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How to attack half-court basketball zone defenses

In recent articles I have been explaining how the Backdoor Trap Offensive pattern is used against man-to-man defenses. I did this because in most major conferences the man-to-man offense is predominate and coaches must design their basic offense to combat the type of defenses they will most likely face.

It is beyond me why so may youth leagues allow zone defenses to prevail. After all, isn't it our goal to teach our youngsters the fundamentals of this great game, called basketball. I suspect the reason is because most coaches are not knowledgeable enough to properly teach the man-to-man.

On the other hand, every high school coach knows that his team must be prepared to attack the zone at some time during the season. College coaches are no different. Those teams who shy away from the 3-point shot are apt to run into more zone defenses than is normal. Whatever the reason, it becomes necessary that every team have a zone attack in their offensive system.

In this article, it is my intention to describe how the features of the Backdoor Trap half-court offense that will work successfully against zone defenses.

Theory of the Basketball Zone Defense

Zone defenses are used for several different, yet valid, reasons. Small floors are the biggest reason in high school because defenders can cover both the dangerous under-the-basket area and the vulnerable corners with the least amount of spread to the side.

Also, since the purpose of a zone defense is to guard an area, rather than an assigned player, the best rebounders can be kept in better rebounding position. Fast-breaking teams, using a zone, can be certain that their outlet players are always in the proper position to start a fast break.

Defense is easier to play in a zone than in a man-to-man defense. Movement of the ball dictates movement rather than the movement of the individually assigned offensive player. Free-lancing, screens and fakes lose much of their effectiveness because they work best in a one-on-one situation. Over all, the defensive team expends much less energy in a zone defense than in a man-to-man; therefore, zone defenses have great appeal to high school coaches. Their players generally have less pre-season practice, lack individual defensive skills, and do not possess the stamina required to play an entire game of aggressive man-to-man defense than college players.

College teams do not use zones because they are easier to play. They use such defenses to upset their opponent's regular attack. During the course of a game, a college team may change from ma-to-man to zone and back to a man-to-man, varying defenses to break the tempo of the opposition. This forces the opposition out of their more successful patterns, or allows them to better match-up with a stronger rebounding team.

Whenever I view the standard zone defense objectively, I must admit its value is evident in many different situations. Zones have been a part of basketball for an awful long time and will continue as a part of basketball for ages to come.

Basic Basketball Zone Attacks

In setting up the Opportunity Offense against the standard zone, I'm generalizing the attack as follows:

  1. Against any zone with an odd number of players out, use an even number of players out.
  2. Against any zone with an even number of players out, use an odd number of players out.

Against various zone defenses, assign players to a position that best fits their own individual abilities. Try to keep your attack balanced, so as it will be effective either to the left or right. Most of all strive for simplicity. Keep it simple, stupid! Strive for simple patterns and minimum passing, while looking for the good, close-in high percentage shot.

Attacking the 2-3, 2-1-2, 1-3-1, 3-2 and 1-2-2 Zone Defenses

attacking a basketball 2-3 zone defenseDiagram 1 - First step in attacking a 2-3 zone. Send a guard through.

Following the rule of odd against even, the attack against the 2-3 starts as illustrated in Diagram 1. The pivot player (5) is at the high post and forwards (3) and (4) are wide at the free-throw line extended. Guard (1) cuts through as shown. This puts one guard (2) as the odd man outside. (2) is assumed to have the ball.

The free-throw line extended positions of the forwards usually split the positions of the two defenders on the sides of the zone, making these forwards the responsibility of the outside deep defenders in the zone.


attacking a basketball 2-3 zone defense 2Diagram 2 - Attacking the 2-3 Zone. X5 and X3 must cover three offensive players once (1) has moved deep into the zone.

By sending (1) deep to the free-throw lane, we have now gained the advantage of having three players in the zones covered by only two of our opponents. Since our deep guard (1) can move from one side of the lane to the other, this advantage can shift from side to side, even though the ball stays in the possession of an outside guard. This diagram illustrates our advantage to the left, with defenders X5 and X3 responsible for three of our offensive players (5), (3), and (1).


attacking a basketball 2-3 zone defense 3Diagram 3 - Attacking the 2-3 Zone.

Once our offense is in the 1-3-1 offensive formation, the attack consists of reactions to the defensive moves. Be prepared to counter whatever decisions defenders X5 and X3 make. They must choose whom to cover, because there is one player free in their zones.

This diagram illustrates one option available after forcing X5 to cover the deep guard (1). Here the outside guard (2) passes to the strong-side forward (3), bringing defender X3 out. (3) then passes to (1), forcing X5 to cover him.

