Basketball and the Night Watch.
On Breaking Presses and Killing Snakes
A young coach I know recently asked me about how to attack a zone press. I responded with two so-called 'rules of thumb' that I acquired over the years 1) attack zone presses by in and out passing 2) don't react to it; attack it. The first part was pretty basic knowledge that most coaches would tell you; the second part was knowledge learned the hard way, via personal experience.
My first traumatizing ass kicking happened the first year I coached, a middle school boys B team who were drubbed by thirty points by a mid-court 1-3-1 trap. I felt that we had we lost because I didn't know what to do. Later that season, we returned the favor because I had learned four important lessons. The first was to keep a safety across and slightly behind the point guard (two guard front) which allowed us to change the angle of the entry if needed. Next, we threw over the top of the first line of defense, but the most important lesson was teaching that first receiver what to do when he received the pass which was to take it as far away from where the first trap would have been in order to make the defenders have to run a longs ways (creating gaps by making the defense have to cover space). We then dribbled or passed the ball into those gaps and attacked the back side weakness of the press. Finally, we unleashed our own full court trap on them (Rule of Thumb: Most pressing teams don't like being pressed themselves). When the coach had the audacity to complain that I kept the press on until we had a thirty point lead, I responded by saying, "Well, it didn't seem to bother you all that much the first time."
Most lessons that I have learned about breaking presses were not all that immediate; they have taken years to learn and were usually prompted by someone teaching me the lesson like one of those old school teachers using a yardstick to drum the point home. The last really important lesson that I've learned was when one of the best teams I've ever coached was totally demolished by a great, probably the toughest team we ever faced, Edison High School girls team. That lesson was never to lead your point guard into the corner to be trapped. Since that night, I've always screened one of my bigger players into the corner and reverse pivot-posted my screening point guard in the center where she had more room to operate. We also began to use jailbreak concepts to get the ball out and moving forward. There were times when we placed our attacking wings as far away as the opposite corners. We usually didn't have an in-bounder who could throw it that long, but by then, I had also had picked up another important rule of thumb which was 'never overestimate the intelligence of the opposing coach' (The opposite is just as true which is a much more painful lesson to learn).
Placing those attacking wings that deeply means the other coach has to deal with it; you can't just leave people that near your basket unguarded. It creates coverage problems which allows your primary ball handler room to operate. More recently though, we placed our attacking forwards at half court to combat the more aggressively trapping teams. If their defenders are guarding up the line, we took them a few steps forward and then broke toward the basket. A jail break action would quickly turn the press break in a three-on-one fast break. This strategy served us well and made a lot of topflight pressing teams stop pressing us.
The success of the strategy led to logical conclusion that became one of the greatest 'rule of thumbs' that we employed which was 'you can be pressed all night unless you hurt the press'. Because of this truism, from the beginning of the season, we would attempt to drill it into our player's head that being pressed worked to our advantage. The value of teaching your players not to be fear a press cannot be overstated as a large part of a press's effectiveness stems from the panic and anxiety that it creates. I've seen way too many coaches who unknowingly increase the pressure on their own team by keeping too many players (with their defenders) in the backcourt to plug up the escape routes.
It was a friend asking for advice that inspired me to write this. I have a whole pile of strange shit in my head, painfully learned, most of it, that I sit on the top of like a fat dragon guarding his pile of gold. I generally try not offer people unsolicited advice (unless I've been drinking in which case, I start talking prolifically as a nervous school girl on her first date). I've been reading this great book Primal Wisdom of the Ancients: The Cosmological Plan for Humanity. It's about this tribe in Africa called the Dogon who have been guarding some ancient cosmological knowledge concerning the origins of the universe for thousands of years. They will share what they know with anyone as long as long as that person can keep asking the right questions. I've seen enough glazed over looks and rolled eyes when I've forgotten that rule to not know how jealously we each guard our own thought processes and prerogatives. I fully understand that.
But another lesson that I've learned is that we humans have a tendency to listen and learn more when we have been emotionally aroused. There ain't nothing quite emotionally stimulating as getting your ass kicked by thirty points because you don't how to handle a press. Rather than go through that twice, it is probably advisable to go ask an old person how to avoid getting bit by a snake. He/She might roll their own eyes at you, but chances are they'll answer something to the effect, "You got nothing to fear from a dead snake, Pilgrim."
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