The New Direction of NBA Defensive Schemes: Helping the Gap

by Berkay Terzi / [email protected]

In the NBA, there are clear differences between regular season defense and playoff defense. When it comes to playoffs, teams can’t afford even the slightest weakness, and players who create weaknesses can’t find a place on the field. Defense’s focus is shifting more than ever to the stars. NBA coaches resort to various methods to limit these superstars who create many positions. They want to block the benefits they will get. Although there are many strategies to this day, the most popular one is the switch defense.

First, we need to find the answer to the question: Why do teams prefer switching defense so much nowadays? Pick-and-Roll offense is now the most popular basketball trend. The Utah Jazz used a P&R attack averaging 45.5 times in the 2021-22 NBA season, including playoff games. That’s 41.2% of the offensive positions in the Utah Jazz. For the Phoenix Suns led by Chris “Point Judd” Paul, that statistic is 39.8%. These are very dangerous characters.

The biggest goal of offensive teams is to create an advantage for easy bucket chances. Pick-and-Roll plays are cut for this. There are some dangers in defensive pick-and-roll strategies: a player’s defender might get stuck on the screen and fall out of the game, he might help defenders make mistakes in defensive turns, or easy chances might be created by the checker/roller. This is where the beauty of Switch defense begins. When you defend a P&R action by switching defenders, you block any chance from the start.

  1. The switch defense pushes the opponent to attack the isolation weight and low tempo.
  2. In other P&R defensive strategies, almost every player has a role. But the Switch defense only happens between two defenders. After the switch, all five defenders remain in front of the ball and their leg. It requires less responsibility and less effort.
  3. If the opposing team’s offense is based on push-and-resistance measures, the best way to slow it down is by substitution. This is where Miami’s win over Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs comes from. Of course, players must be physically fit for this. Miami Heat players are made for Switch Defense.

But the talented offensive players in the NBA quickly found a solution. Superstar names, such as Luka Doncic, use screens to counter the opponent’s weak defenders. In this way, they create an advantage for themselves by turning defense weaknesses into a mismatch. When this happened, NBA teams resort to a different defensive strategy: Gap help.

It is not used only in case of mismatch. Also preferred multiple times to prevent edge attacks. In the playoffs, for example, the Boston Celtics’ Kevin Durant defense and Miami Heat’s Trey Young defense included Gap Help. So what is this gap help?

Gap help

Defenders off the ball who defend on the wings will stand in the gap between their player and the goalkeeper. They shade the driveways and deter the ball handler but never completely let go of their man. Even if players attack the gap, there is much less space. They’re shrinking the ball handler’s floor. it’s called Gap help. But basketball terminology is an area where similar things can be named differently. Therefore, this concept can also be called the shadowAnd the double widthor other forms I don’t know about.

This strategy is not new and is not being used for the first time, but it has been tried by almost every team in the 2022 NBA playoffs. Of course it is not possible to come up with a statistic for this, but an “eye examination” confirms this.

As you can see, the Boston Celtics’ defense attempts to reduce its “mismatch” drawbacks by bridging the gaps, first against Giannis Antetokounmpo and then against Kevin Durant. The threat posed by Giannis causes defenders to close off the ball who defend the players behind the arc more. Grant Williams and Derek White closed the drive lanes to channel Giannis into a tough shot. Giannis, who we know, was going over the edge with strides in this situation and trying to score in the net. But Grant and White’s presence changes things.

Anthony Edwards usually tries to get to the edge in any situation Ja Morant sees in front of him. This is a perfect mismatch opportunity for Edwards. Same goes for the Trae Young-Max Strus match for second place. The difference made by Gap’s defense can be seen here as well. The fact that Desmond Payne and PJ Tucker shaded the drive lanes, showing duplication and closing space, discourages both players from the idea of ​​going over the edge. Both players get the ball out of their hands quickly and forcefully. Next, Bane and Tucker switched from defense to offense thanks to their active hands in the lanes.

In assisting the gap, where the defender stands and how close he is to the ball handler can depend on the coach’s choices and the threat posed by the opponent. NBA defenses often use a mixed strategy, approaching each offensive player differently. We can explain this with examples from the Miami Heat-Boston Celtics series.

With the ball in the hands of Jason Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Gap defender never leaves his position and does not empty the driving lane. It aims to fill in the gaps as much as possible and get the ball out of the stars’ hands.

When the ball reaches Marcus Smart, the defender simply jumps towards the ball and then pulls himself back (dug). This puts pressure on the attacking player but not as much on the double team. If the person driving the car to the ledge is Payton Pritchard, the Gap Assist will not be used. Defenders stay with their men when Pritchard uses the ball because that’s exactly the scenario Miami wants.

Other examples from the 2022 NBA playoffs…the Miami Heat used them with great success, particularly in Trae Young and James Harden. The Boston Celtics, on the other hand, left Kevin Durant desperate with his flawless defensive setup. The Dallas Mavericks and Luka Doncic successfully attacked against Gap Help.


