The Metagame: How one play influences the next play

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The metagame is an essential part of basketball that doesn’t get discussed nearly enough.

By definition, metagaming, or the game about the game, is any approach to a game that transcends or operates outside of the prescribed rules of the game; uses external factors to affect the game; or goes beyond the supposed limits or environment set by the game.

Basically, it’s just a fancy word for the mind games between opponents.

For example, if Tim Hardaway Jr. hits a three off the catch, the next time he gets the ball, his defender is probably going to play up on him a little more, since he remembers the previous play. That gives Hardaway the opportunity to blow past the defender and get into the lane.

Essentially, the basketball metagame is the context of every single possession — everything that has happened up to that point dictates how both teams react to a play, even if they’ve both seen it 10,000 times.

Here’s a perfect example. Early in the 3rd quarter against the Hawks, the Knicks ran an interesting variation on two of their most common actions (double pindown to the corner, and double drag screens at the top of the key).

The pass from Hardaway to Ntilikina was designed, and the subsequent action reveals the twist on this standard play — Tim Hardaway Jr. is actually the primary screener, with Mitchell Robinson playing the secondary role. That’s not a common role for Hardaway, and that’s exactly why Fizdale drew it up. This play represents a unique look that the Hawks might not have been prepared to defend. By doing so, Trae Young, an undersized rookie known for poor defensive tendencies, is forced to cover a situation he may have never seen in the NBA. That’s gonna lead to breakdowns. As a matter of fact, you can actually see Bazemore pointing for Trae to switch onto Hardaway as the play develops.

That’s good coaching, but I like the follow up even better. Here’s the very next play:

They ran the same exact play. This is an aggressive mindset — I’m gonna run this play until you stop me — but the cool thing here is how Frank Ntilikina and Tim Hardaway adjust this play because of what happened on the last one.

Let’s walk through their mindset (or at least what we could logically expect these players to think).

Hardaway Jr. just got a wide open three off a unique and pretty obvious play call. The Hawks are probably going to be better prepared this time, because they know exactly what’s coming, but this is where the metagame kicks in: The Knicks knew what the Hawks knew, and it altered their decision making, which in turn provided an advantage. One successful play led to another.

Instead of running the same play again, Frank Ntilikina makes it look like he’s running the same play, only to cut hard backdoor. To Trae Young’s credit, he was ready for it, but Ntilikina’s size is too much. Fortunately for the Hawks, Ntilikina misplays it and doesn’t get the easy layup he earned. However, as you may have heard before; process over results. The process here was outstanding.

This is important to me for two reasons: 1) because it’s pretty cool to see the metagame in action; and 2) because it shows me this team can play smart basketball. Young guys will make dumb plays; it’s basically guaranteed. We saw tons of it in this game alone. But in the long term, something like this represents a strong indicator of high basketball IQ.


DOUBLE DRAG SCREENS, AKA JEFF HORNACEK LIVES ON

While we have you here, let’s throw in a bonus film note about an offensive set that carries over from the Jeff Hornacek days.

The double drag screen action is a standard play. A ton of NBA teams run it. We saw a variation of it in the previous section, but here’s a pretty standard example of the play:

If you remember Sasha Vujacic and Brandon Jennings, you probably remember this play. The Knicks have consistently used this play since the drafting of the OG Unicorn. And for good reason — with an elite shooting big man like Kristaps Porzingis, double drag screens can cause havoc for opposing defenses.

This play is from the Hawks game, with Noah Vonleh filling the role of KP:

This play is from the 2016-17 season (trigger warning, Joakim Noah and Derrick Rose are present in this clip). Look familiar?

Vonleh obviously isn’t Kristaps, despite a stellar impression in the first quarter of this game. But this staple of the Knicks offense in past years remains in place despite a complete changing of the guard, and it’s not a bad decision to do so. Best of all, it’s going to get substantially more effective with the return of the Porzingis.

The Knicks are off to the start we expected for a young team that is developing. While there are areas of concern, there are also little glimpses in the film that suggest a coach and team coming together to form a more structured unit. That’s all I have for now. Until next time!