Basic Concepts: Fast Break

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The term "fast break" refers to those situations in the game of basketball in which the offense is attempting to push the ball up the court and score quickly, rather than running a play from their normal offensive set. This usually involves a temporary numerical advantage for the offensive team, as the defenders hurry to get back into position.

Any given fast break will last no more than a few seconds, but these are some of the most important seconds in a basketball game. Understanding the basics of the fast break is absolutely essential to playing basketball, or even watching it played.

For the offensive team, the goal of the fast break is to exploit the numerical advantage, and score a basket quickly. In order to facilitate this, it's important to maintain the proper spacing, so as to force the defenders to have to cover as much ground as possible. If the offensive players bunch together in the center of the court, then the outnumbered defenders can keep the from scoring, at leat long enough for the rest of the defensive team to arrive.

If you are on the offensive team on a fast break, but do not have the ball, you should stay well out toward the sidelines. You should aim your run down the court to cross the three-point line no closer to the cetner of the court than the point where the free-throw line would intersect it, and farther out would be better. After crossing the three-point line, you can angle toward the basket a bit, but stay outside the lane unless you are open for a pass.

If you are on the offensive team on a fast break, and have the ball, your best strategy depends on the number of offensive players with you on the break. If there are two offensive players attacking one or two defenders, you should also stay toward the sidelines, and dribble the ball to the same spot on the opposite side of the floor. If there are three offensive players attacking one, two, or three defenders, then you should dribble the ball to the middle of the floor, and head for the center of the free-throw line.

The goal for the offensive team on the fast break should be to get the easiest basket possible. Given a numerical advantage, one player should be unguarded by the defense, and the goal is to get that player the ball as close to the basket as possible. There are many ways of doing this, ranging from pure speed to faking the defenders into believing a pass will go to one side of the floor before throwing it to the other side. In general, the player with the ball should have a clear plan for how to score by the time they reach the free-throw line.

While many modern players will opt for a long unguarded jump shot, and many commentators will praise the taking of "transition threes," sensible commentators know that this is sub-optimal. Even the best long-range shooter shoots a lower percentage from three-point range than a competent player will shoot from two feet away. The goal of a fast break should be to get a shot from as close to the basket as possible; a shot taken from more than ten feet from the basket represents a failure by the offense.

Smart offensive players will recognize that possession of the ball is more important than getting a shot on the break, and if no lay-ups or short jump shots are available in a few seconds, will pull back and allow the rest of the team to catch up. A competently executed half-court offense can generate long jump shots any time, but open lay-ups are harder to come by. If the fast break does not yield a lay-up or very short jump shot, it's better to run the half-court offense than to rush a long shot.

The goal of the defensive team on a fast break is to prevent the offensive team from scoring long enough for the other defensive players to get back and negate the numerical advantage of the offense. The defensive team on a fast break is usually at a severe disadvantage, but good defensive play can limit the damage.

The highest priority of the defense on a fast break is to prevent a lay-up. Even the best long-range shooter shoots a lower percentage from three-point range than a competent player will shoot from two feet away, so any break ending in a shot taken from ten or more feet away represents a victory for the defense.

If you are on the defensive team on a fast break, your main objective has to be preventing the offense from getting an easy lay-up. Your ordinary defensive assignment does not matter. If you are playing man-to-man defense in regular play, you should not try to locate and guard "your" man; if you are playing zone defense in regular play, you should not attempt to occupy and guard "your" area. The fast break is a crisis situation, and every defensive player is responsible for stopping an easy basket. There will be plenty of time to re-establish the normal defensive order once all ten players are at the same end of the court.

If you are the sole defensive player in a fast break situation, you should immediately go to the free-throw lane, and guard the basket. Try to force the player with the ball into making a pass, but don't commit so strongly as to leave the other offensive players an open path to the basket. You can and should concede jump shots of ten or more feet-- just don't give up a lay-up.

If there are two defensive players in a fast break situation, one should immediately attack the offensive player with the ball, while the other guards the basket. Each player should clearly announce his or her intention (saying "I got ball" or "I got back," or some such), so that everybody knows their role. The goal of the player on the ball is to force the offensive player to make a pass that can be tipped or intercepted, while the goal of the player guarding the basket is to prevent a lay-up. If you are guarding the basket, and see a chance to deflect or steal a pass, by all means do so, but be very cautious. If you go too far trying to intercept a pass, you leave the basket open, and your top priority has to be to prevent a lay-up.

Even the best individual defensive players will end up being scored upon more often than not in a fast break situation. A good defensive player can make the offense take a more difficult shot than they otherwise would, though, and give the rest of the team a few crucial seconds to get back and help out. If a "fast break" play lasts more than a few seconds, either the offense or the defense is hopelessly incompetent, and should start over.

And those are the basics of the fast break in basketball.

(The basketball court graphic is cropped from the screenshot on this page.)

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Great explanation. Now you should go coach! Or at the very least go replace the screaming announcers who just praise coaches that have been around for a long time, players make mistakes, and coaches "coach them up". Please go replace Dick Vitale NOW!!!!!!

Very clear explanation! It would be great if this were the first installment in an occasional series of posts about basketball strategy and tactics.

By PhysioProf (not verified) on 10 Feb 2007 #permalink

Terrific post! I second the call for sequels. Now, if there were only some way to convert that image into a flash animation showing the various strategies.

While I'd agree that a long jumper is sub-optimal compared to an unguarded layup, it's still often a better option than a similar jumper in the half-court set. The reason is that a well-played fast break can improve your offensive rebounding opportunities, especially on a long jumper that is more likely to rebound long.

It's nice to see a really well-coached team do reverse box-outs when the trailer puts up the long 3 on a fast break.

While I'd agree that a long jumper is sub-optimal compared to an unguarded layup, it's still often a better option than a similar jumper in the half-court set. The reason is that a well-played fast break can improve your offensive rebounding opportunities, especially on a long jumper that is more likely to rebound long.

True, but that's more of a topic for the advanced course. This is just the "Basic Concepts" version...

(This was actually inspired by a particularly annoying pick-up game, in which one of my teammates kept guarding his man even on the break, and even if it left the basket completely open. I was about ready to strangle him, but I settled for veiled venting on the blog.

(If I do another of these, it'll probably be "Zone Defense," because the last couple of teams we've played in the intramural league have played zone against us, and it's driving me crazy.)