January 19, 2018 • OffenseWinning HoopsXs and Os

Movements and strategies that expose defenses

by Joe May, contributing writer

Last year, a college basketball team on the cusp of making the NCAA Tournament faced what seemed to be a weaker opponent. Although it was at home in a critical game, the favored team struggled and was upset by more than 10 points.

Throughout the game, the underdog team switched and disguised defenses. The opposing coach used timeouts to help his players, but he couldn’t spark his offense.

Coaches can confuse opposing offenses in many ways. Some switch between man-to-man and zone defenses. Others use a matchup zones mixed with some disguise components. Others employ unconventional defenses such as diamond-and-one or triangle-and-two to bewilder offenses. If a coach knew what defense his counterpart planned to deploy, they would have a significant advantage. Here are some considerations that can help:

  • Do opponents play one defense after a made basket and another after a missed shot?
  • Do they change defenses after timeouts or free throws?
  • Do they show a zone and change to man-to-man or to a matchup zone?
  • Do they open the game with a formation that’s disguised as another defense?
  • Do they switch defenses on a high post screen, or when the shot clock is dwindling?
  • Do they employ a defensive wrinkle late in the game?

While considering these questions, teach players from day one the offensive principles they can apply to any defense they encounter.

Reading defenses

A traditional way to beat any zone or unconventional defense is to fast break and score before defenders can organize. Your team might score off the fast break, get a good low post or 3-point shot, or turn an offensive rebound into a basket off the secondary break. Because many coaches know how to limit a fast break offense, you might face more half-court set defenses than you prefer, including those that involve switching and disguising.

As you confront a set defense in your half-court offense, you need to quickly diagnose what your opponent is doing, especially if your team plays an up-tempo game. The following are some offensive sets and player movements that can help you quickly read defenses.

DIAGRAM 1: This is a 1-4 high set that provides you with a quick read and enables you to set an attack against any defense. To get a better read, 1 can send the wing through the post. The wing can either replace 1 in the key area or cut to the other side of the floor as 1 watches the defense’s reaction.

DIAGRAM 2: In this set, you have two high post players with the wings in the corners for any easy read of the defense. 1 passes to a high post and before moving to the corner or back to their original spot.

DIAGRAM 3: This illustrates a UCLA type of high post cut by 1. 1 reads and cuts low, to the corner or back to their original spot. 4 sets a ball screen for the wing, providing some insight into how the defense plans to attack.

DIAGRAM 4: This depicts a high post set with three players on the baseline. The high post player can drop low to a 1-4 set as 1 reads the defensive reaction. The 1-4 low set provides a clear look at what the defense is doing. On some teams, the high post player is a hybrid player with the freedom to set screens, cut and help all over the court.

DIAGRAM 5: This shows a staggered stack that can force defenses to show their hand. 4 can pop out for an entry pass or set a screen for any of the interior players.

: In this set, the 5 downscreens for 2 on a block. 1 reads the defensive set up and how it reacts to the movement.

Next are some two-guard reader sets and movements. In DIAGRAM 7, 1 passes and makes a Princeton-type cut off the high post. 1 reads the defense and can cut low to the opposite side of the court or return to their original spot. In DIAGRAM 8, 1 passes to 2 and receives a backscreen from 4. 1 can cut to the basket, flare to the wing area or return to their original spot.

Attacking strategies

Although it’s helpful to have offensive sets and cuts that produce quick reads, it’s wise to employ a half-court offense based more on flexibility and principle than on rigid patterns. One of these principles is that dribble penetration can break down any defense.

Dribble penetration leads to easier ball reversals, mid-range jump shots, open 3-pointers and low-post opportunities. It can also result in more second shot opportunities, given that as defenders rotate to help to stop it, they have trouble with their block-out assignments.

To assist the dribble penetrator, a number of teams use a high post player to set a ball screen. For special players and in certain situations, you may want to give apenetrator the freedom and space to create action without the aid of a screener.

Effective use of a high post player can help defeat any defense. High post players who receive a pass can execute a high-to-low lob pass, kick the ball out to a perimeter player for a 3-pointer or ball reversal, or take a jump shot. High post players also can move to receive entry passes from offensive players who face a surprise trap. They can even work as hybrid players who are free to screen, cut and exploit a defense’s weakness anywhere on the perimeter or on the inside.

Some players may have forgotten that a great way to create a 3-point shot is to get the ball inside to a low post player. The passer can help a low post player get open by using pass fakes and by establishing a good passing angle. If a low post player is still not open, that player can set a screen, make an intelligent cut or enhance offensive rebounding position.

Because it forces players to make more physical and mental adjustments, ball reversal is another tool to help your team beat defenses. If the defense tries to prevent ball reversals, use pass fakes, passes to the high post, high-post ball screens, skip passes, and drive-and-kick to swing the ball to the opposite side of the court.

Intelligent player movement is effective against any defense. One of the best types of player movement involves setting a screen and making a controlled roll or step out at the proper angle to an open area. Ball screens, backscreens for perimeter passers, and backscreens for players on the help side are some examples.

Basic cuts to open areas, with or without screens, can be effective if spacing needs are kept in mind. Simple movements — making a pass and setting a ball screen, or faking a ball screen with a cut to an open area — may provide a quick read of the defense and still leave your offense in a position to attack.

Final thoughts

The key is to know in advance as much as you can about the other team’s defenses and its patterns of switching and disguising them. Have an offense that is flexible and principles based, rather than one that is more rigid and patterns based. Use the fast break, if it fits your system, to get good looks before the defense sets up. When your team doesn’t fast break, have offensive sets and player movements that enable you to quickly diagnose the defense.

In your half-court offense, players should keep proper spacing, pass intelligently and reverse the ball when it’s practical. Utilize dribble penetration, high post players and movements such as ball screens, fake screens and related cuts, and backscreens for passers and players on the help side of the court. Take advantage of low post and offensive rebounding opportunities to score with easy baskets and free throws. Keep in mind that having flexibility in zone and man-to-man offenses facilitates adjustments to disguised and changing defenses.

Joe May coached the Exeter-West Greenwich (Rhode Island) High School boys basketball team to its first state championship. He also has served as a part-time assistant women’s basketball coach at the University of Rhode Island and Providence College.