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How to Defend in Basketball: Play Good Defense

In a game of basketball, although the offense’s game is what attracts the attention of the crowd and scores points, the defense is equally as important. Without a good defense, there is no one on the court trying to stop the opposing team from scoring. So, individuals and teams need to build strong defensive forces.

There are two fundamental kinds of defense in basketball: zone defense and person-to-person defense. With zone defense, each person is responsible for guarding a specific area of the floor (court). Whereas with person-to-person (man-to-man), each defender is assigned to guard a player.

Most coaches will choose person-to-person defense because it is a more aggressive approach. If you would like to learn more about playing defense in basketball, read further. The remainder of this article will explain some basketball defense tips all players should know, from the basics to more advanced techniques.

The Goal of a Defender

The goal of a defender is to force the opposition to attempt more difficult shots. (Since they are more challenging to score, the idea is, they are less likely to succeed.) It is not relevant whether that shot is made or missed but that the opposition was left without other options.

Keep this in mind because there may be days your defensive game is strong, but your opponent is solid at making difficult shots.

When your mind is concentrating on the goal of forcing difficult shots as opposed to just stopping your opponent from scoring, you are more likely to succeed at preventing the other team from scoring more effectively. Rather, if you use the number of shots that an opponent scores on you to measure the effectiveness of your defense, you might make a mistake in your assessment.

The Defensive Position

A player on defense needs to remain in the defensive stance the entire possession. Seconds count in a basketball game, and a player that must use some of this time to get back into a defensive position when the ball is approaching them could miss out on key opportunities.

Basketball rules dictate that when a player has both feet on the ground and is facing his opponent, he has established a legal guarding position (defensive stance).

When taking your defensive stance, you want to get low. A good benchmark is to look at the offensive player you are up against and make sure your head is lower than theirs, with maybe your forehead at the height of their chin. You should only get low enough that you still feel comfortable and move quickly. Your legs will be spread out in front of you, and your knees bent.

Your feet should be active. You always want to be moving your feet, and that means, in your defensive stance, your weight should not be shifted to your heels.

Instead, you want to be standing mainly on the balls of your feet, and your toes should point upward; this is called a “dorsiflexion,” and you should aim for at least 15 degrees of dorsiflexion. Generally, doing this is also good for your ankle joints.

Here’s a quick video with some tips on a good defensive stance.

Staying Alert During Transitions

Right after a shot is taken by a teammate, it is essential to snap right back into a defensive position; this may not come as second nature. You may instinctively try to dive in for an offensive rebound, and this would be a bad mistake.

Not falling back into your offensive stance and defending the ball allows the other team to use that time to attempt uncontested layups. These could be the difference between either winning or losing a game.

The same applies to after a shot has been taken by your own team.

Communication: Both Talking and Listening to Teammates

Your teammates may not be able to see what is happening with the ball and with you during your offensive possession. So, it is important to communicate with your team members what is going on throughout the defensive possession.

The opposite is also true. As much as you must talk to your other teammates, you must be alert and listen to them too. You may need to adjust your positioning based on something a teammate says to keep the defensive play secure.

Defenders often repeat their keywords continually when they call them out to make sure their teammates get what they have said clearly. (So, you will hear a teammate or a player say “ball, ball, ball!” as opposed to just “ball!” for example.) It is crucial to be able to understand what your team members are saying.

Some common phrases used by players include:

  • “Ball” – When a defender is guarding the ball handler, they would say “ball” to indicate that they are the ones currently guarding or closing out the player in possession of the ball.
  • Help right” or “help left” – When a teammate moves into position to help the one guarding the ball, that teammate may shout “help right” or “help left,” depending on the side they are on to indicate that they are available to help. The on-ball defender may also shout one of these help phrases to indicate that they need help. Calling help earlier is meant to cause the response of the off-the-ball defenders (those not guarding the ball directly) to be fast in response.
  • “Split line” – Another common cue is the phrase “split line.” This phrase refers to a position that players assume along a part of the court called the split line.
  • “Baseline” – Defenders standing on the split line position themselves to help a teammate that has been beaten while defending the “baseline” from one of the wings.
  • “Screen left/right” – A player may also shout “screen left” or “screen right” to let a teammate know that they are about to be screened on either side. The one about to be screened may not see it until the opposing team member is already too close, but those farther away, who can see it can warn their team member. The same idea applies to the phrase “cutter left/right,” indicating there is a “cutter” moving to the left or the right of a team member on the ball. This phrase is not as common, though.
  • “Shot” – “Shot” is another common keyword. It is meant to indicate that an offensive shot has been taken, and players on the floor need to rebound quickly by shifting into their defensive positions and acting to box-out the players of the other team from possessing the loose ball.

Being Physically and Mentally Prepared

A good player already knows the importance of being in top shape on and off the court. This involves having a balanced diet that suits their nutritional needs and taking care of their body by making sure they stretch, get enough hydration, and get a healthy amount of sleep.

What might not come as a given is the mental preparation involved.

Before stepping on the court, it’s necessary to psyche yourself going into your defensive game. There is a lot of mental work that goes into effective defending from reading your opponent’s moves, matching them in blocking, being aware of your surroundings, picking up, and acting reflexively on cues.

Understanding Your Opponent

Of course, playing a good defense also requires that you understand your opponent too.

What is their dominant hand?

Does your opponent primarily dribble with their left hand or on their right hand? If they dribble on the right, for example, influencing them to dribble on the left is a fast and smart defensive move.

