Xavi Pascual is currently the head coach of AXA Barcelona. Before joining the technical staff of Barcelona, he coached C. B. Aracena in LEB 2, winning the league title in 2003. In 2005, he became the Barcelona assistant coach, and in February 2008 was promoted to the head coaching job.
Before working on the various strategies we have to defend the direct middle screen, I will first introduce our main objectives for any defense of this particular game situation. They include the following:
1. Stop the ball
The defender of the man with the ball has to make sure that his opponent can’t play an easy one-on-one on the free side of the screen. Also, he has to be aware of the screen being set and must not be blocked in order to defend the line between his opponent and the basket.
2. Do not allow the pass to the player rolling after the screen
With the help the defender of the screener, or even the defender on the opposite side of the ball, we don’t allow any easy passes between the two players involved in the two-on-two.
3. Deny the passing lanes
Especially on the side where the screen is played, unless we don’t think a three-point shot will be taken by the first outside player on the ball side.
4. Keep running until we solve our defensive problems
Unless the offense overcomes one of our first three objectives or it makes a pass to the player we decided not to guard because of the defensive help. We work a lot on one-on-one situations, after the help and recover, to then be intuitive in shot situations or immediate one-on-one.
Starting from this point, and looking at the spots on the court of the offensive players not involved in the two-on-two (and at the technical characteristics of the opponent), we’ll think of the best defensive strategy to cover the direct middle screen. Once these three offensive scoring possibilities (the man with the ball, the pass to the player rolling after the screen, and the cover of the other passing lines) of the direct middle screen have been blocked, it will be important to recognize what will be the weak points of our defense.
We have five different defensive possibilities for the direct middle screen:
1. Going out in line with the screen
Sliding, preventing the offensive player with the ball from splitting the screen. The defender stays near the ball and attacks with hands down to stop the dribble or prevent a bounce pass. While the hands are up to stop a direct pass and/or a shot, the defender, who gets to the screen, aggressively slides above the screen. The big man recovers when the guard is ready to recover on his man (diagr. 1).
The big man slides to stop the ball and the guard slides aggressively above the screen, attacking the ball and maintaining the two-on-one on the player with the ball until he makes the pass. Our big man quickly recovers his man. Our big men switch only if the player with the ball goes very far from the basket and he needs to make a long recover (diagr. 2).
Slide to stop the first shot option, and then move backwards to stop the possible penetration. If the player with the ball drives to the basket, the big man tries to block or change the shot and switch, because the guard has to deny the pass to the screener, who rolls to the basket and then box out (diagr. 3).
4. Attacking the ball and forcing the player to change his way to the basket
The defender of the man with the ball goes behind his teammate. The big man recovers on his opponent if the roll after the screen is outside the three-point line. If 5 continues his movement going to the basket, our defense switches, and the big man will defend on the roll (diagr. 4).
Be aggressive with both hands in order to stop the man with the ball. In case of the roll to the basket, the defender can put himself in front of the dribbler to deny an inside pass, or switch with the big man, staying with the offensive center who is now away from the basket (diagr. 5).
Our idea is that while playing the defensive sets explained in the defensive possibilities above (see N. 3 and N. 5), the other defenders are not involved on covering this direct middle screen. On the other hand, we know that playing the other defensive possibilities (see the N. 1, 2, and 4), we’ll need the participation of more players to defend the direct middle screen. So we choose among the different defensive options based on the situations that develop on the court:
- Who is the offensive player who handles the ball in the direct middle screen: if he is a good shooter or a good driver, and his passing skills.
- The characteristics of the screener: tendency to go on the basket, or getting open, if he has the skills to play with contact or to pass.
- Position of the rest of the offensive players while a direct middle screen is being played; if there is a situation repeated by the other team and that we already know from scouting: deciding with whom to help with the roll and how to do the following rotations after the help.
- What is the position of the rest of our defenders, who do not initially cover this two-on-two situation.
In this way, for the same game we will have different defensive answers for the direct middle screen for any of the above situations.
We’ll now examine more closely our options 1, 2 and 4, and we’ll build all the defensive situations in a progressive way, starting from a two-on-one and two-ontwo to mechanize them, moving then to a three-on-three (with the guard defending on the weak side), four-on-four and, finally, five-on-five.
About two-on-one and one-on-one, the priority will be to pay attention to the details previously mentioned for each of the defensive options to reach our first goal: stop the scoring possibilities of the man with the ball.
In three-on-three, we’ll put a perimeter player, X3, on the weak side (diagr. 6), who, while the direct middle screen is being played, leaves his man to attack the roll of 5 to the basket, spotting on the line between the offensive player and the basket and putting his arm on the passing line, looking for the offensive foul if he’s late, or holding on the one-onone until the recovery of X5.
In case the defense stops both the ball and the roll (the two first goals) and the offense makes a lob pass to 3 on the weak side, X3 must sprint when the ball leaves the hands of 1, trying to steal the pass or defend the shot and the one-onone. The other defenders will have to adjust their position to the ball, changing quickly the side to fulfill our fourth goal (in case they beat us in this one-on-one, keep running until we stop this dangerous situation for our defense).
Once this concept has been assimilated, we add the fourth player. If we put him on the ball side, this will mechanize the “no help” from the strong side if 1 finds the way to the basket. At most, we’ll allow our defender to fake and recover on the passing line (with the body perpendicular to the line of the possible pass from 1 to 2). Then, we’ll develop the same work already done for the three-onthree, with the four-on-four (diagr. 7).
However, we’ll focus our work of fouron- four with two defenders on the weak side, that is from where we want to stop the direct middle screen. In diagram 8, we attack with 3 on the wing and 4 near the baseline, either outside or in the low post. While playing the direct middle screen, X3 will have to move to face 5, deny the direct pass inside, and keep him from going to the basket, until he reaches the free-throw line, and then to recover against 3 and defend this first passing line. If 5 drives to the basket, it will be the other defender on the weak side, X4, who will be involved and defend against the roll of 5, trying to deny the pass or to defend one-on-one near the basket.
If the play is finishing with X4 defending on the ball, X5 will switch, boxing out 4; otherwise X5 will recover against his man 5.
In case of a different set with 4 out on the wing or with two big men starting up high, we will have a different defensive answer (diagr. 9).
X4 will be the one involved in the roll of 5 to the basket, leaving his man until X5 has recovered after having stopped the player with the ball. In this pause of the direct middle screen, X3 will be the one, who will defend against the possible pass to 4, who will keep an open position for shooting or creating a triangle with 5. X3’s job will be the same as in the previous situation. In case the ball goes into his hands, we will have to react as explained before.
Also, we can find another situation with a screen set by 4, who is a player with a tendency to stay outside and play one-on-one facing the basket (diagr. 10).
In this situation, if 5 goes down to take a spot close to the basket after the direct middle screen, X4 will now have to stop the ball (following our rules, we will choose the above options N.1 or N.4) and he will recover on the flare cut after the screen of his opponent.
He will deny the passing possibility, with X2 defending on the passing line for 4, or faking and recovering with X4, if 4 is a player that we don’t consider a dangerous three-point shooter.