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Braking the Break
Marty Burns
April 13, 1998
The Spurs' Avery Johnson explains how to defend against the running game
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April 13, 1998

Braking The Break

The Spurs' Avery Johnson explains how to defend against the running game

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David Robinson might be the Admiral, but in the Spurs' transition defense, no player ranks higher than Avery Johnson. "As a point guard it's my job to defend against the fast break," Johnson says. "If I'm not driving to the basket or shooting a jump shot in the corner, I've got to be back, or else I get in big trouble." More often than he likes, Johnson must face down—single-handedly—three or four hard-charging opponents attacking the basket from different directions. That's not an easy task for anyone, let alone the 5'11" Johnson, but over his 10-year NBA career he has become adept at keeping his cool and has made the occasional stop. We asked him to describe how he tries to jam a fast break:

"The main thing I want to do is slow the other team down a bit so that my teammates can get back to help. Often, though, I have to try to stop the ball myself. As soon as we miss a shot, I'll sprint back to the top of the key at the other end so I can get a clear view of the break and see who's coming. Once I've done that, I try to pick out the main threat. Is it the shooter on the wing or the point guard coming at me at 150 miles an hour? What are each guy's strengths and weaknesses? Is the point guard better at pulling up and shooting the three, a la Tim Hardaway or Stephon Marbury, or is he better at getting to the basket, like Jason Kidd or John Stockton?

"If the situation's right, I might try to read the pass and go for a steal. Coach [Gregg] Popovich normally doesn't like us to gamble, but a lot of times I'm thinking, Boy, if I can get a steal, we've got a four-on-two or a three-on-one going the other way. Most of the time I play the percentages, and that means a hard foul. I say most of the time because in some situations I might not want to take a foul. Maybe it's the third quarter and I've already got four fouls. Or maybe the opposing player is a great foul shooter and I don't want to put him on the line. These are things I have to think about, and I only have a split second.

"If I decide to foul, I've got to be careful. Guys in this league are such good finishers that if I don't have a real good angle on them, I get the 'and ones.' Also, it's not always easy to keep a big man from getting to the basket. If I've got to foul [250-pound] Anthony Mason, I've got to use practically all my 180 pounds to stop him.

"Occasionally I'll try to draw a charge. Usually the best way to do that is to lure a pass to one wing and then slide back over in front of the man who just gave up the ball, hoping he'll crash into me. Unlike some players, I don't worry about getting dunked on. But I will get out of the way if there's no chance of preventing the slam. Let's be wise. You can say you're tough and all that, but you've got to make sure it's worth it. Last year I collided with Shaquille O'Neal, and I'll never forget it. I hit the floor real hard, and he landed right next to me. If he'd fallen on top of me, I don't know if we'd be talking right now. At practice the next day the guys put white tape on the floor to outline my body the way they do at a crime scene. Like I said, if you're going to try to stop a big guy, just make sure it's worth it."