Denying Vertical Passes and Shooting the Gap

Two concepts that are difficult to master in run and jump are denying vertical passes and shooting the gap. The players denying vertical passes and shooting the gap are the four or the five in a numbered system. If these players are football linemen or tall players that lack athleticism, they might struggle to adjust to the pace.

I pick it up with the number seven principle in run and jump. The first three principles are strictly on ball defensive consideration. The next three principles are decisions off the ball. The next two principles are also off the ball. I share them separately because I think presenting too many rules at once is counterproductive.

  1. No Vertical Passes

To be a successful run and jump team, all vertical passes must be denied. There is no gray area for this principle. No vertical passes is close to importance with the earlier principles of let the ball in, contain the ball, and thou shall not foul. No vertical passes is much harder to execute than these on ball defensive expectations.

Think of a football team that needs to get off the field on third down. The defensive back’s job is not to help the defensive line or the linebackers contain the quarterback. They must to stick to the wide receiver and break on the ball. The amount of dribbles the opposing team takes is directly proportional to the amount of turnovers they commit. Or put in terms more relevant to the back-line defenders, the fewer passes allowed up court, the more likely you are to get a stop.

Positioning on Vertical Passes

As the image above indicates, x4 is a step in front of the offensive player and willing to give up sideline. The front foot of x4 needs to be in front of both feet of the offensive player. The back foot of the defensive player is between the two feet of the offensive player.

The x5 defender can be even more aggressive. Many teams are trained to have the opposite forward flash to the middle. Since this is such a popular counter to a pressing team, you can encourage x5 to put both feet above the offensive player and keep contact with 5 in case she breaks to the rim unexpectedly.

Lay-up Risks

The obvious caveat here is that the defense is risking a lay-up. Deal with it. The number of things that need to go right for the offense make the possibility very low. First, the point guard must make a perfect pass with x1 pressuring her. Second, the timing of the pass needs to hit 4 or 5 in stride and avoid deflections by x4 and x5. Third, even a completed pass does not guarantee a lay-up. Defenders x4 and x5 are still closer to the rim on the x-axis even if they aren’t closer on the y-axis. If a team wants to hang it’s game plan on that sort of risky proposition, they better hope that Tom Brady is the point guard and Randy Moss is the 4.

  1. Shooting the Gap

The first rule of run and jump is to let the ball in play. Unfortunately, players need to unlearn that rule once the ball is actually in play. Shooting the gap requires a gambling and aggressive mindset. Live ball turnovers and lay-ups are the result of shooting the gap. And they will transform the momentum of a game.

The challenge of learning to shoot the gap is two-fold. Timing and instilling the aggressive mentality.


The timing is a challenge because in the diagram above x2 is dependent on x3. As teams improve the system and implement these principles daily in practice and on film, x2 will develop trust and instincts on x3 making the correct decision.

Aggressive Mentality

The aggressive mentality is four times the problem that timing is. Fundamental lessons of basketball almost always suggest the defensive player should run with or ahead of the offensive player on defense. We have to deconstruct a habit that is hard-wired. And if 2 starts streaking to the basket before x5 starts moving backward there is serious risk of an uncontested lay-up.

Every coach in the history of the game has cited the value of communication, and that is a goal here too. If x5 can say “I got both” when she sees the opportunity for x2 to shoot the gap, it will be helpful to x2. That said, communication is an unrealistic standard when the game is moving at full speed. By the time x5 recognizes the situation and shares it with x2, it might be too late. Again, there needs to be an innate trust that if x2 leaves, x5 and x4 will rotate.

If, and it’s a big if, x2 times it correctly, shooting the gap is the most beautiful form of defensive pressure the game has to offer.

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