“Catching up”

No team wants to fall behind, however basketball is a fast moving and fast scoring game so that relatively large leads can be overturned. It’s very important for a team to have the confidence that they can make up the deficit. Coaches can build that confidence by:

  • Practicing “time and score” scenarios so that they have done it at practice;
  • Evaluate performance by reference to “process” objectives, not just the score. For example, the team may have been successfully trapping the low post, or getting shots inside the key (even if they were missed).

Some specific factors that coaches should consider in preparing the team for situations where they have to “catch up” in a game are:

Quicken the Tempo

The clock is the enemy of a team that is behind. Accordingly, if that team can speed up the game, it gives them more scoring opportunities. The tempo can be increased by:

  • Introducing full court defence or a high pressure defence;
  • Quick inbounds pass and look to push the ball up the court as quickly as possible. There may be a particular guard that does this better than others on the team or it might be putting two guards on the floor so that if one is defended the other can get the ball;
  • Some teams will have a specific play structure that is used to create a quick tempo (e.g. early dribble penetration off a ball screen or after a ball reversal);
  • “Going small” – having five players on the floor that run the floor well;
  • Running “quick hitters” early in the team’s offence – for example screening action to get specific shots. These may be specific plays that the coach has or may be a particular option within their usual offensive structure.

There are many examples of “quick hitters” and coaches should choose what they want to use based upon what is suitable for the players in their team.

Some examples are:


“Horns” Set

This is run to get a shot for either 2 or 3.

1 dribbles off the screen from 3, who then cuts across the key off a screen by 5. At the same time, 4 sets a screen for 2 on a turn out cut.

1 has the option of passing to 2 or 3. 3 can catch and shoot or drive to the basket.


Low Post Isolation

Offence starts in a “4 High” alignment. 3 screens for 4 to cut to the wing and then screens for 5. The screens must be placed relative to where the defender is.

5 cuts to the low post.


Double for Shooter

1 dribble entries to the wing, as 2 cuts off double screen from 5 and 4. 1 looks to pass to 2 for a shot. This screen could also be set as an “Elevator” screen, where 2 cuts between 5 and 4.

Alternatively, 1 can penetrate to the basket and then pass to 3 in the corner or pass to inside players.


High Flash

This can be run on either side of the floor.

4 cuts high from the low post and receives the pass from 1. 1 sets screen for 3 who may fake cutting off the screen and instead cut back door to receive a pass from 4.

(English) If 3 cuts off 1’s screen, they receive a dribble hand-off from 4 and then look to drive to the basket.

If the defenders of either 5 or 2 attempt to help on this penetration, 3 can pass to the open player (e.g. if x2 helps , Player 2 is open).


Dribble Handoff

1 dribbles towards the wing and 2 cuts off screen from 4 to receive dribble hand off.

(English) Offence should react to defence:

  • If 4’s defender helps defend 2’s cut, 4 dives to the basket

(English) If 2’s defender fights over the screen, 2 may cut back door to the basket.

(English) If 2 gets the hand-off but cannot penetrate to the basket they can pass to either 3 or to 1.

If 3 receives the ball, 5 steps into the low post.

If 1 receives the ball, 4 can set an on-ball screen.

(English) Alternatively, 4 can back screen for 2 to cut to the corner, regardless of which player 2 has passed to.



In transition, 4 (who is “trailing”) sets screen for 3. 1 passes to three and then cuts off staggered double screen. An option is a shot in the corner for 1.

(English) If there is no pass to 1 in the corner, 2 sets screen for 5 to dive to the basket. If 3 still has the ball, they may need to pass to 4 or 1 for better passing angle to 5.

If no pass to 5 on the cut, look to isolate 5 in the low post, with the overload (3 offensive players on one side) taking away any help.


Put the Opponent on the free throw line

This is perhaps the most commonly seen tactic (and is really a defensive tactic) and is also the most misunderstood. Often teams that are trying to catch up will foul their opponent to give their opponent foul shots. The benefit of this is:

  • Very little time comes off the game clock;
  • The opponent may miss one or both shots.

The tactic is most appropriate when the score is quite close, there is less than 2 minutes left or an opponent is a poor foul shooting team. Professional teams usually shoot between 70-80% and within the team some players will be better than others.

Intercept the Pass

Another defensive tactic (that is included here because it can help to create a fast break) arises because the defensive team has an advantage when their opponent is inbounding the ball from either the baseline or sideline – the defensive team have 5 players defending 4.

Accordingly, players should be instructed to attempt to intercept the pass, rather than simply fouling as soon as the pass is made.

If teams are looking to foul straight away, they need to be conscious that it may be called as a technical foul (which means the opponent gets one free throw and the ball back) if fouling players before the pass is thrown in.

Get to the free throw line.

Scoring while the game clock is stopped can be effective to help a team catch up. Accordingly, getting to the foul line is an important tactic, which is often best done by penetrating the ball into the key (either off the dribble or passing into a post player).

Make 3 point plays

Many teams trying to catch up resort to attempting 3 point shots and, if they make them, may catch up, but if they miss them it can simply make the deficit greater. Teams should not overlook the 3 point play that can be made by making a basket and making an additional free throw when fouled.

Perimeter shooters rarely get fouled, so for a team to get to the free throw line, they need to penetrate the ball. The other advantage of penetrating the ball is that this can also create good scoring opportunities on a pass back out to the perimeter.

Attack the Opponent’s “Weakest Link”

What is an opponent’s “weakest link” will be relative to the strengths of each team. It may be a particular “mis-match” between players (e.g. a defender may be slower and unable to defend a player on the perimeter) or it may be a player that is in foul trouble or is prone to fouling.

The role of the coach is to identify where their team has a relative strength and to attack that.

Rebound the Ball

Former USA and NBA coach Chuck Daly famously said “No rebounds, no [championship] rings”, referring to the importance of rebounding to the success of any team. The nature of basketball is that possession can be equal. One team has possession, shoots and then the other team has possession. If the game goes according to this fashion, both teams will have approximately the same number of possessions.

What disrupts this is offensive rebounds – gaining an additional possession without allowing your opponent to have a possession. Accordingly, a team that is trying to catch up can help their cause by:

  • Limiting the team that is in front to one shot every possession;
  • Gaining as many offensive rebounds as possible.

To gain offensive rebounds, teams may have an additional player contest the rebound. The risk is that the opponent will still get the rebound and will be successful in transition, however without taking some risk the team that is behind is very unlikely to make up the deficit.