1 HOW TO ATTACK THE ZONE DEFENSE by Bodizar Maljkovic Bozidar Maljkovic is currently the head coach of Real Madrid. He previously coached Jugoplastika Split (winning 2 European Cups, 3 Yugoslavian Championships, and 3 Cups), Barcelona (1 King's Cup), Limoges (1 European Cup, 2 French Championships and 2 Cups), Panathinaikos, (European Cup, Intercontinetal Cup, and Greek Cup), and Malaga (Korac Cup). He was selected European Coach of the Year and was twice selected as the French Coach of the Year. The zone offense can be applied to attack all types of zone defenses. The best way to beat a zone defense is with the fastbreak. You can score two, perhaps even three easy points, but what you also do, which has an even greater effect, is demoralize the opponent. The second basic way to attack the zone defense is put the offensive players in the gaps of the zone. This means putting a player in between two defensive players, assuming a contrary alignment to the alignment of the zone. The third element entails the use of screens: single, staggered, and double. There is a difference between a screen on a man-to-man defense and a screen against the zone defense. If we play against man-to-man, we set a screen and jam the defender, who is guarding a teammate for whom the screen is being set. In the screen against a zone defense, however, we simply block the move of the nearest man to the screener, or we block the one nearest to the area where an offensive player positions himself. We do this because zone defenders cover a certain area of the court, and are not concer- PAGE FIBA ASSIST MAGAZINE
2 ned with defending a particular player. Passing the ball within the free-throw area is another very important element used to attack the zone because from this position it is possible to pass easily in all directions, and to all positions of the court (diagr.1). In this area, we should try to exchange players quickly. To move the defense, it is also very important to quickly change the side of the ball from left to right and vice-versa (as well, as we said, passing the ball inside will also keep the defense moving). The next essential element in the attack against the zone is-depending on the coach's philosophy-overloading the strong side of the offense with three or four players at a time. Dribble penetration into the three-second lane in between two defenders will split the defense, and is another key attack element. In this case, the offensive player, who drives in the lane, must make a quick, two-count stop for better balance and then take a quick shot before the big man moves over to defend. The other option is to pass the ball to an open teammate. Drive penetration-and-shoot and drive-penetration-and-pass creates many problems for the zone defense. Another very crucial element, that most US college coaches demand to their players, is that the ball be passed inside a minimum of two times before a shot is taken. By moving the ball inside, the defense instinctively collapses towards the ball and, therefore, loses its outside aggressiveness. When the offensive player receives the ball in the right low-post position (diagr. 2), he must first see all his four teammates (for the possible swing pass), but he also has time and space for playing oneon-one. Let's now review a very important aspect concerning offensive player positioning. If they face the defenders and start to move or cut in certain directions, it is easier for the defenders to see them and move to guard them. However, if the offensive players stay inside the lane behind the defenders, the defenders cannot see what's happening, and they must turn their heads. The offensive player has the advantage. It is now easier to pop out. With less distance to cover, shooting position is better and a shot can quickly be taken. Many successful teams put three or four players near the basket and then have them pop out to receive a pass from the point guard, who penetrates and dishes off the ball. If the defender does not see where the ball is, the offensive player can easily make a flash cut in an open area and punish the defender for his mistake. I would like to underline an important technical and tactical point against the zone defense, and that concerns faking passes. In Europe, we should use more fakes in our game and use all kinds of them. In this aspect, American basketball is far ahead of us. They also are more aware of the fake pass when they are on defense. You can see that when an American player is in the balanced, low defensive stance, his head is moving constantly, always active. By contrast, you see European players with their upper body erect, stiff and firm, and their heads are not moving as much as their American counterparts. The last element on zone offense is not a technical aspect, but, rather, a psychological one. You must emphasize the psychological