If the opposing team places jab defenders in the driving lanes, there are a few ways the offensive team can take the pressure off the player using the ball. The player outside the ball caught by the Gap defender can cut at an angle of 45 degrees from the flank to the edge and perform the countermovement. (45 pieces)

In this case, two possible scenarios emerge. First, the Gap Defender can move with the cutter and clean the drive lane. In this way, the pressure on the ball handler is relieved and the space becomes wider.

The second scenario is as follows: a Gap defender prefers to hold his position or does not see the breaker because he is watching the ball. In this case, the cutter can get an easy chance.

Luka Doncic took DeAndre Ayton as a match at the top. Phoenix Suns put Gap defenders in the elbows. The Suns also put Chris Paul and Devin Booker in boxes to hide them in defense. The main purpose is to build a wall in the defense of the perimeter and not let Luca pass. Otherwise, it will become two guards who help the defenders. But the cut made by Maxi Kleber allows the positioner to produce two easy points.

This clip shows us a different way to turn Gap’s defense into an advantage. Marcus Smart, on the weak side, checks the Jaylene Braun defender with a clever move. This non-spherical screen makes it difficult for Wesley Matthews to reach Jaylen Brown into the corner and compete for the shot. This creates a wide open three-point opportunity for Brown.

Since the Dallas Mavericks put all of their players behind the arc with their offensive 5-Out formation, they had more room in the paint. But Horford’s presence in the dunker-spot also keeps Giannis in the paint. In this case, it makes sense to do what Marcus Smart did. With Holiday’s focus entirely on Jayson Tatum, Wesley Matthews has to defend 2-on-1 on the weak side.

* Weak side in basketball is a term used to describe the area of ​​the court that does not contain the ball.

Another option: the player on the wing moves to the corner (drift), and the player in the corner cuts the tailgate.

In Gap Help, the main focus for defenders is on handling the ball, so cutting from the back can damage the defense. The defensive team has a hard time engaging players in such situations.

drop download

The gap assist is also included in the Pick-and-Roll Defense. This strategy, called Drop Load, loads additional players into driving lanes to reduce drop defense flaws. We can say that it is more effective against side effects of P&R. But first, let’s review the drop defense.

In the drop strategy, the ball handler’s defender fights the screen, trying not to fall out of play, and follows the center from behind. The screen defender takes the edge on his back and back, trying to keep both the triage factor and the ball in check. The opposing player must not be allowed to stand behind him. The main objective here is to protect the paint and keep the opponent off the edge.

The clip above shows a clear example of this. Dropping is mostly preferred by sluggish adults. But the fall defense has significant drawbacks:

  1. It allows opening mid-range shots, and pulling triple pointers. It leaves a lot of room in the mid-range area. It’s a situation that teams don’t like in qualifying.
  2. Weak against Pick & Pop actions. Defenders on the sidelines need to recover and recover.
  3. It places a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of a defender dealing with the ball. If possible, you should not let the opponent’s goalkeeper pass through the screen. If he falls out of position easily, the opposing goalkeeper can go to the basket or perform a pull-up drill.

P&R is never an action played on 2v2. The other players on the field also participate in this play as much as possible. Drop Load is one of the best examples of this. NBA coaches engage a third defender in the drop defense to prevent the opposing goalkeeper from crossing the screen and going over the edge. The closest defender of the Gap slips into the driving lane when the opponent’s guard passes across the screen and turns into a corner. There is a very similar logic to Gap Help.

As we all know, Anthony Edwards is one of the best offensive threats in the league. He has a mixture of talent, athleticism and size. After going through Jared Vanderbilt’s screen, he could play the position completely differently. But help Dillon Brooks from one death Edwards deters. The Memphis Grizzlies cover up the flaws in fall defense in this situation.

In this strategy, the greatest responsibility lies with the off-ball defender who brings the assist gap. Having come to help, he needs to quickly get back on his feet. Just like Dillon Brooks did. With the largest stadium sizes in the NBA, it’s not quite as simple as it seems. If this recovery does not happen quickly, the attacking wing player may get an open shot opportunity. An athletic offensive player who attacks well can catch the unbalanced defender, attack the edge and force the opponent into a defensive rotation.

X-Out can be used in this mode to avoid giving too much space to the wing shooter. Here’s how X-Out works: After Brooks comes to help, Kyle Anderson (in the corner) will fill in the player Brooks left open, then Brooks will fill in Anderson’s man. Thus, an X-shaped switch will occur. However, this may not be the best because it would be a risky, effortless and unusual alternation.

Other examples of the Drop Load strategy… Drop Load is useful as it limits the chance of an open shot and also allows the top defender to maintain his position. However, if the attacking player, who is left empty by the Gap defender on the wing, he can penalize the team using Drop Load. It’s hard to find the perfect strategy in basketball, especially in defense. When you try to fix one side, you give a deficit on the other.

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