New Trend of NBA Defensive Schemes: Gap Help
by Berkay Terzi / [email protected]
In the NBA, there are clear differences between regular-season defense and playoff defense. When it comes to the playoffs, teams can’t even tolerate the slightest weakness, and the players who create weaknesses can’t find a place on the court. The focus of defense is shifting more than ever on superstars. NBA coaches resort to various ways to limit these stars who are creating many positions. They want to prevent the advantages they will get. Although there are many strategies for this today, the most common one is Switch defense.
First, we need to find the answer to the question: Why do teams prefer Switch defense so much nowadays? Pick-and-Roll offense is now basketball’s most popular direction. Utah Jazz used P&R offense an average of 45.5 times in the 2021–22 NBA season, including playoff games. That’s 41.2% of the Utah Jazz’s offensive positions. For Phoenix Suns led by Chris “Point God” Paul, that statistic is 39.8%. These are extremely serious figures.
The biggest goal of offensive teams is to create an advantage for easy bucket chances. Pick-and-Roll plays are cut out for this. There are certain risks in Pick-and-Roll defensive strategies: the ball-handler’s defender may get caught in the screen and fall out of the game, help defenders may make mistakes in defensive rotations, or easy chances may be created through the screener/roller. That’s where the beauty of Switch defense begins. When you defend the P&R action by switching defenders, you are preventing any opportunity from the start.
- Switch defense pushes the opponent to play an isolation-weighted, low-tempo offense.
- In other P&R defensive strategies, almost every player has a role. But the Switch defense only takes place between two defenders. After the switch, all five defenders stay in front of the ball and their man. It requires less responsibility and less effort.
- If the opposing team’s offense is based on P&R actions, one of the best ways to slow them down is to switch. This is where Miami’s superiority over Atlanta in the first round of the Playoffs comes from. Of course, the players have to be physically suitable for this. Miami Heat players are made for Switch defense.
But the NBA’s talented offensive players quickly found a solution. Star names, like Luka Doncic, use the screens to confront the opponent’s weak defenders. In this way, they create an advantage for themselves by turning the weaknesses of the defense into a mismatch. When this happened, NBA teams resort to a different defensive strategy: Gap Help.
It is not used only in the case of a mismatch. It is also preferred many times to prevent attacks to the rim. In the playoffs, for example, the Boston Celtics’ Kevin Durant defense and the Miami Heat’s Trae Young defense included Gap Help. So what is this Gap Help?
Off-ball defenders who defend in the wings will stand in the gap between their man and ball-handler. They’re shading in driving lanes and deterring the ball-handler but not completely leaving their man. Even if the players attack the gap, there is much less space. They shrink the floor for the ball-handler. It’s called Gap Help. But basketball terminology is an area where similar things can be called differently. So, this concept can also be called Shade, Showing Double, or other forms that I don’t know about.
This strategy is nothing new and is not being used for the first time, but it has been tried by almost every team in the 2022 NBA Playoffs. Of course, it is not possible to reach a statistic of this, but the “eye test” confirms this.
As you can see, the Boston Celtics defense is trying to reduce the disadvantages of “mismatches” by clogging up the gaps, first against Giannis Antetokounmpo and then against Kevin Durant. The threat posed by Giannis causes the off-ball defenders who defend the players behind the arc to be closing more. Grant Williams and Derrick White close driving lanes to direct Giannis to a difficult shot. Giannis, whom we know, would go to the rim with wide steps in this position and try to score against contact. But the presence of Grant and White changes things.
Anthony Edwards normally tries to get to the rim in any position he sees Ja Morant in front of him. This is a perfect mismatch opportunity for Edwards. The same goes for the Trae Young-Max Strus matchup in the second position. The difference made by the Gap defense can be seen here as well. The fact that Desmond Bane and P.J. Tucker shade the driving lanes, showing double and closing the space discourages both star players from the idea of going to the rim. Both players hurriedly and desperately get the ball out of their hands. Following, Bane and Tucker turned defense to offense thanks to their active hands in passing lanes.
In Gap Help, where the defender stands and how close he gets to the ball-handler can depend on the coach’s choices and the threat posed by the opponent. NBA defenses often use a mixed strategy, approaching each offensive player differently. We can explain this with examples from the Miami Heat-Boston Celtics series.
With the ball in the hands of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, the Gap defender does not leave his position and does not empty the driving lane. It is aimed to close the gaps as much as possible and to get the ball out of the hands of the stars.
When the ball reaches Marcus Smart, the defender simply jumps towards the ball and then pulls himself back (dig). This puts pressure on the offensive player but not as much as the double teaming. If the person driving to the rim is Payton Pritchard, Gap Help is not used. Defenders stay with their men when Pritchard uses the ball because this is exactly the scenario Miami wants.
Other examples from the 2022 NBA Playoffs… The Miami Heat used it very successfully, especially on Trae Young and James Harden. On the other hand, Boston Celtics left Kevin Durant desperate with their flawless defensive setup. The Dallas Mavericks and Luka Doncic attacked successfully against Gap Help.