aspect of the game, convincing your players that a basket made against the zone is the reward, a product of the fine effort of the whole team as a unit. The shooter must be sure that his shot will go in, while the other four players think that he will miss the shot and move very aggressively to get the offensive rebound. The early start for the offensive rebound begins when the ball, still in the hands of a shooter, reaches the level of his chin. During the lifting action, and immediately before the shot is actually released, the offensive players should be moving if for a possible rebound. Statistical data and video evidence, together with other "live" observations, clearly show that 90 percent of teams and players go for a rebound when the ball is actually released from the shooter's hand and is going towards the basket. However, it is too late at this point to go for the rebound. I think you would actually be better off running back to play defense because you will never get to the ball. FIRSTZONE OFFENSE I will now review three types of zone offenses based on the evaluation of our own team's skills and those of the opposing team. From this analysis, we can see whether we have the advantage with our big and small players. The offense that I am going to introduce is that one I started to use many years ago with Jugoplastika Split. I have continued to work on it ever since, refining it to meet the needs of my teams. If you want to execute it successfully, you must have very quick players on the perimeter, where the defense is really active and aggressive. The players really like this offense, because it gives them more freedom to decide when to play one-on-one and use their dribble penetration. In many technical books, it is said that the ball should be mo- D.1 D.2 D.3 D.4 D.5 FIBA ASSIST MAGAZINE PAGE 25
3 D.6 D.7 D.8 D.9 ved using the pass when playing a zone defense. This offense is exactly just the opposite: We simply leave the perimeter area empty and we don't put any high post players in. This forces the defense to start playing man-to-man. We don't use a player to jam the offense in the free-throw area, but we pass the ball to one side of the court (the right side, in this example), and quickly make a flash cut into the three-second lane (diagr. 3). The point guard asks for the ball while he is in the lane and then he pops out on the same side. 2, the player, who received the entry pass, waits to see whether the first line defender of the zone comes out towards him, and if PAGE FIBA ASSIST MAGAZINE there is a chance to pass the ball to the cutter. If he cannot pass the ball to 1, 2 dribbles hard toward the defender, breaks into the three-second lane (diagr. 4), opens the passing lines and, based on the reaction of the defenders, dishes the ball to an open teammate. When 2 penetrates in the lane, we have a rule for the centers: if 2 penetrates diagonally, 4, the center opposite to the drive, cuts inside, while 5, the center on the same side of the drive, fades out (diagr. 5). If the offense is run from the other side, everything is reversed. 4, who cuts in the lane, could be covered, but 5, who has faded away, can be open. If nothing happens, 2 can also start the offense on the left side of the court, with a pass from 1 to 3, and then from 3 to 4 (diagr. 6). At the same time, we set a back screen on the weakside with 5, who screens X2. 4 swings the ball to 2, and 2 to 1. If X3, the defender on the back line of the zone, comes high to help, 1 passes to 3, who can shoot. When this happens, all the offensive players go hard for the offensive rebound (diagr. 7). This means we run the action on the opposite side from where we started the offense. We can also make a "decoy" play: 1 passes the ball to 2, and cuts in the corner on the ball side. However, this is not where we want to shoot (diagr. 8). We want, in fact, to have 4 make a back screen on the weakside for 3, our best shooter, who is closely guarded by X1. On the pass from 1 to 2, 3 spots up, going in the opposite direction of the ball. He receives a back screen from 4, and 2 passes the ball to 3. When 2 passes the ball to 3, X4 comes out to guard 3. In this moment, we have created a miss-match, with a small player against the big tall player outside, away from the basket: 3 can also pass the ball to 4 (diagr. 9). To execute this play properly, you need to have good inside and outside players. If the perimeter defenders X1, X2, and X3 are faster than my offensive players, I do not run this offense. Another extremely important point of emphasis on the zone offense-but for any offense, for that matter-is to always receive the ball with the hands and body in a position where you are ready to shoot: the hands are not brought down; you are looking at the basket, prepared to launch a shot. SECOND ZONE OFFENSE This zone offense is based on having good big players in different positions: a big small forward, a skilled power forward, and an excellent center. We generally use this play when we think we are stronger under the D.10 D.11 D.12 D.13 D.14
