Breaking the Full Court Press

Notice: This article was written by Steve Jordan, Coach's Notebook. Email the author at

Pressure Defense - Basketball's Irony

When a full court press is diagrammed on a chart showing the whole court, it's shortcomings are readily apparent. The main weakness is that the defense is spread all over the gym and most of the players are located far from the basket. Once the ball is advanced past the majority of the defenders, the usual result is an easy shot attempt. Despite the apparent shortcomings, full court presses succeed dramatically when they create the illusion of urgency in the mind of the offense and then take advantage of poor decisions on the part of the ball handler. When the defense recovers the basketball, it is usually in a position to score easily because of the numerical advantage it has at it's end of the floor. Each turnover and each easy basket helps undermine the opponent's confidence. Often, teams crumble into a state of panic, if only for a brief period, and lose enough points to decide the basketball game.

In this day and age, you must be able to cope with full court pressure to survive (or even hope to be competitive). And, it is a essential defense tool to have however you choose to employ it.

The Dark Side of Basketball

Teams that can impose an effective full court press are frequently drawn into the "dark side" of basketball.

Why? Read on.

The press is fairly easy to teach. Its purpose is not to create something, like a disciplined halfcourt offense does, rather it is designed to disrupt. Even elementary school kids catch on quickly to the press concepts. Because the offense, under duress, reacts in a few predictable ways, the defense just needs to learn a few positional options. The payoff is an easy shot - so who needs to learn offensive skills? There isn't much need for skill fundamentals of any kind. Do you have inexperienced players with above average athletic talent? Teach them to press. A quick and audacious press can wreak havoc upon "better" teams with a lot less effort from the coaches than conventional programs require.

The "dark side" of basketball has consequences as any endeavor will that takes the easy way out. Players become shallow and lazy as important parts of their game wither and atrophy from disuse. Teams become so dependent upon their pressure defense to score that they cannot succeed any other way. How many times have you watched games where both teams are pressing each other, and the combined score soars as one uncontested basket follows another? The overall defense is so poor that the team that called off its press first would probably win just by reducing the number of lay-ups by their opponents.

Teams dependent upon their press to score usually have a weak half-court offense. Once they are forced to play conventional basketball, they are ineffective, and where they appeared invincible pressing an inexperienced team, now look weak and confused.   Players will make poor choices when passing or selecting shots, often with unnecessary urgency, as if they can't wait to give up the ball and get back in their press again.

Once opponents break their press, how good is the fall back defensive plan? Press-dependent teams often have trouble in this situation because they cannot resist gambling and are caught out of position.

How to Break the Press - Mentally

The psychological part of press breaking is crucial. The players must understand that the defense is at great risk. The offense has the power because it has the ball. Only the offense can score. The defense must react to offensive decisions and is therefore subject to manipulation. Read the Analogies topic, "Basketball is like Chess". Here are the main things to remember:

  1. Do not panic. There is plenty of time to get the ball downcourt. Have the players stand together in practice and just remain silent for ten seconds. (Some youngsters never make it that long!). Let them get a feel for the 10 second duration they are allowed to get the ball past the half-court line. Most young teams try to get the ball upcourt in 3-4 seconds. There is no need for such urgency.
  2. Do not rush. Run the press breaker plays calmly. Some fast breaks will present themselves, but do not force them. By simply breaking the press and taking a reasonable shot, you have accomplished two things a) you got a good shot and b) you took away the pressing team's primary opportunity to score. Without the ability to score off the press, they may succumb to their own offensive ineptitude.
  3. Teach the players to recognize open areas on the floor that have been abdicated by the defense and take advantage of them. A 3-1-1 press, for example, has huge holes on the sides of the court. That press only works because the offense gets preoccupied by the three defenders hoping to capture the in-bound pass.
  4. Avoid conflict. It doesn't make sense to challenge the defense where they are strong. What are you trying to prove - that you can beat the odds? Pass the ball to where the defense is weak.

How to Break the Press - Physically

  1. Expect some bumps and bruises. Pressing teams are usually aggressive and rough and if they are behind, will do desperate things. Also, some officials condone that style of play, which makes it tougher. It is aggravating for the kids to come into the huddle scratched, bleeding and frustrated because the game is too physical. The point is to not whine about fouls because you cannot control the calls. Instead, protect the ball by following the steps below and stay calm.
  2. Do not dribble between defenders. This is a classic error made by ballhandlers. The odds of the ball being stripped away or control being lost are very high. In fact, it isn't necessary to dribble at all to break a press, just pass and cut.
  3. Dribblers must face the basket! Another classic error, one usually committed by teams who elect to beat presses by dribbling through them, is when the ball handler drives, meets opposition, then turns his back to the defense to protect the ball. At that moment he has created two disadvantages for his team: a) he can no longer see who is open down court, and b) defenders can slap the ball away from behind and score uncontested. If you have a star dribbler who seems successful in the younger leagues despite this habit, fix it now! Eyes should be towards the basket (and you should be relying on passing, not dribbling).
  4. Do not dribble into traps. It is pretty easy to recognize a trap developing. Ball handlers are herded or allowed to progress to a place (usually a halfcourt corner) where two players converge to block progress. The ball is either tied up for a jump ball, stolen outright or passed into the few remaining passing lanes. The answer is to avoid the trap by stopping and passing the ball to an open player (see diagram 1). It is dangerous to back up. The trap may chase you down. Pass - pass - pass.
  5. Do not pass over traps. The defense can easily block or deflect an overhead pass. Further, the apparent open teammate downcourt is probably being used as a decoy. Instead, pass around the trap.

