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Basketball is played with essentially the same set of rules, whether it is played informally on playgrounds or in organized fashion in leagues. These rules have stayed generally consistent since the game's invention in 1891. The game involves two five-player teams that play both offense and defense. At the completion of each game, the team that has scored the most points wins. Recreational and high school games last 32 minutes (four quarters of 8 minutes each), college and international games last 40 minutes (two halves of 20 minutes each), womenís professional games last 40 minutes (either two 20-minute halves or four 10-minute quarters, depending on the league), and menís professional games last 48 minutes (four quarters of 12 minutes each). When a game is tied after regulation time has ended, the teams play overtime periods until one team ends an overtime period with more points and is therefore the winner.

Every game begins with a jump ball at the center of the court. With one player from each team lined up in the mid-court circle, a referee tosses the ball high into the air, and the two players attempt to direct the ball to one of their own teammates. The team that gains possession plays offense, and the opposition plays defense, protecting its own basket until it regains possession of the ball. The offensive team has a set time, usually 35 seconds or less (depending on the level of competition), to score by putting the ball through the opposition's basket. (Scoring a basket is also known as scoring a field goal or a hoop.) The time to shoot is measured by a shot clock positioned in the arena for easy viewing from the court. An offensive player cannot run or walk with the ball without dribbling (bouncing the ball against the ground). The ball may also be advanced by passing it to a teammate. Once a player stops dribbling, the ball must be shot, passed to a teammate, or touched by another player before the first player can regain the ball and dribble again.

A teamís offense can be sophisticated, involving specific diagrammed plays that are intended to make offensive play more efficient and defensive play more difficult. There are two ways an offensive team can score points. The first way to score is to make a basket, which is worth 2 or 3 points, depending on the distance of the shot. The second way to score is a foul shot, also called a free throw. These are awarded to a player when the opposition commits a personal foul (illegal contact such as pushing, holding, charging, or tripping) or a technical foul (violation of the rules without physical contact, such as unsportsmanlike conduct). When a foul occurs during a shot, the referee blows a whistle and the player that was fouled is awarded one, two, or three shots, depending on whether the shot scored despite the foul and according to where the infraction occurred. Each foul shot is taken from the free-throw line, 15 ft (4.6 m) from the basket, without opposition, and is worth one point.

Possession of the ball alternates when the offense scores or when the defense is successful in preventing a basket and regains the ball in the process. Specific defensive game plans are often created to make scoring more difficult. A good defense will often force the offense to miss a shot or to lose possession of the ballófor example, by committing an offensive foul or by failing to shoot the ball in the allotted time. Defenses can also gain possession of the ball by intercepting a pass or by stealing the ball from the dribbler. When an offensive team misses a shot, the ball is free, and both teams have an equal opportunity to retrieve the ball. This is called making a rebound. Play continues as the teams score and possession changes. A time-out, when the game is stopped for a certain amount of time, allows coaches to instruct players or to develop a new game strategy.