Basketball Offense – 3 Ways to Beat a Zone Defense

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Designing a basketball offense to be run against a man-to-man defense is relatively simple – set up screens, pick ‘n roll situations, one-on-one situations, etc. Easy to design but, of course, not always easy to execute. To carry off these plays requires good fundamental skills and lots of practice.

But playing against a zone is different – strategies like screens and clear-outs are much less effective, since the defense is more fluid – defensive players are not set specifically against any one offensive player, so they can switch off easily and quickly. But since the defensive players are not fixed on any one offensive player, and because the ball can move faster than the players can, zone defenses can be beaten if your players know what they are doing. Here are three ways for your basketball offense to beat zone defences:

  1. Shoot your way out (especially vs packed keys). Zones are usually used to block off the key, to force the outside shot. The idea is that the outside shot is less likely to go in than a drive or an inside move, closer to the basket. However, if you have one or two good shooters, and you can work the ball to them, the zone will not be able to contain them, and defensive players will be forced to move out to pick up the shooters – which will open up holes inside that your inside men can utilise.
  2. Move the defense out of position. Zone defenses put defensive players in specific positions, so that the entire floor – particularly the key – is well-covered. As the offensive play moves the ball around, defensive players adjust their focus depending on where the offensive players move to, where the ball is, etc. Swing the ball around the outside fast enough, and have your players cutting through the key constantly, and the defense will not be able to adjust quickly enough, or will over-adjust, or will get so jittery that they will start to jump at faked passes and faked shots. All of which will open up the floor for the offence.
  3. Fast break. A quick transition from defense to offense will take away the time your opponent needs to get back and set up their defense. A good fast break – run off a rebound, turnover, or even a made shot – will cause plenty of confusion for any defense and open up holes through which you can drive the ball.

I like the opportunities that a fast game offers, so my teams usually have a fast break as our first option. But of course, you can’t fast break the entire game – situations will arise where a fast break can’t be used, and your players won’t be able to sprint for forty straight minutes. So I’ll also have a couple of plays under our belt – one to use against a man-to-man defense, and one to use against a zone defense. And maybe another just to mix things up every now and again, but no more than that – I don’t want to confuse my players any more than I absolutely have to.

Choose a set basketball offensive play to use against the zone and practice it. And when you practice it, be sure to drive home to your players the need to move the ball quickly, to cut fast, shoot when the opportunity arises, and to keep an eye out for the open man. Because if your team follows these steps, opportunities will happen.

You will find a few offensive plays and more of my thoughts on offensive strategy on this page: Offensive Strategy from my Better Basketball Coaching website.

Gary has been coaching varsity basketball for over fifteen years. Read more of his coaching advice on his website

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