rock. Though it's typically a 7-footer's rock, 'natch.

This, and the legal zone, are the biggest obstacles for NBA fans (and, through no coincidence, Team USA's NBA players) to work through. The way to beat a zone is with quick ball movement and work away from the ball, something that the modern NBA player is getting away from, mainly because the isolation or two-man game is so successful in the NBA's ranks. Accusing NBA players of selfishness would be missing the point — they just grew up and thrived in systems that saw them waiting for the ball to swing around to their mitts, without having to screen or work away from the strong side action. This inactivity, for over a decade, has gotten Team USA in trouble in its offensive sets.

The rule changes are vast, and somewhat significant, but following an extended exhibition schedule and with several of the Team USA's 2012 players on their second tour of duty with the top squad, the participants should be used to it. NBA players get it, you guys. You can touch the ball on the rim.

What they might not get is what doesn't come naturally. Quick movement and pointed and precision passing that makes a team greater than the sum of its parts. Still, because the sum of Team USA's particular parts is so formidable, the team might not have to play any better than how they look on paper, and the squad could still win by 20 a night.

For a quick recap on the rule-heavy side of things, check out BBallBreakdown's take on the FIBA/NBA differences:

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