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How to attack basketball man-to-man pressure defenses

In a basketball man-to-man defense, the opponents play between the ball and the player they are guarding. Using this tactic, they attempt to force reverses and longer passes, trying to intercept the ball.

When playing zone, the opponents invite lob passes and attempt to harass the offensive team into difficult situations They do this with the threat of double-teaming and by using zone techniques full-court, three-quarter court, or half-court. This type of basketball defeats the old offensive tactic of passing to a man and screening away. First, the defenders won't allow the pass, and second, they will jump switch on the crosses.

Modern defensive maneuvers require planning and innovation. Most coaches believe this type of pressure requires an aggressive offensive tactic of quick penetration.


One of the most important aspects in preparation for defensive pressure is the pre-planning stage. The coach should be ready for the defense. He should have scouted the opponent, be aware of modern trends, and know the principles of the defense he will be attacking. Advance knowledge makes the attack much easier to put into effect.


There are several theories concerning play against pressure defenses. The first one recommends having the nearest man pass the ball in quickly, as soon as it is out of bounds after a basket or foul shot. The speedy pass-in takes advantage of the fact that pressure defenses, especially zone, need time to set-up. According to the second theory, hurrying may result in an intercepted ball if the wrong man takes it out of bounds. Proponents of the second theory use set plays against pressure defenses.

Whatever your theory, the coach must prepare his team psychologically. Teach your players not to let pressing tactics upset them. The coach should tell the players that structurally and theoretically pressing defenses are the weakest defenses in basketball. This is because they overplay or double-team opponents.

Overplaying leaves openings that an offensive team can attack and take advantage of if they play with poise, confidence and have advanced knowledge. If the ball can successfully escape the double-team, the attackers have a one-man advantage at the other end of the court when the ball is moved up-court quickly.

Man-to-man press and zone press attempt to do in a full-court area what is difficult to do in the area within twenty-one feet of the basket. That is to prevent the opposing team from scoring. Teams must understand that with preparation and confidence, they can discourage this type defense.

Players should get the ball in play quickly if the ball is out of bounds after the basket. They should look for quick penetration against a man-to-man press by using fakes, buttonhole cuts and reverses or sideline screens. Intelligent aggressiveness should be a basic attack philosophy. Quick up-court movement forces situations that might not have been there at the time of the change in possession. In my opinion, an aggressive attack may cause mistakes, but such aggressiveness will be open up many more good things.

Work within the least margin-of-error theory, getting the hell out of the way and allow the best dribbler and ball handler to dribble the ball up-court. If the best dribbler does have difficulty, a second option is to let another athletic offensive player with a weaker defender bring the ball up-court. Perhaps this teammate is the other guard, or a forward, who can dribble the ball up-court alone. Against man-to-man pressure, a good dribbler will use a controlled dribble, change of direction, and reverse dribble.

The good dribbler can beat most defenders one-on-one if he can control his defensive man until he gets to the front court. If he is double teamed there, he should try to pass into the pivot. The pivot player must protect the ball and pass it quickly, usually to a weak-side cutter or back to the man who passed it in.

Players must know the intent of the team playing man-to-man pressure defense full court in order to prepare to combat it. The usual reasons for playing this type defense are:

  1. To intercept the pass by overplaying the men on the court.
  2. To prevent penetration by the good ball handler by double-teaming him and forcing the ball toward a weaker ball handler, playing intercepting angle to prevent the ball from being passed back to the good ball handler.
  3. To harass the receiver for a violation or misplay.
  4. To invite the long pass for interception.
  5. To delay the offense in the back court for a ten-second violation.
Attacking Full Court Man-to-Man Pressure, Best Dribbler Takes Ball Up-CourtDiagram 1 - Attacking Full Court Man-to-Man Pressure, Best Dribbler Takes Ball Up-Court.

3, 4 and 5 are up-court. 1, the best dribbler takes the ball out-of-bounds. He passes it inbounds to 2. Player 2 immediately returns the pass to 1 and immediately clears up-court. (Both 2 and 1 use fakes to decoy the defensive players away from their intended positions.)

Player 1 dribbles up-court, using reverse dribbles and protecting the ball. The positions of 1 and 2 could be reversed.
Diagram 2 - Allowing a Good, Big Dribbler to Bring the Ball UpDiagram 2 - Allowing a Good, Big Dribbler to Bring the Ball Up Alone Against a Weak Defender.

Player 2, the best ball handler is being double teamed in the back-court by defensive players #1 and #2. Player 1 cannot pass the ball to 2. Player 5 has the weakest opponent in the man-to-man defensive structure.

Player 4 V-cuts toward the ball and moves away down court. Player 3 fakes to the ball, then breaks to the middle as though to receive a pass.

Player 1 moves along the end line so that the basket will not interfere with his pass inbounds. Player 5 who has the weakest defender, makes a step up, then comes back to the ball, receiving 1's pass inbounds.

All players must clear so that 5 can dribble up court without being double-teamed. As soon as it is safe, 5 will pass the ball back to player 1 in the front court.
Diagram 3 - Backcourt Screen Play against a Full-Court Man-to-Man PressureDiagram 3 - Backcourt Screen Play against a Full-Court Man-to-Man Pressure With All Five Offensive Players in the Backcourt.

1 has the ball out-of-bounds. 4 and 5, near mid-court, fake to the ball and pull their men up-court.

2 moves across the lane setting a screen for 3. Player 3 V-cuts and comes back and receives the pass in from 1.

If there is a switch on the play, 1 may pass to 2 after he executes an offensive roll moving up court. If a switch is made, 2 will often have a slower defender on him as 3's defender may be a forward. A three-on-two break is possible if 2 gets ahead of the switching defender on his offensive role.

Player 1 should be in a protective position to get a return pass from 2 or 3.

Learn from an NBA legend...
Our 10 Most Frequently Read Articles:
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  2. How to Play Basketball Offense -

  3. One-on-one basketball moves

  4. Basketball Coach's toolbox

  5. How to Teach the 8 Basic Fundamental Plays in Basketball

  6. How to Teach Players to Dribble a Basketball

  7. How to coach and teach the basketball pick-and-roll play

  8. How to Coach the Basketball Give and Go Play

  9. How to Coach the 1-3-1 Basketball Zone Pressure Defenses

  10. How to Coach and Teach the Wheel Man-to-Man Basketball Offense

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