Your opponent’s reflexes may be a little slower on their non-dominant side, or their shots may not be as accurate when they must lead on that side. Also, it makes it easier to steal the ball when an opponent does not have a very firm grip or control on it.

How and where do they score most of their points?

The most significant factor to consider in building a good defense strategy against an opponent is knowing where your opponent does most of their scoring as well as how they do it.  If your opponent is a great outside shooter, for example, you want to maintain pressure on them even when they are on the outside and be mindful of your rotations when you are on-ball.

On the opposite end, if the person you are guarding happens to be a poor shooter, it is safe to shift a bit of your attention to helping your teammates when you are off-ball. Also, you can put more focus on defending the drive when you are on-ball.

You should stay closer to a great shooter when defending and on-ball to “force them to dribble inside and take a lower percentage shot” (source)

But, with an opponent who is not as great a shooter, you can take a step back and generally put more into your off-ball defense. So good coaches will usually pair a good off-ball defender with a poor shooter and vice versa.

Some players are great outside shooters. Others may score many of their points from some regions of the court, or by running certain plays. Understanding these aspects of your opponent’s game and knowing where to apply more defensive pressure on the opponent to prevent that basket is a big part of taking your defensive game to the next level.

Here’s a good video with some tips and defensive techniques.

What are their weaknesses?

On the other hand, understanding your opponent’s weaknesses is equally as important as analyzing the areas where they show great skill. Understanding an opponent’s weakness gives you room to put them in an uneasy situation where they will have more challenges in scoring and keeping control of the ball.

Analyzing either the strengths or weaknesses of an opponent requires that you get to know them by watching their game before going up against them.

You could see them play in person or watch a recording of their game before coming up with some defensive tactics that will help you against the opponent.

How do they react to pressure?

There are different reactions posed by offensive players to a lot of defensive pressure. Some will lose their cool, attempt wild shots, and possibly be short-tempered with their teammates, while others may be flustered and unable to play as they usually would.

There are also great offensive players who are not too adversely affected by defensive pressure: they can keep their cool and meet their scoring numbers.

Understanding which of these categories your opponent falls in will help you tailor your defensive strategy to match the opponent’s offensive push.

Here’s another good video with some tips on improving your defensive skills.

Tips for Playing On-Ball Defense

As a defensive player, one of the main parts of your defensive game to work on is when you are on-ball because, at this point, the main goal of preventing the opposing team from scoring falls directly or primarily into your hands.

  • An essential aspect of on-ball defense is placing constant pressure on the person you are guarding. Effectively, the pressure you apply will cause the one you are guarding against to not feel too comfortable dribbling or making a pass for fear that the ball will get deflected easily.
  • Use your body to your benefit. Prevent your opponent from being able to pass the ball, for example, by stepping in front of their cutting lane and bumping but keeping your hands out and visible to show the referee that you are not fouling the other player.
  • The use of permissible physicality in your defensive strategy will develop as you play more often and as you face up against different opponents, including tougher and smarter ones.
  • Remember that your job does not end once a forced shot or a pass leaves your opponent’s hands. Your defensive play is not finished until you or a teammate has gained possession of the ball. So, if you are playing man-to-man defense, continue to guard the player you are assigned to prevent them from getting the rebounds.
  • If you are playing zone defense, “box-out” or prevent the player closest to you from being able to go after the rebound. You should continue to go hard at your defense and your opponent even if you are no longer on-ball so long as the defensive possession is ongoing.

Some Defensive Tricks

The following are a few final tricks you can keep in mind as you play defense to ensure you are in the best position to help your team.

Take Possession of 50/50 Balls

A 50/50 ball is a ball that both teams have an equal chance of possessing because it has been knocked away and deflected. It is advantageous to get hold of a 50/50 ball for your team before the opposing team can.

To get hold of a 50/50 ball for their team’s sake, a player must be ready in a defensive stance and willing to dive for a ball and put their body on the line to get it.

The aim is to get more possessions because every possession leads to a scoring opportunity, so catching a 50/50 ball is advantageous to increase scoring activities.

Maintain Your Balance

Keeping your balance is essential as a defensive player. Being off-balance makes you an easy opponent, and the offense will target you for attacks to get openings to score points. But, when you maintain your balance, this allows you to quickly react to the actions of the opposing team, to pivot to meet an opponent’s change in direction, and to mimic their speed.

Most of the fakes an offensive player uses against a defender blocking them are aimed at taking the defense off-balance and creating room for that offensive player to make shots without defense blocking them.

Take Charge

This is a bit of a sacrificial move; it is not required, but it is useful in sending a strong message to the opposition that will make them hesitate when they are around you the next time. You take charge when you hold your position as an opposing team’s player is dribbling or running in your direction, and then let your body fall straight back upon impact, gusting out air at the same time.

The second part is important because the charge will most likely not be called if you can hold your ground.

You want to get the charge called to get extra possessions for your team during the game, which will help the team to gain more opportunities to score. This kind of trick may be useful, for example, for a situation where the possession of the ball has consistently been on the opposing team.

In Summary

This article broke down the basics of defense and gave helpful tips on how to boost your defensive game. A good defense is essential even for a player who shines in an offensive role.

Building a strong defense skill is the difference between having a good team and having an incredible team. Whether you are a player, a coach, or a hobbyist who plays basketball for fun on the weekends, hopefully, this article gave you a more in-depth understanding of how to up your defensive game.

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