The Anatomy of an NBA Backdoor Set

If you’ve played youth basketball, you know how frequently coaches at any level bemoan getting beat with a basket cut. Hell, even if you’ve watched enough basketball, you probably notice a clear distaste for letting players go wherever they want.

Defenders have the primary responsibility of preventing their opponent from getting open to a point where he/she can score, maneuvering their positioning and stance based on the location of the ball and their mark relative to the basket. “Man, ball, basket” are the three elements any defender is aware of.

A backdoor cut is designed to take advantage of a defender momentarily falling out of position when they lose vision of their mark and therefore allow her/him to make a run to the rim. It’s a simple concept that is sometimes read-and-react, meaning a skilled offensive player notices the defender making a mistake and will cut backdoor.

Other times, there are set plays called with the pure intention of scoring on a backdoor cut.

How do teams diagram and anticipate how and when such a cut will be successful? What has to happen in order to occupy the four other defenders so they cannot provide effective emergency help? Why and how do professional players still get beat on such a simple, elementary concept?

We’ll dive into the anatomy of those pre-determined backdoor plays by using the NBA as our classroom, understanding that even the best sets rely on effective scouting, fantastic trickery and the perfect execution from all five offensive players.

The Defense

Step one to successfully getting a backdoor set is noticing how the defense is playing.

In football, a bubble screen to a wide receiver won’t work if the cornerback is in press coverage, (i.e. he’s too close to the receiver for a pass to be executed). Similarly, defenders in basketball anticipate passing lanes and begin to creep up as a way of preventing the reversal. Sometimes they do so instinctually, and others they are told by their coach to press up.

In basketball vernacular, that’s known as “deny” defense or playing in the passing lanes. If a defender is not as close to his man, he’d be “in the gap”, helping prevent a drive instead of a kickout.

To see an example of defenders playing in the gap (i.e. encouraging a kickout), here’s an example of how the Boston Celtics marked Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Milwaukee Bucks last year when Giannis tried to drive:

From a theoretical perspective, this makes a ton of sense.

Giannis is the top threat, so the Celtics want to load up to him and force someone else to beat them. The Bucks in the corners are effectively frozen along the three-point line. Any cut to the basket or the paint they make closes a kickout opportunity for Giannis. We call that “packing it in” on defense, forcing kickout after kickout by playing heavily in the gaps.

Backdoor sets don’t work against gap or packed-in coverage. There’s nowhere to cut but into the teeth of the defense. So in order for a backdoor set to be effective, a coaching staff must recognize the defense playing tight, either denying or jumping into passing lanes.

Other times, a single man is denied and that disrupts the scoring opportunity for a team. The Utah Jazz used to press up on Bradley Beal, the top scorer for the Washington Wizards, when he didn’t have the ball in hopes that it would never arrive there. That’s a single-man deny, (instead of an all-out passing lane attack), and is much more common at the NBA level.

Elite scorers like Beal, or James Harden, will see this frequently, particularly if they account for a large chunk of their team’s offense.

In this set, note the way Jazz forward Joe Ingles presses up on Beal and doesn’t allow him to catch the ball in scoring range:

That action is frequently referred to as a “Blind Pig”, where someone else flashes to the elbow and the denied player then cuts backdoor. It’s an effective counter to denial coverage when run correctly.

The action involving the passer and the denied offensive player is not all that matters, however.

The Formation

Formation has to do with how the offense and defense are aligned. This doesn’t just have to do with the success of sets, but their failures as well.

Sometimes a poorly-spaced set can be really disrupted by a denial to the point where no backdoor cut will alleviate the pressure. One denial messes up the rest of the set and throws the entire possession for a loop.

Here’s an example: A few years ago under Byron Scott, the Los Angeles Lakers wanted to put in some Princeton sets out of a 2-3 high formation. With all five offensive players elevated above the free throw line, the Denver Nuggets tried to deny any top-to-top reversal passes, which would trigger certain actions. The Lakers eventually got to their pass-and-catch but were forced far closer to half-court and pushed out of scoring range:

Such disruption is death for an offense. By the time the Lakers get into their Floppy action that’s designed to get them a shot, they have no choice but to take a catch-and-shoot or commit a shot clock violation. Denial and pressure defense can be really important.

When constructing a backdoor set, the defense must be in a position where that denial plays into the hands of the offense to create a shot.

One play that works nearly every time is this backdoor action by the Orlando Magic out of an elbow catch. The weak-side movement by the offense takes help-side defense away from the rim. All that’s left is a back cut from the corner by Terrence Ross and the Magic have a bucket:

In most attempts, there is no help defender at the rim that can stop Ross from getting an easy basket.

Aaron Gordon makes great passes and Ross is a smart cutter, but it’s truly the work of the other three players that gets two points. They move in an organized and timely way that distracts the defense.

Here’s another great example of using over-pressure as a means of creating the backdoor opportunity. The San Antonio Spurs knew that, based on the score and their lineup, point guard Patty Mills would be denied on their sideline inbound play.

So what do they do? They flash David Lee to the high post and send Mills backdoor:

What we’ve just seen are two differently constructed backdoor sets. Some come from the corners and the wings where an empty side means no back-side help. A cut along the baseline, with the opposite side occupied, is difficult to guard.

The second set, run by the Spurs, is designed to have that backdoor cut result in middle penetration. It’s no different than a ball screen or a handoff after Mills gets the ball. He’s attacking the hoop with fervor and a head of steam thanks to the advantage created by the backdoor.

Side note: Nobody does better with backdoor cuts out of zipper actions than the San Antonio Spurs:

The Cut

Elite scorers on backdoor cuts do two things: They wait to see the back of their defender’s head, and they are fantastic actors. The former is reserved for read-and-react situations while the latter is about selling deception, getting the defender to do exactly what they shouldn’t.

Pay close attention to the footwork of Russell Westbrook on this backdoor set from the Oklahoma City Thunder. He starts in one direction, plants his feet in a split-step (i.e. both feet on the ground at the same time, but maintaining balance) and then cuts the opposite direction he started:

Perhaps nobody sees more denial coverage than James Harden of the Houston Rockets. As such, he’s mastered the cuts to get himself open, selling going one way and changing course to get where he wants:

Most teams will see an elite scorer like Harden in the corner and “top lock” him, which essentially forces him away from raising to the top so he cannot catch a dribble handoff or come off a screen. Harden’s now figured out that he doesn’t need to brutally push his way through the defender staying on his top shoulder.

One step that direction and a hard sprint to the rim can free him up.

Backdoor sets are complex. They require execution and rehearsal as much as any type of action you’ll see. The timing between cutter and passer is paramount, as are the choreographed actions of the other three “dummies”.

So long as defenses continue to worry about one specific player or jam passing lanes, we’ll continue to see backdoor counters, particularly out of dead-ball situations when coaches get to dial up an action to thwart them.