As X5 commits, high post (5) rolls to the basket and weak-side forward (4) cuts to the free-throw line.

Continuity is achieved by moving the weak-side forward (4) to the high post position, wherever he can receive an outlet pass should (1) or (5) fail to score. In that case, (5) swings across to the opposite side of the foul lane, still deep, and (3) is in good position to either take a jump shot or hit (1) or (5) who are now at the base ends of our offensive triangle.


attacking a basketball 2-3 zone defense 4Diagram 4 - Attacking the 2-3 Zone.

This 1-3-1 offensive attack against this particular zone is also when the player at the high post (5) gets the original pass from the outside guard (2). (5)'s pass options are illustrated with this diagram. In this case, both forwards move quickly into open areas which are good positions for a shot, and the deep guard (1) is still in good position for a shot, should the opportunity present itself for him to receive a quick pass.

Whenever (5) gets the ball, X5 must cover him which opens up the baseline for a pass. If X3 and X4 collapse, both forwards, (3) and (4) will be open for short jump shots.

The only weakness to this attack is the fact we have a guard inside, which seemingly leaves the offensive team vulnerable to a fast break; however, we are in great rebounding position and will get many put-backs. Play the long rebound, keep one player back as safety, and try to prevent the outlet pass by tying up a defensive rebounder.

You can attack the 2-1-2 Zone in exactly the same way you attack the 2-3 Zone. Simply execute the options I just described.


attacking a basketball 1-3-1 zone defense 5Diagram 5 - Attacking a 1-3-1 Zone.

The guards remain in their normal position, following our rule of odd or even fronts. The two forwards take positions on the baseline about 10 to 15 feet from the basket as shown in this diagram and post player (5) assumes the high post position.

Sending the forwards deep may force the defenders into a 2-3 Zone. If so, (5) can easily be fed from outside. This is especially effective if the opponent plays its own pivot player as deep man in the zone, since our pivot player can take advantage of the overmatched one-on-one situation, either by getting off a shot or feed a guard or forward for a 10 to 15 foot jump shot. Should the defenders be able to keep the pivot player (5) from feeding the forwards in their deep positions, then you will not be able to force a 2-3 alignment and use another mode of attack.


attacking a basketball1-3-1 zone defense 6Diagram 6 - Attacking the 1-3-1 Zone.

This diagram illustrates how to set up an overload using your best corner shooter taking the shot. Low post (5) acts as a decoy, opening up the shot, getting into a rebounding position, and places himself in the corner position should the need be to swing the ball back outside and around the horn for a possible shot from the opposite corner.


attacking a basketball1-3-1 zone defense 7Diagram 7 - Attacking the 1-3-1 Zone.

Although screens do not generally play a critical part in zone offensive attacks, here is a way, using a screen, that will get an open shot along the baseline.

In studying this diagram, please note that (4) and (5) can move into deep positions on either side of the free-throw lane. Assuming the corner shot by (4) is not available. In this situation (4) could pass the ball back to (3) then immediately set a screen on the deep defender X4. Using this screen, (5) curls around it looking for a pass from (3). This often gets a good uncontested shot over teammate (4).

As a standard practice against any zone defense in which two players are positioned in tandem, in the free-throw lane, be attacked with a triangle attack. That is with a high post, letting him feed the deep players as they screen for each other.


attacking a basketball 3-2 zone defense 8Diagram 8 - Attacking the 3-2 Zone.

This defense is strong against the outside attach, but extremely weak against a strong inside attack. Therefore, I recommend you put your best turn-around shooter and passer in the high post (5) position and two tall players (4) and (5) deep along the free-throw lane. Keep both guards in normal outside positions and keep feeding (3) at the high post. This forces X5 and X4 into tandem positions and allow (3) to hit either (4) or (5) as they screen for each other.

If the defenders do not go into tandem positions described above, (3) will have uncontested shots all night.


attacking a basketball 3-2 zone defense 9 attacking a basketball 3-2 zone defense 10

Diagrams 9 & 10 - Options Against a 3-2 Zone.

Diagrams 9 and 10 illustrate screening and cutting techniques by (4) and (5). These show the screening possibilities should X5 and X4 assume the tandem position. Also, note how the guards can also hit the open cutter from their outside position.

Occasionally send a guard cutting through the zone and pull (4) and (5) out wide at the free-throw line extended, send (3) to the low post position (as shown in the 1-3-1 zone offensive attack in Diagram 6. This sets up an overload with (3) then being the corner shooter.

A 1-2-2 Zone defense is similar to the 3-2, therefore, it can be attacked the same way.

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