Defending a lead

Having the lead with a few minutes left in the game is what every team aims to do. In many games the offensive team will seem to have a comfortable lead and the game will finish relatively quickly.

However, as anyone that has seen the video of Reggie Miller scoring 8 points for the Indiana Pacers in 9 seconds of play against the New York Knicks7 knows the game is not over until the final siren sounds.

Many teams seemingly find it difficult to defend a lead when their opponent starts to catch up.

At its simplest “defending a lead” is just continuing to do whatever it was that got the lead! Obviously, the opponent can only get back into the game if they are able to outscore the opponent. This places maximum importance on both teams getting the best shot opportunity that they can each possession. An excellent activity to practice this is the Two Halves Scrimmage:

  • Designate two teams (3x3, 4x4 or 5x5) who will play against each other for two periods (e.g. 3-5 minutes each half). They play in the half court and the coach can stipulate any particular “rules” in order to change the emphasis of the drill;
  • After the defence get the ball, either through a steal, rebound or an offensive score, the defence goes to the other end to score unguarded. They can shoot a two point shot or a three point shot and continue shooting until they get a score;
  • The defensive team then return the ball to the offence and play to again play contested in the half court;
  • At half time of the scrimmage, the defensive team should have a lead – as they scored on every possession! Teams switch in the second half, so that the team that was on offence is now on defence.
  • Pressure is placed on the new offensive team (who most probably have a lead) because they know that every time the defensive team have the ball they will score.

As important as “shot selection” is, there are a number of other things which the coach should consider when preparing their team (and also coaching during a game) for preparing to defend a lead.

The importance of Free Throws

Commonly, a team that is down will foul their opponent so that little time is taken before the team that is down next get a possession. If the team that is fouled makes the resulting free throws, it is harder for the team that is down to catch up.

Teams need to practice free throws every practice and need to do so under “game-like” pressure, such as:

  • Taking free throws when tired (e.g. after running);
  • Only taking a small number of shots (1, 2 or 3) at a time;
  • Imposing a penalty when shots are missed (e.g. have a drink break if made, sprint full court if missed);
  • Activities where every player must contribute (e.g. the team must make 10 shots in a row, each player shooting once). This type of activity can seemingly place more “pressure” on the shooter as the team gets closer to the goal.
  • Shooting while there are distractions (e.g. playing loud music, allowing players to yell and try to distract the shooter)

Coaches should also be conscious of who are the better free throw shooters in the team and look to get the ball into their hands so that it is more likely to be them that is fouled and has the free throws.

Resting Players

Once a team has established a lead it is often an opportunity to rest some starters and to give more court time to players that do not usually play as much. This can be particularly important during a tournament in order to give key players a rest and it is also for the development of the other players.

However, the danger is that the opponent may “catch up” whilst the substitutes are on and then that team has the momentum even when the starters come back into the game. Some coaches avoid any problems by not changing their substitution pattern. This is not the recommended approach as it will both increase fatigue of the “starters” and is also a missed opportunity to develop the other players.

The development of all players on the team must be a key focus for any coach of a junior team. Whilst the coach may plan to use only 6 or 7 players, injury or foul trouble often require other players to play.

The preferred approach is to rotate substitutes in with starters. By all means, once a lead has been established use the opportunity to give substitutes more court time but keep 1 or 2 “starters” on at the same time.

Focus on Defence

Once a lead has been established if the team that is leading stops the opponent from scoring again, they will win. As simple as it is, this should not be overlooked. A number of the strategies discussed here for defending a lead relate to offence, but great defence can be the most effective way to defend the lead!

This does not mean that teams in junior basketball that have a lead, particularly a substantial lead of 20 or more points, should continue to play “high pressure” defence for the whole game. Once a lead is established, junior teams should revert to a half court defence, but it does not have to be a passive defence.

Coaches can give players goals that are based on good defence, such as:

  • Containing the dribbler;
  • Intercepting passes;
  • Denying the ball getting into the key (either by dribble, pass or rebound);
  • Stopping shots being taken from particular areas (e.g. low post, corners).
  • Forcing 24 second violations by the opponent or 5 second violations by an individual player

The coach should then give specific feedback on these goals, if possible having an assistant coach keep some statistics to demonstrate success. Sometimes the coach may give a particular goal (e.g. “let’s get 5 possessions where they don’t get the ball into the key”) but equally just keeping track (e.g. knowing how many times a defender stopped dribble penetration without needing help) can be worthwhile.

More Patient Offence

Some coaches will ask a team to be more patient in their offence – perhaps not taking a shot from outside the keyway unless it has first penetrated into the keyway (either by dribble or pass to a post player). The reason for this is because the quicker a shot is taken the more time that the opponent has for their “come back”.

If this is different to how the team usually plays, the instruction can be misunderstood or misinterpreted by players. The coach should therefore make sure that the team has practiced whatever “slow down” rules they want to have in place.

Particularly for junior players, it can be hard to understand that the same shot (e.g. 3 point attempt from corner) can be either a good option (e.g. after “penetration and pitch”) or a bad option (within 5 seconds of offence starting, without any rebounders in place).

To avoid such confusion, coaches should define “good” and “bad” not by reference to the shot itself (e.g. 3 point attempt) but by reference to the “process” factors (e.g. “after ball reversal”, “after post touch”).

Keep doing what got the lead!

This approach may at times conflict with wanting a more “patient” offence and if a team is playing a fast tempo game they need to realise that continuing to play at that tempo increases the number of possessions that an opponent has.

Often when an opponent mounts a “come back” the team that had the lead loses confidence and this can have the impact of making them play worse, giving more momentum to the “come back”.

Often the “come back” is the result of the team with the lead changing what
it is doing offensively (e.g. taking more shots from the perimeter), particularly if different players are on the floor. In this circumstance the coach needs to re- focus the team to what was working.

At other times, the change may have come about because the defensive team has adjusted to what the team with the lead was doing (e.g. the defence may have started to “double-team” a post player or play zone instead of man to man). In this circumstance, the coach should acknowledge what change has occurred defensively and then make any necessary changes to their offence.

Practice “Time and Score” situations

Similar to the “Two Halves Scrimmage” discussed above, practicing various situations (e.g. having a lead of 5, being down by 10) will give teams confidence that they can successfully “defend
the lead”.

In doing this the coach may also be able to institute some “rules” so that in a game they do not need to call a time-out to implement a specific strategy (for example, if a team has three possessions without scoring, the next position might run a specific play). This is particularly difficult for a team to scout.

In practicing “time and score” type situations, the coach should consider dividing their squad evenly, not playing the starting 5 against substitutes. The coach could also consider using 5x7 to really increase the pressure on their team.

Slowing Tempo

Where a team is trying to catch up they will often increase the tempo of the game, for example by playing full court defence or taking shots more quickly than they may usually do.

The team with the lead may deliberately attempt to slow the tempo, having players take a “5 second” or “8 second” violation rather than throwing a bad pass that could be intercepted. Walking the ball up the court, instead of quick transition (if the defensive team allow
it) also slows the tempo, although the offensive team need to ensure that they allow sufficient time to get a good shot.

Don’t let them steal seconds

A common tactic used by teams trying to catch up, is to make an inbound pass and let it bounce a number of times before picking it up – the reason for this being that the game clock does not start until a player in court touches the ball. Whilst this may not seem to make much difference, a team can easily “save” 2 to 3 seconds on a possession, which is 8 - 12% of a 24 second shot clock!

This is simply avoided by having a defender up court so that the pass needs to be caught immediately and dribbled up court, with the shot clock running!

Allowing a team to “steal” seconds.

Having a defender up court prevents this.