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Surviving Your Second Year as a Basketball Coach

Chapter 4 - Moving Without the Ball

by Steve MacKinney

There is one ball and five players so on average, you spend 80% of the time on offense playing without the ball. While playing without the ball, you should try to accomplish these things:

  1. Get open under the basket
  2. Help a team mate get open under the basket
  3. Get open away from the basket
  4. Get a team mate open away from the basket
  5. Pull a defensive player away from the basket to open space for a teammate
  6. Create a mismatch of size, quickness, or ability by forcing the defense to switch

Most of this chapter applies more to man-to-man defense than zones, but many of the techniques will work against either defense.

How to Get Open

We teach five ways to get open:

  1. Move to open space
  2. V-cut
  3. Back door cut
  4. Seal (or duck in front)
  5. Use a screen


Moving to open space usually starts with a slight push (push with the back of your hand) off the defensive player and two or three quick steps away from the defense toward an open area where the passer can pass to you (diagram 1). Give the passer a target by holding your open hand out on the side away from your defender. The passer should throw ahead of you so you and the ball arrive at the spot at the same time.
Diagram 1
The V-cut (diagram 2) is started away from the basket with a defender denying the pass by playing you tight or playing in the passing lane (in between you and the passer). You should take two or three quick steps toward the basket to get the defender moving with you. Go all the way to the lane in case the passer thinks he can get the ball to you and attempts the pass. When you get close enough to the basket to be sure the passer is not going to throw the ball, quickly plant your foot and cut back away from the basket to the spot where you want to receive the pass. Give a target as explained above. Sometimes if the defender is really close when you get ready to plant your foot and cut away for the pass, you can reverse pivot into the defender and give him a little bump with your butt to keep him from staying with you as you move out into the open.


Diagram 2

Back door cuts (or back cuts) (diagram 3)  take advantage of a defender who is trying to keep you from getting open. Usually you will start the back cut by moving into open space with a defender moving with you. To signal to the passer that you are going to back cut, hold out a closed fist instead of an open hand as a target. The passer should fake a pass to you to try to get the defender to focus on the ball and lunge into the passing lane. Plant your outside foot (when facing the passer, the foot furthest from the basket) and quickly cut toward the basket and look for a pass. A bounce pass is usually best because the defender will try to step back toward the lane to deflect the pass and a bounce pass will get under his hand. If the passer is dribbling toward the cutter when the cutter starts his back cut, he can pass with one hand (dribble pass) and put back spin on the ball so when it bounces, it slows and bounces up making it easier for the receiver to catch. When receiving a back cut pass, expect another defender to be coming to the basket and be ready to dish off to his man, fake the dish and take the ball up yourself, or just go up strong and score anyway.


Diagram 3

Sealing (ducking in) is effective close to the basket to keep the defender from deflecting a pass to you. You simply duck under the defender's arm which is denying the pass to you. Step across in front of the defender and lean back on him and stick your elbow straight out to the side so it blocks the defender from getting around in front of you. Stick your other hand out and ask for the ball. This is especially useful against zone defenses since the defense is usually focused on the ball and playing in front of the receiver.

Another way to seal a defender is to move up to him face to face and then reverse pivot into him and lean back on him. After setting a screen, try to seal the man you screened by reverse pivoting in front of him when he tries to go around you. Then step toward the basket keeping the defender behind you and ask for the ball.


Screening - How to help team mates get open

Unselfish players are just as happy to get their team mate open for a shot as they are when they score themselves. Thank the player who got you open with a screen just as you thank the passer after an assist. The irony of setting screens to get your teammates open is that the screener is often the one who scores because the defense switches to cover the cutter. Unselfish play and good communication is what makes the difference between being a team and just being five players.

Communication is important in screening just as it is when running a back door cut. We use a raised fist to signal that we are going to set a screen. That keeps the passer from bouncing the ball off the screener's face and lets the cutter know that he should start running his man into the screen. You can also call out the name of the cutter as you go to set a screen for him or point to where you want him to cut by you.

Using a screen is very effective for getting open and for creating mismatches by forcing the defense to switch (the screener's defender covers the cutter so the cutter's defender takes the screener - they "switch" men). By having the smallest, quickest player screen for the tallest player and forcing their defenders to switch, you can make their smallest player defend your tallest one and force their tallest player to defend your quickest one. Once they switch, stay spread out enough so it is hard for them to switch back.

There are several kinds of screens you can use:

  1. Back screen
  2. Down screen
  3. Ball screen (pick)
  4. Horizontal screen
  5. Flare screen
  6. Double screen
  7. Staggered screen
  8. Slip (fake) screen
  9. Yo-yo screen

You can also use:

  1. Another cutter as a screen
  2. Another player's defender as a screen
  3. A post player who has the ball as a screen.

The technique is similar for most screens. You should look for the cutter's defender (call him "CD") and get between him and the spot the cutter (C) is going to. Get as close to CD as is legal - an inch if CD can see you, about 30 inches if CD cannot see you like on a back screen. You (the screener) must be stopped when the contact takes place. Once contact is made, you should be ready to reverse pivot whichever direction CD tries to go around and seal CD behind him. Then you can step towards the basket looking for a pass.

