Learning how to play defense as a team is one of the most crucial aspects of winning games. Individual defensive talent is important as well, but as you get to higher levels of basketball it becomes harder to lock up individually great scorers and playmakers. But just because you can’t do it alone doesn’t mean you can’t do it at all. Playing defense purposefully as a whole unit instead of as an individual means you’re not just guarding your man, but being aware of the entire offense. Understanding how to play defense as a team will be able to cover up for any shortcomings certain players might have athletically and make your entire defensive unit more effective overall. Here are a few things to look at as a player that can make you a better team defender.
Excellent individual defenders can often rely on length or athleticism to force a mistake or lock someone down. An excellent team defender doesn’t need to rely on that. When guarding someone overly aggressive or very athletic, sometimes staying in front of them can be difficult. But there is a way to counter that. Watch this clip of the Raptors guarding Jaylen Brown as a team.
At midcourt, Fred VanVleet is guarding a highly explosive player gaining speed in transition. He seems overmatched, but instead of trying to be aggressive and stay in front of Brown, he and his help defender on the wing want Brown to attack the paint at full speed. They funnel him into Lowry, who isn’t a rim protector but does take a smart charge against a very athletic player who likes to attack the basket. This is a calculated move by Toronto. Lowry led the league in charges in 2017-2018 and this strategy was a big part in why. Knowing where your defenders are and forcing the ball handler toward them is a way to play effective defense without supremely talented perimeter defenders. Baiting players by taking advantage of their preferred play style is a smart way to create turnovers and match up with more athletic teams.
2. Perimeter Help
Although funneling can work effectively, you cannot consistently allow penetration. One way you can keep the ball in front of you and limit penetration is utilizing your off-ball perimeter defenders. When help can be given without creating an easy opening for an offense, it is important that it comes fast and purposefully. Watch Terry Rozier and Kyrie Irving here.
First, Terry Rozier does a great job of getting around the screen quickly to force Steph off the three-point line. But with this aggressive contest, Steph is able to get by Rozier. But watch Kyrie here. He doesn’t have to do a lot, and in fact he doesn’t do much of anything at all. But his presence makes the paint a little more congested and forces Steph to very slightly hesitate. Rozier sticks with the play and is able to recover because of that hesitation, created by the mere fact that Kyrie was crowding Steph’s driving lane. The whole play changes and Rozier is able to force Steph into a bad shot. A critical part of this play, however, is that Kyrie is able to help because his man isn’t a shooter, freeing Kyrie to take a few steps backwards towards the hoop and create that interference. This recognition leads us into our next topic.
3. Knowing Personnel
Being a great defender isn’t just about what you do, its also about what you know, and in this case what you know about the guy you are guarding. Knowing your man and his strengths and weaknesses goes a long way towards shutting him down. Knowing how they’ll react in certain situations, knowing what they want to and not letting them do it, these are all effective ways of assessing your match up properly.
Maybe the best thing to know is how effective your match up is at shooting. Guarding a shooter versus a non-shooter completely changes the dynamic of your defense. A shooter requires your complete attention at the perimeter and severely limits your ability to help off-ball. However, guarding a non-shooter allows you to take a few steps inside the arc and be a help defender to a certain extent. Watch Al Horford here do just that.
The ball is dumped in to Saric because the Sixers think they have the mismatch there. While they do have Saric guarded by a much smaller defender, Baynes is quick to double him. But there’s a reason Baynes is able to get away with leaving his man. Horford is guarding Simmons, infamously a non-shooter, and because of that he can leave Simmons on the perimeter and cover for Baynes while he forces the ball out of Saric’s hands. As Saric kicks to the perimeter, Rozier is able to contest the three, albeit a little later than you would want, and force a miss. The important thing here is that Philadelphia had a huge mismatch in the low post that Boston was able to erase thanks to smart team defense.
On the other hand, if you’re guarding a capable shooter who is also long and likes to drive and finish at the rim, you have to adjust your strategy quite a bit. Watch this clip of Paul George.
Paul George is an effective scorer from both the perimeter and in the paint. But his weakness lies in his playmaking. While he isn’t a selfish player, his playmaking ability is certainly not a strength. Knowing this, the Jazz guard the pick and roll perfectly. Derrick Favors is defending the screener, but when his man sets the pick Favors steps out and forces George back to the middle of the floor, which seems counter intuitive but actually prevents the screener from having the space to roll to the basket. Stop the clip at 0:02 and take note of where Paul George is with the ball, and where every Jazz defender is; they have him surrounded and without a single easy passing lane open. He’s forced to take a heavily contested shot and the Jazz are going the other way.
Knowing a player’s strengths and weaknesses and operating on them as entire unit is a critical aspect of playing effective defense. Being able to recognize these traits isn’t a skill, but a matter of proper preparation and observation and those can go a long way, especially on defense.
Playing great team basketball is the combination of a lot of little things adding up to make every play difficult for the offense. Being not just a great individual defender, but a great team defender, can be just as important and if everyone is on the same page, you can create plays like this regularly:
Watch how every single person moves fluidly as one. No gaps, no flaws, and no ultra-athletic and dominant defender necessary. Each player doing their small part to be where they need to be and recognize what is happening in front of them is enough to make a lockdown defense.