As I mentioned in Defensive Strategies, many pickup ballers live and die by the philosophy that "It's the first team to 11 points, not 11 steals." This means that scoring is king. And for that reason, knowing how to track the score is of vital importance.
Ones and twos: Pickup basketball typically employs a simplified scoring system so that it's easier for players to track the score. If you're an experienced pickup baller, you know that simple math becomes difficult, even impossible, when players are in the heat of battle and on the verge of total fatigue (which for some out-of-shape players is the first trip down the court). For that reason, conventional baskets are worth one point and three-pointers are usually worth two points.
Unfortunately, there are serious drawbacks to making the three-pointer worth double a normal basket. Players are much more likely to bomb away from downtown without regard to common sensibility. After all, hitting 25 percent of your twos is like hitting 50 percent of your ones, right? I promise you that if half-court shots were worth three or four points, people would start chucking from there, too.
This leads to many players shooting the three almost exclusively, and therefore not developing any other tangible on-court skill (like, say, passing the ball). It also creates circumstances under which a team can actually lose a game despite hitting almost twice as many field goals as the opposing team. Nothing is more frustrating than executing a precise and efficient offense and still losing to a bunch of selfish, one-trick gunners.
Time limits: Time limits are not imposed in pickup games. Instead, play ends when one team reaches a predefined total score. Common end-game scores are 7, 11, 15, and 21. The choice of score is usually dictated by how many courts are available and how many people are waiting to play. The more people waiting for next, the lower the winning score will be. Be warned: Some players will arbitrarily decide on their own end-game score, often without informing anyone. I was once involved in a heated contest in which a player yelled out "game" after he scored his team's sixth point. Everybody stood in silent astonishment as he strutted "victoriously" off the court. It's the one and only time in 15 years of playing pickup ball that I ever participated in a game that ended at six.
Win by two: Usually, the winning team must win by at least two points. This rule was probably created by losing teams who wanted an extra and undeserved chance to claim victory. Be careful how this rule is applied. While it's often assumed that a team must win by at least two points, some players will become enraged if you shout out "win by two" after they've seemingly scored the winning bucket (such as, for instance, after the game was tied 14-14). Unless you're playing in a pickup league where the rules are clearly established, you should summarize the scoring rules prior to starting any game. Otherwise, you may end up with an ugly fight on your hands.
Overtimes and dead ends: The "win by two" method inevitably leads to "overtime" games, where the final score for both teams goes several points ahead of the previously arranged end score. When two teams are evenly matched, or equally fatigued, games can go on seemingly forever. To avoid this, a "dead end" or maximum score is usually established. A sample scoring system might be first to 11, win by two, with a max score of 15.
Keeping track: Pickup games operate without the benefit of electronic scoreboards and official scorekeepers. Even if you play in a supervised pickup league, the designated coordinator is usually so poorly paid or disinterested that it's unlikely he or she will keep score for you. This means that the players are responsible for tracking the score. The best way to do this is for one or more players to yell out an updated score after each basket; otherwise, it's easy to lose track of the official score. In most cases, this will cause an argument and the players will grudgingly come to a group consensus as to what the score is. This inevitably leaves individual players and even entire teams feeling as if they've been screwed over.
Point shaving: Careless and unscrupulous players will regularly try to use the lack of an official scorekeeper to their advantage. Unless the score is called out after each hoop, these people will try to manipulate the score, taking a point or two away from the opposing team's total, or adding points to their own. I can't tell you how many times I've been on a team that I thought was comfortably in the lead, only to hear someone on the opposing team shout that the score was tied, or his team was ahead. There are also instances in which someone will claim you're jipping his team, no matter how diligent you've been at calling out the score.
Game point: There is no point as hotly contested as game point. Even the most defenseless players will put a body on you and start blocking out on game point, and even the cleanest games degenerate into hackfests. Some teams or players will even try to shame the opposing team into using the most difficult shot to win. I used to play with a group of guys that required the winning basket to be a driving layup. This, of course, provided them with the chance to maul people on their way to the hoop, thereby extending the game and giving them an "equal chance" at winning. To that end, it's difficult, sometimes completely impossible, to win on a layup. And heaven help the player brave enough to drive...you might as well stick your hand into a shark tank.
It's amazing to watch the psychological shift that occurs on game point. Good players become afraid to shoot, bad players become brave, everybody starts scrambling and diving for loose balls. Almost every call or non-call turns into an argument. Friends start screaming at each other, and sometimes won't speak for days if the final score is in dispute.