Matisse Thybulle
© Alex Subers

The 4 types of defense in basketball

Defense skills that can help you step up your game.
By Aimée Lister
6 min readPublished on
Playing defense may not seem sexy or glamorous, but at competitive events, like the Red Bull Pro-Am Basketball Classic, defense can be the key to a team’s success.
It’s not just about preventing the opposition from scoring, it’s about getting those steals and deflections right, reclaiming possession, and shifting the dynamic so that your team is calling the shots.
Strong defense not only helps win games, it also makes careers. Take a note from Matisse Thybulle who, in high school, was asked to defend All-American Zach LaVine. College scouts were in the audience that day to see LaVine, but Thybulle’s relentless defense put his name on the map too. Another outstanding defensive specialist we like to watch is Donte DiVincenzo, whose defense helped the Milwaukee Bucks win its first NBA Championship in half a century.
Donte DiVincenzo of the Milwaukee Bucks participates in a video shoot at the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Sports Science Center on November 9, 2020.

Donte DiVincenzo

© Gary Dineen/Red Bull Content Pool

Let’s take a look at 4 key types of basketball defense that’ll help your team come out on top. If you need a little visual inspiration, watch Red Bull 3X. It's returning this summer with tournaments in seven cities.

4 Types of Defense in Basketball


Man-to-Man Defense

Man-to-man defense pairs every defensive player with an offensive counterpart to guard. Usually, players will mark their equal on the court, but basketball coaches sometimes shake things up depending on who they’re up against. Man-to-man defense is super reliable because teams get consistent cover on the opposition, so it’s easy to set up traps, force turnovers, and box out key players.
That being said, man-to-man defense is also pretty basic, which also means it’s recognizable. Opposition might catch onto the defensive strategy sooner rather than later. And for teams that are all about strength but aren’t so good on speed, a man-to-man can be pretty demanding and also open teams up to isolation offensives, if they’re not careful.
Matisse Thybulle

Matisse Thybulle

© Alex Subers


Zone Defense

In a zone defense, players guard a specific zone of the court. Teams can really make this defense their own and arrange players in different ways. Unlike the man-to-man defense, defensive players only guard the opposition if and when they enter their zone.
Zone defenses are less physically demanding than man-to-man, but also provide less intensive coverage of the ball. Plus, because the defense is tied to these ‘zones’, the offense might take advantage to shoot from areas with less coverage.

2-3 Zone Defense

The most common layout is the 2-3 zone. In this kind of layout, two defensive players are positioned at the free throw line, and the other three stay close to the baseline. This formation provides effective coverage to the inside, but doesn’t protect against outside shots from the wing.

Combination or Junk Defense

A combination defense combines man-to-man and zone defenses. This is a great way to confuse the offense, force turnovers and help the defense to regain possession. Watch out though – junk defenses can result in holes in the normal defensive formation, which the other team might take advantage of.
Some typical examples of a combination defense include match-up zone, box & one, diamond & one and triangle & two.
Red Bull Half Court 2022

Red Bull Half Court 2022

© Rezi Kenia

Match-up Zone Defense

The match-up zone defense draws on man-to-man and zone-defense principles, but with a more versatile twist. In a match-up zone defense, players are not tied to their positions, but can swap places when they need to. This flexibility not only makes this a super adaptable type of defense, but also makes it way less scoutable.
Teams can play a match-up zone in different formations like 2-1-2, 1-3-1, or 1-2-2. These formations keep key defensive players in the paint setting them up perfectly to get those rebounds.
It can sound overwhelming, but Milwaukee Bucks guard Donte DiVincenzo, a defensive specialist, says outlook is key. “ …When you have that approach of trying to win each day – whether it is at practice or in a game – I think having that mindset blocks out everything else that is going on.”

Box & One Defense

Four players are positioned at each corner of the paint and the last defensive player is responsible for defending a key opposition player on the court.
Though this can work really well at tiring out a key offensive player, teams should think twice about using this kind of formation against a star player who usually scores in close-range to the basket. If they manage to break through, the four defensive players in the paint might find it harder to defend because of just how crowded it is in there.

Diamond & One Defense

In a Diamond & One defense four defensive players are positioned in a diamond shape in the paint, with one player at the free-throw line and another at the baseline. Once again, the final player is out on court guarding a key offensive player.
Just like the box and one defense, the diamond and one defense works well against a team with a star player like Arike Ogunbowale or Blake Griffin.
But again, if that key player dominates from the low post, this might not be the right formation.
Arike Ogunbowale

Arike Ogunbowale

© Sean Berry

Triangle & Two Defense

In a Triangle & Two Defense two defensive players play man-to-man, guarding the opposition. Meanwhile, the remaining three players are positioned in a triangle formation in the paint.
The Triangle & Two defense is great at guarding the paint while also covering the opposition’s two key players. But teams will still have to deal with overcrowding in the paint if they happen to be facing off strong low-post shooters.

Press Defense

There are two types of press defense: half-court and full-court. If you think half-court is any less exhausting, watch the Red Bull Half Court.
Both are all about the same thing, though: pressure. The defense either pressures the offense across the whole court or only half of it. This should help defensive players deflect or steal, as well as tire out the opponent and increase forced errors. Teams can play a press defense using man-to-man or zone defensive strategies.
Red Bull Half Court in Tbilisi, Georgia

Red Bull Half Court in Tbilisi, Georgia

© Tamuna Kulumbegashvili

This can be at pivotal ‘make-or-break’ moments in the game or as part of an overarching strategy. However, this defense is energy-intensive and can tire out less athletic players.

Full Court Press

In a full-court press, the defense pressures the offense across the entire court with aggressive and persistent guarding . Since your team has got to cover the whole court while also taking the defensive pressure up a notch, of the two variations, the full-court press is definitely more intense.

Half-Court Press

As the name suggests, in a half-court press defense, the defensive team applies pressure on half of the court. You can count on a half-court press defense at any time in the game and it’s a great option in many ways because all your defensive players are on the frontcourt.
However, if the offense gets the ball round the perimeter, they’re probably in with a good chance of scoring.

Final thoughts

Defensive strategies can only take one so far. Learning a defense on paper is definitely not the same as playing it out on court. So coaches should make sure to drill and practice these plays until they become instinctive. After all, shot makers like Lethal Shooter can’t drain a three-pointer without someone defending them.