The cutter is responsible for influencing his defender (CD) into the screener, either with fakes or subtle pushing with the back of his hand or his arm. The cutter should go very close to the screener (we tell them to rub shoulders) so CD cannot force his way between them. He should continue his cut several steps past the screener to force the screener's defender to go with him, leaving the screener open (if the screener is able to seal CD). The cutter will often get open against poor defensive teams and the screener will get open against the better teams if he seals properly.


Back screens (diagram 4) are set by a screener who is close to the basket going out and standing behind a defender who is away from the basket. The cutter runs by the screener towards the basket.


Diagram 4

Down screens (diagram 5) involve a cutter who begins near the basket and a screener who moves down toward the cutter's defender and screens him chest to chest. The cutter moves away from the basket and either curls around the screen back toward the basket (when the defender follows him around the screen) or moves away from the basket for a short jump shot if the defender stays inside.

Diagram 5

Ball screens (diagram 6) are set on the dribbler's defender and the dribbler tries to run his defender into the screen. This is usually called a pick and roll play.

Diagram 6

Horizontal screens (diagram 7) shows a pass to the cutter or to the screener after he seals and rolls back toward the basket) have the cutter moving across the court and going above or below the screen.

Diagram 7

A flare screen (diagram 8) is a horizontal screen set near the three point line with the cutter moving away from the ball so he can catch and shoot a three.

Diagram 8

A double screen has two screeners side by side and a cutter running his man into the screeners.

Staggered screens (diagram 9) are two screens set for one cutter a few feet apart so the defender hits one screen and then another.

The slip screen or fake screen is used when the defense is switching quickly. The screener gets in position to set the screen and then cuts toward the basket when he sees his defender start moving up to switch onto the cutter/dribbler.


Diagram 9
The yo-yo screen (diagram 10) This is a name I made up. It is used when the cutter's defender is anticipating getting screened as goes past the screen ahead of the cutter. The cutter then reverses direction and cuts past the screen a second time catching his defender on the other side of the screen.


Diagram 10

Other types of screens

Using a cutter as a screen (diagram 11) borders on being illegal since the screener is supposed to be stationary when the contact happens, but if the cutter does not look like he is trying to screen, a second cutter can run his man into the first cutter (or into the first cutter's defender) and it is extremely hard to defend. We try to have the first cutter start low and cut to the high post while a second cutter starts high and cuts to the basket going as close behind the first cutter as possible.


Diagram 11

Another way to use a cutter as a screen is to have a high post with the ball and have a guard cut under him diagonally from the right guard position toward the left baseline corner (diagram 12). As the guard and his man go by, the post player drives right and forces his man into the cutter or the cutter's defender.

Diagram 12

When a post player has the ball along the side of the lane or at the free throw line, a cutter can start high and run his man into the post player by cutting above the post and then continuing toward the basket (diagram 13). If the defender tries to go under the post, the cutter can stop and shoot from behind the post player. If the post player is on the block, a player on the wing can "dive" down and run to the baseline side of the post player and often be open when he comes out on the other side, but the post player may get double-teamed by the cutter's defender and not be able to make the pass.

Diagram 13

Removing the Help - Pulling a defender away from the basket

When your defender is the "help" man and is playing off you to help defend under the basket, you need to take advantage of it. Flashing (cutting toward the passer) diagram 14) to the high post will usually allow you to catch and then pass inside before the low post's defender can get around him to deny the pass. You can also do a quick spin move from the high post and drive down across the lane for a lay up if your defender tries to deny the pass on the low side because there is no help behind you.

When a team mate drives and your man is going to help, step away from your man to give the driver an open passing lane and get your hands ready to catch a bounce pass.


Diagram 14


When two offensive players stand too close to each other, it allows the defense to double team quickly and to help. Try to stay at least 12 - 15 feet away from team mates except when cutting and screening to spread the defense out and allow some space for one-on-one moves.

Spacing against full court pressure

Most pressure defenses will try to double team the ball and cover the other four offensive players with three defenders. If the offensive players are spread out, it is harder for three defenders to cover them. If potential receivers are so far away from the passer that he can't throw to them without a defender getting there first, they aren't helping.

Against full court pressure defense (diagram 15 shows a typical diamond press), spacing of 30 - 50 feet is close enough for the passer to throw to you quickly but spread out enough to make it hard for one defender to cover two men. Cutting toward the passer and going to meet the pass keeps defenders from coming from behind to steal the pass. Catching the ball in the middle of the floor gives you 360 degrees to pass to but the sidelines only give you 180 degrees and the corner only gives you 90. When you catch in the middle, look to the opposite side because presses usually are moving toward the ball leaving the other side open.

Diagram 15

Taking advantage of mismatches

When you get a size mismatch, your best bet is to spread the other four players away from the basket and try to get the ball inside before help can arrive. If another player can flash to the high post for a pass, that is a good place to feed the low post.


When you get a quickness mismatch, try to isolate the quick player on one side and have your best shooter be the next closest player so he would be the person left open when a defender goes to help (diagram 16). The other players should be moving and screening on the weak side but try to leave the basket area open so the quick player can drive for a lay up.

Diagram 16

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