We hear a lot of talk these days about "lock down" defenders - those defenders who have both the desire and the skill necessary to keep their man from scoring once he has the ball. However, what isn't talked about nearly enough is the importance of individual defense BEFORE an offensive player gets the ball.
Instead, many coaches and even television analysts choose to emphasize the importance of "team defense" where every defender (except the one guarding the ball) is dropped off in help position in an attempt to close off all potential driving lanes. Now don't get me wrong - this is an excellent strategy in most cases but it does have a couple of possible flaws.
First of all, defensive help has a tendency to break down as the possession unfolds. I'm willing to be that on the defensive end your coach is telling you to drop off to the pack line but on the offensive end he is telling you to swing or reverse the ball from side to side. Why? Because after a couple of ball reversals against most teams the weak side help seems to disappear!
Secondly, some offensive players are so good today at handling the ball that it's nearly impossible to keep them from getting off a shot. Look at Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Kevin Durant - they are a threat to score every time they have the ball in their hands, regardless of how much "help" is available.
So if you want to be a lock down defender, one of the biggest secrets is to do the bulk of your work early and keep your man from catching the ball in scoring position. Now even though there are some specific techniques to accomplish this depending on whether or not you are defending a post or perimeter player, here are some general ideas that apply to all players:
1. Keep both your man and the player with the ball in sight at all times and have one hand pointing at each. This will keep you from being surprised if he flashes to the ball or tries to slide towards the basket.
2. If you are guarding your opponent's "go to" player you may want to face guard him nose to nose during the last few minutes of the game if the score is close.
3. When your man breaks to the ball from the weak side chest him up and stay between him and the passer. You only have to deny this cut for a couple seconds before the passer will start looking somewhere else to throw the ball.
4. Whenever your man is only one pass away from the ball when it is at the top of the key or on the wing, completely overplay the passing lane. Force your man to catch the ball going away from the basket and as high and wide as possible.
5. Give maximum effort in preventing your man from catching the ball in a comfortable scoring position. Study him beforehand as much as possible. Does he like the ball on the right side? Then don't let him catch it there. Does he like the ball on the low block? Then meet him at the free throw line as he comes down the floor and block his path to the block. Don't ever let him get comfortable and if he is going to get shots then make sure they are shots taken out of his comfort zone.
In theory your man will only have the ball in his hands less than 20% of the time his team is on offense. (5 players x 20% = 100%) If you can cut that time in half or more by doing your work early, you will be well on your way to a successful defensive night!