Concepts on Attacking Zone Defenses


One of the great credos I coach by is “teaching kids how to play, not how to run plays”. In no aspect of the game is this more evident than in attacking a zone defense. For me the best way to attack a zone is by concept not specific play. In the fantasy world that lives in my mind I would simply yell “Barcelona” the next time my team faces a zone, and this would unleash a conceptual assault upon our opponent forcing a time-out and/or a defensive change, if not outright, unending humiliation.

Barcalona, of course, was until this past Saturday the greatest soccer team in the world. They are famous for possession of the ball facilitated by sharp passing and fluid movement. Soccer features tactics, more akin to concepts, than plays, thus the tribute. Here are the concepts.

1. Mindset – Zones have a tendency to make teams static and passive. The result is a tendency to concede tempo and settle for jump shots. It is vital to attack the zone and take the shots you want. This has to be ingrained in your players. This is accomplished broadly with movement that manipulates the zone, and the patience to allow the manipulation to take effect. A cut, penetration or pass may break the structure of the zone, but the best available shot may still be a pass or two away.

2. Kill Zone – Every zone is exposed when ball gets in the middle, or kill zone as we call it at Winter Springs. With the ball in the middle, the zone is either compressed to protect the danger opening passing lanes to all parts of the floor, or it is caught exposed for direct attack at the basket. The ball can’t be trapped at this point either. The ball can reach the middle by flashing or penetration.

3. Attacking the Gaps- Every zone will present gaps, the area between two players in the zone that raises uncertainty over the coverage responsibility between the two players. Gaps can be attacked by putting a player in the gap and drawing a reaction, flashing a player into the game to recieve the ball in space, or penetrating into the gap to split it or compress the zone. The failure to react to a player in the gap creates an open shot, the reaction to the player creates an inbalance in the structure of the zone that can be exposed with a pass into the unbalanced area. Fundementally, attacking the gap manipulates the zone and makes the offensive team the aggressor.

4. Reading the Reaction – Once the zone has been manipulated, the other players on the floor must make a read to exploit the manipulation. The first “hot” area is the vacated space, or area from which the reacting defender just came. If a dribble penetrated the top of a 23 and draws the middle guy, the vacated space is the basket. This space is open until a rotation occurs. If your read and react beats the rotation it’s a lay up. If a wing penetrates the 23 and draws the top and bottom guy, there is vacated space at the top, in the corner, and in the bubble, the area behind the penetrator as he compresses the zone. I mentioned patience earlier, and it is important to realize that the first “hot” area may not yield a shot if the defense is active and alert, the ball must then move to keep the zone is scramble mode, again 2, 3 or 4 passes out of the manipulation may yield a shot, but the concept remains to keep the ball moving to the vacated space until the shot comes.

5. Screening the zone – Good zone defense is predicated on rotations depending on the position of the ball. My previous concepts have dealt with causing uncertainty in the responsibilities or rotation of the zone and beating it with speed of decision making. The alternative approach is to use screens to physically disrupt the rotations of the zone. Zones by nature require alertness to the ball which renders the vulnerable to back side screen actions. This is heightened by the fact that no individual defender is responsible for the screener making communication of the screen less likely. The consequent confusion can make the zone more tentative and less trusting of it’s component parts. Screening the zone is particularly useful with limited time, because it’s route to a desired shot is generally more direct.

6. Overload – This is most readily evident in using a two guard front against an odd, or one front, zone. This puts two players against one in a defined area of the floor. Crisp, but patient movement of the ball will manipulate this single defender, and tempt adjustment or cheating by the other players to advance the pace of the game. The adjustment or cheating is the manipulation of the zone that triggers an attacking sequence. This concept can be used in other areas of the floor such as employing a double high post against a 1-3-1 or 2-1-2, or overloading a side of the floor with four players. The overload will manipulate the zone, by causing it to rotate and match up with your alignment making it more of a man to man match up than a pure zone. This is unsettling to the zones defined positioning and rotations.

7. Matching – This is a counter-intuitive concept that has you match the alignment of the zone with your players. It forces the zone to play you man in a sense, and is advantagous when you have the superior individual players or your emphasis is to feed the ball into the post to attack. It is not a usual way of attacking a zone, and will make the zone uncomfortable with how to react.

8. Respect and Reversals – Attacking the zone requires that each player on the floor be a threat to the zone. All players on the catch must square to the basket, and be ready to attack. This requires a reaction from the defense. The more the zone is required to react to, the more likely they are to blow a rotation and yield a shot. Reversing the ball from side to side taxes and leaves them exposed as they re-orient themselves to the position of the ball. The reversal of the ball must be seen as an opportunity to attack, not just play horizontally.

The concepts are most effective if mixed, again with idea that the more that is required of the zone the more likely the breakdown. Varying concepts of attack create a variety and maintain attacking initiative.

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