10 Keys to Great Transition Defense

Transition defense was never more important in the history of the game of basketball then it is today. The evolution of the game itself went from big and strong guys, and their only goal was to get close to the basket throughout the series of passes, to the faster, lighter guys whose goal is to run the floor as fast as they can and to get into the position for a flashy layups or an open threes.
Our teams have to run more, our teams have to run fast, our teams have to be thought that it all starts with defending the transition and getting into the organized positional defense.

As we know, in today's basketball, layups and three point shots are go to solutions, so the goal of every good defense, and not just transition defense, is to prevent those attempts. What we really want to do is to make offense take some mid-range jumpers and we want them to take those shots from the bad positions.

Here are 10 rules of transition defense that are going to help you get organized on protecting the breaks:

1. 2 Players Back on the Shot

First two players sprint back

Two players that are closest to your own basketball need to run back. When they see that the ball is flying towards the rim, they need to sprint towards the center and to turn back and scan the floor in order to get organized. Some of the coaches love to send 3 players on the offensive glass, I think that you can do that with the teams that do not run the floor well. With the teams that like to push the pace i think just the centers are enough to do the work.

2. Sprint

Good coverage by running the lanes

It is very important to beat your players on the way to defense. First three steps are the most important in starting a good transition defense. Being faster then the opponent means that you are going to position yourself between the ball and the offense and you will have a chance to defend. And here we have to emphasize condition and good defensive habits that your players posses.

3. Get below the ball

Sprint back

The main goal of a good transition defense is that all of your players get below the ball. This means that everybody needs to be hold accountable in terms of running back on defense each and every time. No matter what if its a good or a bad match, we must try every time to keep defensive composure and to contain the ball. If we want to play our transition defense this particular way, then our players has to be able to do these 3 things:

  • run the floor under the 4 seconds period,
  • they need to avoid risky steal attempts and
  • not to try and poke the rebounder.

4. Guard the transition, not your match up

Guard the transition

A good transition defense demands that the players are covered. There is not a universe in which your player is searching for his player and leaving the other to be alone running the lanes. The goal of a good transition defense is to cover all the defensive players and to get everybody on the half-court. Only then we can think about switching and making good match-ups.

5. 2 defenders back are in a pair, 3 are in the triangle zone

3 on 2 situation
PG is in a 2 on 1 situation

This is the defensive position when we have just two players who are involved in transition defense. They need to position themselves in a line. First player (PG) needs to contain the ball-handler/player leading the break. When the pass goes to one side, player that is under the basket/in the center of the paint (SG) needs to run towards that player and to close the penetration lane. The player that was in front needs to come down and fill his spot inside the paint area.

The goals:

1. Prevent a layup (after the first pass, the player that is coming from the paint and defending the penetration line need to do a good closeout. That means that he needs to sprint half way to the player that now has the ball, and then to get low in the stance and to try and make him take a jumper from the bad angle).

2. Force a mid-range shot

3. Force the offense to make more then 2 passes

triangle zone
two players protect the paint

When we have 3 defenders then they form a triangle zone. Again, the first player in front (PG) is containing the ball and two others are on the sides of the paint. When the ball goes to one side, player from the same side needs to step on the penetration lane (SG), the player that is in front is just sliding down a bit towards the free throw line (PG), and the player on the weak side of the defense needs to step in the center of the paint (SF).

The Goals of this transition defense situation is the same as the previous: Protect the layup, force a bad shot or make them pass the ball more.

In real game situations, if the team is running good, after the first pass there will be someone who is going to catch the offense and help prevent easy buckets.

6. First Big protects the rim, Second Big helps with the ball

First big protects the paint, second is helping with the ball

A good transition defense is all about recognizing good opportunities and picking the right spots. If we take a look at our bigs, what we need from them is that the first one back needs to protect the rim and to secure the he need to get to the center of the paint, and the second one can help with the ball. In this diagram we can see that the Center (C) is the second big to get to defense, but what we can see also is that his man got the rebound and in majority situations they are tired to run fast on offense. This leaves time and space for our second big to try and double, or just slow down the ball handler.

7. Stop the penetration

Contain the ball
stop the dribble penetration
Step on the penetration lane

Layups are the most efficient shots in this sport. Whit that said, the conclusion is that the first thing that your team needs to do in order to have a good transition defense, is to stop penetration and to force passes and shots.

8. Shrink the court, pick the spots

Shrinking the court opens some opportunities

This is the upgrade from the previous point. If we are able to take away the penetration, next level in building up a good transition defense is to make the other team shoot low % shots. If we know that the corner three is the most emphasized shot from the range, we are going to try and to make the other team shoot from the 45-degree spot or from the point. If your organization has the possibility to watch some film and to have some info on the opponents, then you are going to try and take away those sweet spots from them.

Sometimes, a fast break can be used as an advantage, because a lot of teams are not coached well so they learn things mechanically and not in a "read and react" manner. Because everything is happening so fast, and if your team plays a good and meaningful defense in transition, there will be opportunities to turn the situation around.

9. Make them throw at least two passes

Two passes on transition are a chance for a good defense

More passes on fast brakes means more time for the defense to consolidate. If we take a look at the picture, we are going to see two passes in 3 on 2 situation made from PG to SG and then from SG to SF. While those two passes took place, PF had time to get back on defense and help.

In real game situations teams usually have 2 seconds to score, after that the defense is assembled and the traditional offensive sets can go to work.

10. Comunicate

Communicate all the time

Communication is everything in basketball, they use to say. The more information the player has the better can he execute both on offense and defense. Teach your players to talk even when there is no need to talk. Sometimes it can just be cheering, but on the other times it is the crucial peace of info that is going to make a difference.


1. 5 on 5 Advantage

5 vs 5 advantage
  • Offense (Blue) are standing in line and under the free throw line. All 5 of them are going on offense (green path)
  • Defense (Red) , three of them, are standing in a line and above the free throw line. They are going to play transition defense (yellow path)
  • Two other defenders are going to catch up on defense after the first offensive player steps over the center (purple path)

2. From 1 on 1 to 5 on 5

From 1 on 1 to 5 on 5

The drill starts with two players, one on offense and one on defense. Every round 1 player is going to join the drill until its 5 on 5 game.

If you want to learn more about transition defense, go rent a DVD by clicking on the link:

Jun 03, 2019 Viktor Sadikovic

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