Solving the Inbounds Pass

The pass from out of bounds is often the most challenging part of breaking a press. It is the one time when everything is static. Once the ball is moving down the court, its much easier to create openings. Remember, the defense needs predictability to gamble successfully, and the inbound pass against a press formation may present few options to the passer. Also, besides the defense, there are two obstacles to worry about, a) the backboard overhead, and b) the 5 second limitation to throw the ball in. Practice with these obstacles in mind so they do not surprise you in a game.

Remember! After the opponent has scored, you may use the entire length of the baseline to throw the pass in. Don't be shy about running sideways to avoid or decoy the defensive pressure before passing.

Also, be aware that the receiver will likely be immediately double-teamed. The easiest pass out of trouble is back to the passer who has just entered the playing area. If there is 1:1 coverage on the receiver, dribbling is OK, but not against a double team.

Here are three solutions:

  1. Look downcourt. Is some one wide open at half court? This is so simple, yet many passers miss obvious opportunities as their interest is consumed by the defense in their face, even though they are in a protected area (out of bounds). Teach your players to go to open spots on the floor and call or raise a hand for the ball.
  2. Get the ball directly to your ball handler by having him/her cut one direction, taking the defense along, then reverse sharply towards the ball. The passer must time the pass so that the ball and the receiver are moving towards each other. This solution is hard work. The receiver must move at least three steps be changing direction to get the defense to move enough. Many players try to shake the defense with a single step and do not get open. If the defense gets in front of the receiver, the passer may try to lob the ball over them both to use the receiver's positional advantage, but that pass is at risk of interception by another defenseman so use it with care.
  3. Use picks (my favorite). Set up two potential receivers on either side of the key. One breaks and sets a screen on the other's defender. After the teammate cuts and causes the defense to switch, the screener pivots and seals out the remaining defender. At that moment, the screener should be open for a pass. This is a good job for a big player that catches the ball well and enjoys passing. Make sure both don't break at the same time. One must wait and break after the screen is set, preferably the player that would be breaking towards the passer.

Bringing the Ball Upcourt

The theory proposed here is not to race the ball upcourt looking for a fast break basket. Certainly, if an easy opportunity presents itself, take advantage of it. But, the main concept here is to nullify the press and take away the opposition's ability to score from it. Progress up the floor is deliberate, conservative and seeks to avoid conflict where the defense is strong. (See Analogies from the Art of War).

pbe.GIF (2045 bytes) Once the ball is passed in-bounds, the next logical pass is back to the passer who has re-entered the court. At this point we have the ball in the middle of the floor with potential receivers on either side and a couple of finishers already waiting down the court. The passer is now the ball handler. Before the defense can cover him, the ball is passed to either side, forcing the defense to shift again, following the ball. The passer hangs back, away from the pressure altogether. The new ballhandler brings the ball up the side line watching for a trap to develop (see diagram)

Once the trap is set, the ball handler does not contest it, but instead rotates the ball back through the safety (player hanging back) who in turn moves the ball to the other side of the court. As you can see in the diagram, the player receiving the ball may have a wide opening to use to get behind the defense for a 3:2 advantage. If the advantage doesn't develop, no big deal because the ball is across the half court line and you can begin the half court offensive set.

The point is that the ball has been brought up safely. The opponent is not able to score easy baskets as they'd like off of their defense.

Things that can (and will) go wrong are:

  1. players dribbling too much and getting double teamed
  2. long passes intercepted
  3. players challenging traps and losing the ball
  4. players congesting near the ball instead of staying widely spaced

Favorite Press Breaker Patterns

1. Two on the Baseline

I saw the University of Utah do this (or something resembling it) at the Great Alaska Shootout a few years back and used it with success in the youth leagues. It starts with two players taking the ball out of bounds (fig 1.) and works well when the defense puts 3 men at the front of the press. Notice how the two out-of-bounds players are spread apart. Two more set up at the free throw line. The fifth goes down court for long pass or fast break possibilities.

At the command of the passer, the player furthest from the passer sets a pick as indicated (fig 2.). The other player at the free throw line cuts across the court while the ball is transferred to the other out of bound passer. You can see that the screener is now positioned well to receive a pass. The passer can now cut up court using the convenient screen available (fig 3.)

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fig 1. fig 2. fig 3.

This is an ideal case. The defense will try to adjust once they see the pay run a few times. But each adjustment will open a new hole. In figure 2, if the upper-left defender follows the blue player cutting to the right, the left passer can enter the court and be open.

Simple, No Pick Pressbreaker

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The path is easy to follow here. The upper left player cuts right then left to get open, then returns the ball to the passer.  The object is to bring the ball to the middle, then to the side. The original passer hangs back as a safety outlet to redirect the ball to the other side if needed. Rinse and repeat as needed.

Obviously, there is fast break potential here, but if the defense is fast enough to cut off the dribble, stop and use the safety outlet pattern shown at the right.

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