4 basket than the opposing team. Here's how we run this zone offense (diagr. 10): 1 dribbles to the lateral wing, where we don't have a big player on the low post, and this is a signal for 4 to run quickly in the low post position, attack the defender of the last line of the zone, turn and seal him off. At the same time, 3, who was near the corner of the freethrow area, jumps out to the three-point line to receive and shoot, while 5 flashes to the high-post area, outside of the lane. The ball goes from 1 to 3, and from 3 to 5. At the same time, the two small perimeter players, 2 and 1, run down to the baseline (diagr. 11). In this way we can play three-on-three: 5 can pass to 2 or 1 in the corner, or pass directly to 4, who ducks in the lane, or makes an high cut, and then a cut to the basket. 5 can also pass to 2 in the corner, and then cut to the basket and receive the ball from 2, a "give-and-go" (diagr. 12). The guards, 1 and 2, can punish the defenders if they cheat on defense: if the small defensive players come high to help, 1 or 2 can have an open shot. On every reversal pass from one side to the other side of the half court, from 1 to 2 or vice-versa (diagr. 13), we automatically make a double screen on the other side. As soon as the ball is in the hands of an offensive player in the corner after a reversal pass, the low post on the side of the ball comes out of the lane, and goes to the perimeter. In the meantime, the guard on the ball side spots up on the weak side of the court. 1 passes the ball to 4 and cuts on the baseline. 4 passes to 3, and 3 to 1 (diagr. 14). This is how we utilize double screens and staggered screens against the zone defense. If this offensive action doesn't work, the ball should be reversed as quickly as possible from one side to the other of the half court. 1 passes to 3, 3 to 4 and from 4 to 2, who has cut to the opposite corner. We then play pick-and-roll, a two-on-two (diagr. 15). Here, we simply force the defense to switch from zone to a man-to-man defense. THIRD ZONE OFFENSE The third zone offense is based on playing both an inside and outside game. Our primary objective is to overload one side of the zone defense, intentionally leaving our best player on the weak side, opposite to the overload. The offensive set is a one-four spread high (diagr. 16): we have two sides where we can start the play, the right and the left side. 1 passes to the right, in this case to 2, 5 goes down in the low post area and aggressively seals his defender. At the same time, 3 drops down to the baseline, cutting D.15 D.16 D.17 D.18 D.19 FIBA ASSIST MAGAZINE PAGE 27
5 D.20 D.21 D.22 D.23 on the baseline. 5, with his hands up and his elbows locked, asks for the ball. If he does not receive the ball, he puts his arms down low, the pre-agreed signal that he does not want the ball anymore. 5 sets the screen for 3, who goes out of the lane, and receives the ball from 2 (diagr. 17). After the screen, 5 rolls quickly to the corner and receives the ball-but only if he is alone. Otherwise, 1 can pass also to 4 and, in this case, 1 goes straight down in the deep corner (diagr. 18). In the right deep corner, a back screen is set on X2, a very hard play to defend. 3 makes a backscreen for 2, 2 exchanges the position high-low with 3, and cuts down outside to PAGE FIBA ASSIST MAGAZINE the deep corner (diagr. 19). If there is confusion between the two defenders X2 and X3, regarding who should switch, fight through the screen, or help on the screen, 3 will immediately make a pass to 4. Instead, if 3 is free, he can shoot, or pass to 1 in the right, deep corner for a possible uncontested shot. 3 keeps the same position on the side, and 4 drops down towards the baseline; 5 flashes up to the high-post position, and we have the side overload with four players, while the fifth player is on the opposite side of the floor. We now have a second option (diagr. 20, 21 and 22). 5, after setting the screen for 3, goes to the mid-post position, receives the ball from 2, and, while 5 has the ball: we want 2 to cut to the middle, and then 3 cuts in the low-post position. The defense collapses, covering the two cutters with two defenders. The defense must change this set, if not, the center receives the ball and simply dunks or makes a lay-up. Nothing changes if the entry pass goes directly to 4 (diagr. 23): 1 gives the ball to 4, 5 drops down to the right side, low-post position, and 3 attacks the baseline. 1 can cut in the lane as the third cutter. In this case, we will overload with 3 and 1, with only one player outside. This is 2, the shooting guard.
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