If the opposing team places Gap defenders in the drive lanes, there are some ways the offensive team can take to remove the pressure on the player using the ball. The off-ball wing player held by the Gap defender can cut with a 45-degree angle from the wing to the rim and execute the counter move. (45 Cut)
In this case, two possible scenarios arise. First, the Gap defender can move with the cutter and clean out the driving lane. In this way, the pressure on the ball-handler is relieved and the space becomes wider.
The second scenario is as follows: The Gap defender prefers to keep his position or does not see the cutter because he is watching the ball. In this case, the cutter can get an easy chance.
Luka Doncic took DeAndre Ayton as a matchup at the top. The Phoenix Suns are placing Gap defenders at the elbows. The Suns are also putting Chris Paul and Devin Booker in boxes to hide them on defense. The main purpose is to build a wall in the perimeter defense and don’t let Luka run through. Otherwise, two guards will become help defenders. But the cut made by Maxi Kleber allows the position to result in two easy points.
This clip shows us a different way to turn the Gap defense into an advantage. Marcus Smart, on the weak side, screening Jaylen Brown’s defender with a smart move. This off-ball screen makes it difficult for Wesley Matthews to reach Jaylen Brown in the corner and contest shot. That creates a wide-open three-point chance for Brown.
Because the Dallas Mavericks placed all of their players behind the arc with their 5-Out offensive formation, they had more space in the paint. But Horford’s presence in the dunker-spot also keeps Giannis in the paint. In this situation, it makes much more sense to do what Marcus Smart did. Because Holiday’s focus is entirely on Jayson Tatum, Wesley Matthews has to defend 2-on-1 on the weak side.
*The weak side in basketball is a term used to describe the area of the court that does not have the ball.
Another option: The player on the wing moves to the corner (drift), while the player in the corner makes a backdoor cut.
In Gap Help, the main focus of the defenders is on the ball-handler, so cuts from behind can damage the defense. The defensive team has trouble sharing players in such situations.
Gap Help is also included in the Pick-and-Roll defense. This strategy, called Drop Load, loads extra players into the driving lanes to reduce the disadvantages of Drop defense. We can say that it is more effective against side P&R actions. But first, let’s review the Drop defense.
In the Drop strategy, the ball-handler’s defender fights the screen, trying not to fall out of the play, and follows the position from behind. The screener’s defender takes the rim on his back and backpedals, trying to keep both of screener and the ball-handler under control. He should not allow the opposing player to get behind him. The main goal here is to protect the paint and keep the opponent away from the rim.
The clip above shows a clear example of this. Drop is mostly preferred by slow bigs. But Drop defense has significant flaws:
- Allows open mid-range shots, and pull-up three-pointers. It leaves a lot of space in the mid-range area. It’s a situation that teams don’t prefer in the playoffs.
- Vulnerable against Pick&Pop actions. Defenders on the sidelines need to stunt & recover.
- Puts a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the ball-handler’s defender. If possible, should not let the opposing guard pass through the screen. If he falls out of the position easily, the opposing guard can go to the basket or shoot a pull-up.
P&R is never an action played on 2v2. Other players on the court are also involved in this play as much as possible. Drop Load is one of the best examples of this. NBA coaches are involving a third defender in the Drop defense to prevent the opposing guard from crossing the screen and going to the rim. The nearest Gap defender slips to the driving lane when the opposing guard passes through the screen and turns the corner. There’s a very similar logic to Gap Help.
As we all know, Anthony Edwards is one of the best offensive threats in the league. He has a combination of talent, athleticism, and size. After going through the screen of Jarred Vanderbilt, he can play the position very differently. But Dillon Brooks’ help from one pass away deters Edwards. The Memphis Grizzlies cover up the flaws of the Drop defense in this position.
In this strategy, the biggest responsibility falls on the off-ball defender who brings gap help. After coming to help, he needs to quickly return to his man. Just like Dillon Brooks did. With the bigger court sizes in the NBA, it’s not as simple as it seems. If this recovery doesn’t happen quickly, the offensive player on the wing may get an open-shot opportunity. An athletic offensive player who attacks well to the close-outs can catch up with defender unbalanced, attack the rim and force the opponent into defensive rotation.
X-Out can be used in this position to avoid giving so much space to the shooter on the wing. Here’s how the X-Out works: After Brooks comes to help, Kyle Anderson (in the corner) will fill the player that Brooks left open, and then Anderson’s man will be filled by Brooks. Thus, an X-shaped switch will take place. However, this may not be preferable because it will be a risky, effort-demanding, and unusual rotation.
Other examples from the Drop Load strategy… Drop Load is useful because it restricts the open shot opportunity and also allows the big defender to maintain his position. However, if the offensive player, whom the Gap defender left empty on the wing can punish the team that uses Drop Load. It’s hard to find the perfect strategy in basketball, especially on defense. When you’re trying to fix one side, you give a deficit from the other.