6 Ways to Beat a 1-3-1 Zone in Basketball


A 1-3-1 zone is widely regarded as one of the best defense strategies in basketball, as it’s more effective against numerous regular offenses. Still, like all strategies, it has some vulnerabilities. So, how do you beat a 1-3-1 zone defensive strategy?

Here’s how to beat a 1-3-1 zone in basketball:


1.    Aim for the baseline corners.

2.    Exploit the low post zones.

3.    Screen and cut the second line.

4.    Target the slowest defender.

5.    Prioritize dribble handoff.

6.    Draw traps to leverage them.


The specific zone offense and gameplay you choose depends on the skills of your players, but these six elements should be an integral part of your strategy to overcome a 1-3-1 defense. 

In this article, I explain these offense tactics so that you can beat a 1-3-1 defense in basketball.

1. Aim for the Baseline Corners

The high post is among the weakest zones in many defense strategies. Thus, most of the usual offense tactics try to exploit this vulnerability. 

However, a 1-3-1 zone defense almost fortifies the high post unless you can draw and stretch the three defenders unusually towards a sideline.

In contrast, a 1-3-1 zone has two massive weak points at the baseline corners, so you’re more likely to score if your gameplay aims for the small and power forwards.

If you can get a pass through to your forwards, they can attempt a jump shot from outside the arc. Alternatively, the forwards can cut the baseline for a layup and even a dunk. You can aim for the baseline corners using these strategies:

Of course, getting a pass through to the forwards is easier said than done when you’re facing a 1-3-1 zone in basketball. 

Yet the other tactics in this guide highlight some tactics you can try for a breakthrough.

2. Exploit the Low Post Zones

The chaser in a 1-3-1 zone is usually outside the free throw circle. The middle defender, often referred to as the protector, is typically at the free throw point or line. 

With the two wings flanking his position, this middle defender strengthens the high post zones and blocks the key.

However, this alignment or zoning leaves the low post vulnerable. The tail covering the baseline is always compelled to choose between the two forwards flanking him. 

The two wing defenders cover the key along the high and low posts during offensive strikes, but these are transitions.

Now, visualize a 2-1-2 offense against the 1-3-1 zone. Not only can you flank the tail with your two forwards at the baseline or its corners, but your point and shooting guards will complicate the chaser’s job. 

Plus, the chaser will be closely followed by a wing defender on either side.

Thus, you can stretch the defenders to their zone’s limits, further exposing the low spot and baseline corners. 

Meanwhile, your offense should look for opportunities to screen and cut to penetrate.

3. Screen and Cut the Second Line

The chaser in a 1-3-1 zone is always after the ball. The wings follow the chaser and alternatively serve as the weak side block to intercept passes and rebounds. 

The middle defender is always protecting the key and high post while also contributing to presses and traps, as necessary.

Due to this, you may struggle to find a way through the 1-3-1 zone defense unless you screen and cut the second line.

You may use a set or zone offense tactic. Nonetheless, the center player should look to screen or cut the middle defender to make way for the point or shooting guard, subject to the passer. 

If you have a 5-out offense, your forwards should screen and cut the wing and middle defenders.

You can try many practical variations. A team with an exceptional point guard and small forward may use the others to screen and cut.

Teams with excellent point and shooting guards may use the center to screen as these two players prepare the game for the forwards to cut the baseline.

4. Target the Slowest Defender

This offense tactic isn’t exclusively for the 1-3-1 zone defense. However, targeting the slowest defender works well against a 1-3-1 zone, as it is a physically exhausting strategy.

The chaser isn’t expected to back up anyone because of the relentless pursuit of the ball. 

The wing defenders continuously spread out, retreat, and reposition for the weak side block. 

Additionally, the tail has to straddle along the baseline, consistently toggling between the two forwards. 

Plus, the middle defender has to protect the high post and key against screens, cuts, passes, shots, etc.

In all these frantic movements, the slowest defender will always take longer to:

  • Reposition
  • Act
  • React
  • Intercept, or
  • Block

Like the vulnerable baseline corners, a 1-3-1 zone has an immense weak spot wherever the slowest defender plays. Target this player for cuts and pass-throughs.

5. Prioritize Dribble Handoff

A 1-3-1 zone defense complicates passing in basketball. The chaser and the three defenders in the second line are constantly trying for traps, pass intercepts, deflections, etc. 

Also, a lob pass is risky, especially across the court. The weak side block by a wing defender may get to it easily.

Thus, you should prioritize dribble handoffs. A dribble handoff is not only safer and certain, but it also overworks the chaser and accompanying defender, whether wing or middle. 

Plus, dribble handoffs pave the way for unexpected screens and cuts, particularly when it is a zone defense.

Now, combine these offense tactics with the vulnerable baseline, corners, and low spot. 

You’ll have multiple opportunities to score. Of course, you can strategize your gameplay for layups and dunks or three-pointers based on skills and instantaneous assessments. 

6. Draw Traps To Leverage Them

One of the fundamental strengths and main objectives of a 1-3-1 zone defense strategy is a quick turnover. 

So, traps and intercepting passes are at the crux of this approach. However, a trap or any approach doesn’t always benefit only the team initiating the tactic.

Like all feints, you can draw the chaser and another defender, if not a third one, for attempted traps. 

In effect, this stretches the 1-3-1 zone defense to its limits, leaving four offensive players in your team to launch an unstoppable strike. However, you must be sure about the pass.

You’ve likely watched professionals and their lightning-fast turns and cuts through attempted traps. 

Even if you aren’t as fast, you can draw two defenders to commit to a trap. Meanwhile, you’re prepared to pass, dribble, cut, or shoot, which could be a three-pointer, alley-oop, etc.

Recapping All Points Covered:

  • Aim for the baseline corners.
  • Exploit the low post zones.
  • Screen and cut the second line.
  • Target the slowest defender.
  • Prioritize dribble handoff.
  • Draw traps to leverage them.

Final Points

Like all defense strategies, the 1-3-1 zone in basketball can crumble on the court if you can destroy the opponent’s rhythm and pre-game schematics. 

This truth is equally applicable to an offense strategy. Eventually, your gameplay shall determine the potential wins and losses.