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Basketball Zone Defense:
The 2-3 Zone

The 2-3 basketball zone defense can be seen in almost any junior high and high school gymnasium. Every player has likely played it at one time or another; every coach has likely used it at one time or another. I'm no different, I guess.

As a rule, I don't like playing a zone. It slows the game down, and I like a fast game. And good man to man defense is almost always preferential to a set basketball zone defense - easier to apply pressure, easier to make sure no offensive players are wandering around unguarded, easier to match up on rebounds to box out. My teams play a lot of man to man.

But I will admit there is a place for zone defense in the game. When you are out-gunned in one area - e.g., when they have a really big guy that none of your players are able to take alone, the right zone will let you crowd him out of the play.

I use the 2-3 zone as a fall back. I don't use it as a main defensive strategy, but if I have my team in a half court press, for example, and the offense beats the press, having my team fall back into a tight 2-3 zone is easier and quicker than having them run around looking for their man. And the 2-3 has other benefits - it's easy to teach, fills up the lane and forces the offense to shoot from outside.

How the 2 - 3 Basketball Zone Defense Works

  • Players set up as indicated in the diagram - a two-guard front (#1 and #2), two forwards (#3 and #4) playing low and wide, and one center (#5) starting in the middle of the key

  • The players will line up more accurately according to where the offense is - e.g., if the offensive center is posting high, #5 will likely move up to the top of the key to front him

  • Note that playing a zone is often thought to be easier than playing man to man, which in fact isn't true - when playing a zone, players need to be able to pick up and play hard defense on anyone in their area of the zone, while at the same time watching for anyone else trying to slip into a gap in the zone, and all the while communicating clearly with their teammates so everyone knows what's happening - that's not easy
basketball zone defense - 2-3 zone 1

The 2 - 3 Basketball Zone Defense:
Adjustments for Pass to Wing

  • When the ball is passed to the wing, the guard and forward on that side need to understand who takes the ball carrier:

    • If the ball carrier is above the free throw line, then the guard on that side (#2 in our diagram) picks him up.
    • If the ball carrier is below the free throw line, the forward would pick him up

  • The weak side guard (#1) drops into about the middle of the free throw line to guard against anyone cutting across the top of the key

  • Strong side forward (#4) moves out if there is an offensive player in that area - he can deny the offensive player the ball but generally doesn't want to be pulled too far away from the key
basketball zone defense - 2-3 zone 2

The 2 - 3 Basketball Zone Defense:
Denying the Cuts

The way an offense beats a zone defense is to make it move out of position, to tear open gaps in its wall. If your players are chasing after cutters, there will be gaps opening up. Your players need to be aggressive and territorial - they cannot allow the offense to control their area.

  • With the ball on the side, the weak side guard (#1) steps in to front the point guard's cut down through the key

  • #1 is also able to front the weak side wing if he tries to cut across the foul line

  • #5 - the center - is mainly worried about the offensive center. A common movement for the center or weak side forward when the ball is passed to the wing is to cut to the top of the key, ball side. #5 needs to step in and front this cut, making it impossible for the pass to get in.

    • With both of these defensive assignments, the defensive player needs to get his body in the path of the cutter, force the cutter to stop or move in a different direction. The defensive players cannot be reactive, they cannot wait for the cut to happen and then play defense on the man - they need to force the cutter to turn away.
basketball zone defense - 2-3 zone 3

The 2 - 3 Basketball Zone Defense:
Locking the Back Door

  • The weak side forward (#3) must step into the key to guard the back corner of the key, behind the center

  • What he needs to watch for here:

    • if #5 is fronting the offensive center, #3 needs to be watching for the ball carrier to try to lob the ball over #5, so that the offensive center can step back and grab the pass on the basket side. If that happens, #3 needs to step in and grab the pass before the offensive center gets it, or stand his ground immediately behind the center so that when the center turns he runs into him - making an offensive foul.

    • Another common mistake made in this position is for #3 to move too high in the key or so far across the key that he leaves the back corner of the key open - a great opportunity for the weak side wing to sprint in for an easy layup
basketball zone defense - 2-3 zone 4

The 2 - 3 Basketball Zone Defense:
Positioning When the Ball is in the Corner

When the ball is passed to the corner, the forward on that side must come out to take the ball carrier

  • Everyone else drops a few steps lower to crowd the key and force the ball to be passed back out

  • With everyone so low and playing good defense, taking up as much room as possible, it becomes very difficult for the ball carrier to find a clear passing lane into the key, and if the ball does manage to get passed into someone, that player should be immediately double teamed
basketball zone defense - 2-3 zone 5

Players cannot be rigid in these positions - they need to move to where the offense is, adjust their positioning to be sure no holes in the zone are opening up.

When the 2 - 3 basketball zone defense is played well, the offense should have great difficulty getting the ball into the key or even the mid-range wing position, and should be forced to shoot the ball from far outside.

As I've said, I use this not as a main defensive strategy, but as a fall back strategy when my main strategy is disrupted. But it helps the team regroup and prepare for the next time down the court.

View more Basketball Zone Defenses and other Defensive Strategies here

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"I hate it. It looks like a stickup at 7-Eleven. Five guys standing there with their hands in the air."
- Norm Sloan, on zone defense

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