Getting Back on Defense in Basketball

Sprinting back up-court after an offensive possession to prevent an easy basket is the most important part of team man-to-man defense. Odd-man breaks lead to easy baskets, and they’re among the most significant factors in determining wins and losses. A team that struggles to get back on defense almost always struggles to win games.

Odd-man fast breaks usually occur when one or two players fail to sprint back on defense, or they get beaten in a footrace by an opposing player. Players who fail to get back on defense are always a liability. Even in the National Basketball Association (NBA), players who don’t get back on defense find their way to the bench.

Transition Defense

Transition defense refers to a team’s ability to get back on defense after a missed shot, steal, or basket. There are three basic steps to effective transition defense:

  1. Sprint back on defense and protect the basket.
  2. Stop the advancement of the ball.
  3. Find and pick up your man

Sometimes, it’s impossible to find and guard your man because the other team quickly advances the ball. This leads to switching with a teammate, which is an important part of transition defense.

If a choice has to be made between guarding your man and guarding a different man with the ball, always take the ball. Communicate with your teammates verbally or by pointing until you’re sure the ball has been stopped. You may have a chance to switch back to guard your man after stalling your opponent’s transition opportunity.

Hot Tip: Stop the Ball

After sprinting back on defense, stopping the ball in transition is rule number one. Sprinting back up-court is meaningless if no one’s able to stop the ball in transition.

Transition Defense at the Guard Position

Perimeter players usually have the best opportunity to corral a fast break opportunity for the following reasons:

  • They’re closest to their own goal and get back faster.
  • They guard the opposing team’s dribblers, who receive outlet passes to start the fast break.
  • They’re often the fastest players, and they can sprint quickly from end to end.

This makes it imperative that one or both guards remain farthest back, closest to the half-court line in the offensive zone. Most coaches prefer to have one guard remain nearest the half-court line to protect against the fast break. This lets the other guard crash the boards or look for a penetration opportunity. However, some coaches prefer to have both guards remain near the half-court line to guard against a quick outlet pass and odd-man break. Let your coach tell you which he prefers.

One Guard Stays Back

When keeping one guard back to protect against the fast break, the coach needs to designate which of the two guards will stay back on transition defense. However, that guard should not be limited on the offensive zone. When that guard shoots or penetrates the lane, it’s the other guard’s job to rotate and be in position to get back on defense quickly.

Two Guards Stay Back

Similar to the one-guard back set, both guards are not limited in the offensive zone. However, in this case, one of the wing players should be prepared to rotate backward to guard against a fast break.

When multiple guards are getting back on defense, the guard who hasn’t picked up the ball should defend the paint first. If multiple players get back before the big men, be sure to pack the paint until the ball has been picked up and the post players return.

Transition Defense for Post Players

It’s absolutely vital that post players sprint back and establish position in transition. Compared to guards, though, getting back on defense is harder for post players for the following reasons:

  • Post players have to run almost the full length of the court.
  • They’re usually focused on pulling down an offensive rebound, which allows a sprint-out opportunity for their man.
  • They’re often slower than guards, and have to labor in the course of a game dominated by transition basketball.

That said, when post players are slow to get back on defense and are beaten by their man, it’s just as costly. Slow transition defense by a big man lets the other team’s post players establish offensive position and get a chance for a quick basket. Also, post players can more often be beaten in transition because of their position under the basket, which means they have to run the entire length of the floor. Therefore, post players must develop the mindset to always sprint back on defense after a defensive rebound or turnover.

Mental Edge

The best communication during transition defense is non-verbal. There’s no time to talk when you’re sprinting full-speed to get back on defense. Therefore, communicate with eye-contact or by pointing. Regular defensive transition drills are the best way to develop non-verbal communication.

Transition Defense Drills

Practicing a few transition defense team drills will make getting back on defense second-nature. They will also teach valuable communication skills, and make picking up someone else’s man on defense routine.

Five-on-five Transition Drill

Scrimmage as you normally would by breaking up into teams of five and running regular half-court offensive sets. Have a coach or assistant blow the whistle at random times during the game. This cues the dribbler to set the ball down on the court, as though a turnover has occurred. Instantly, the nearest defensive player should pick up the ball, and the offensive players should sprint back on defense.

Play should continue in this way like a normal game, with the only difference being occasional whistles to signal transition. It’s a good idea to vary the spots on the floor and who has the ball when blowing the whistle.

Two-on-One, Three-on-Two, etc.

Begin in a normal two-on-one fast break drill, with one player at the opposite free-throw line. The player near the free-throw line will have to pick up two offensive players by sprinting back on defense.

Position two players under the defensive baseline and — after a make or miss by the two initial offensive players — go the other way with three offensive players forcing the other two to sprint back on defense. Then have two more offensive players stationed under the other baseline, ready for a four-on-three after a make or miss by the offense. Then go with a five-on-four drill, and finally five-on-five.

This is a great drill for teaching the technique and energy necessary for transition defense. Keep score for the two teams and reward the winner to keep it interesting and fun.

Easiest & Hardest Part of the Game

By nature, basketball is simple to understand but difficult to master. Getting back on defense to cut off transition opportunities is a perfect example of this fact. Some teams and players love to get out in transition throughout the game. Part of this strategy is wearing down an opponent. The team that can sprint back on defense as quickly in the final minutes of a game as it can right after the opening tip can frustrate even the best offensive teams and players.

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