Fast Breaks

Any team will occasionally have to confront a fast break against. Sometimes these will result in shots which the defense never has a chance to avert. But more often than not, the defense will be able to at least contest the play, even if on unfavorable terms.

A defender faced with an emerging fast break has the same two priorities mentioned in the introduction: get in front of the play first, and get in a good position second. The key thing is to choose, in a fraction of a second, the correct pursuit angle to get ahead of the ball, by choosing a spot on the floor and running hard towards it. If this exercise is undertaken in the vicinity of the ballhandler, one must be extremely conscientious of that player’s movement and as ready as possible to react should the offensive player make a quick cut to alter the angles involved.

Once one is in front of the offensive player, one is in a position to influence the play, and should establish a good defensive stance as quickly as possible. If at least one defensive player is able to get back ahead of the play, s/he (or they) confront the need to suppress the scoring opportunity long enough for teammates to recover and stabilize the situation (assuming the latter show any desire to do this). Obviously, the first player back must play goalie, and if only one is back, i liable to face a difficult shot, or a succession of them if saves are actually made (fellow defenders tend to be parsimonious with their caloric reserves when a goal seems likely, a fact that has occasioned a few spectacular chains of goalie stops – oftener than not capped by a goal finally allowed just when defenders are being shamed into trying to join the play).

Second and subsequent players back play a rapidly developing situation by ear; if at all possible, a defender in this situation should avoid committing as long as possible, and cover at least partially multiple offensive possibilities. When in doubt, it is almost never a bad play for a defender to run to the spot in the central alley, three or four yards in front of the goalie, and evaluate from there. When covering a situation in space, width is critical for controlling the offense’s options: as wide and low a stance as is consistent with a player’s free movement, with the racquet low and extended from the body. Defensive players must take care never to be beaten in a fast break; they are simply too scarce a commodity to send themselves hurtling out of the play on an ill-considered mission to challenge the ball. It must be borne in mind that the offense has put itself in a commanding position, and if it executes crisply it should expect to score. The defense grades on a curve: in many cases, fast break defense is successful if it allows nothing more than a mid-range shot of the sort that would represent a successful outcome for the offense if it resulted from a settled situation.

The ball, of course, must be accounted for first, unless it happens that the ball handler is such a weak player that the defense’s best percentage is to force him/her to shoot. Generally, however, it is worth marking the ball carrier with enough aggression (and no more) to force a pass, even a pass to a wide-open player with a great shot, simply because it introduces more variables into the play that could trip up the breakaway: the ball handler, under pressure, might give it away; the pass might glance off the defender or go awry; a play even slightly slowed might give another defender enough time to get back and interfere. What is true for one pass is truer for two, or three, and for one-on-one offensive moves if a defender is able to establish position and balance, and for any battle for control of the ball... every additional play the offense must make to set up its shot compounds the prospects for error and buys teammates time to even up the fray. Even more precious are outright delays; assuming (optimistically) that the defenders on the wrong half of the floor are hurrying to get into position, the offense has only a few seconds to make good its advantage. Rarely is the defense in a position to impose passivity on the attackers, but when it arises of its own accord, it must be encouraged. A player with the ball who shows indecision, or who appears committed to passing and not interested in a shot, must be forced to hold the ball as long as possible; defenders in this instance can lay off the ball and overplay the pass.

Since the offense in a fast break usually has an excellent chance of scoring, the defense can be unusually aggressive about seizing takeaway chances. There is never a need for foolhardiness, but a legitimate chance to get ones racquet on the ball is almost always well-taken here. This goes for the goalie as well, although goalies need to be judicious with the natural urge to charge a player breaking in on the goal. While a larger profile does cut down angles, this play also gets the goalie off-balance and could enable the offensive player to step around them for a wide-open shot or make a simple chip past the keeper that would be impossible from more than a few steps’ distance. Sometimes the best play is to stay home and react or guess right.