Definition: A technique in which a defender, in anticipation of a pindown or stagger, plants himself between his man and the screen to induce a backdoor cut.
Explanation: The top-lock is a less frequent pindown defense mostly reserved for wide pindowns or staggers out of the corner. Whereas the lock and trail encourages an offensive player to use an off-ball screen, the top-lock does the exact opposite: It forces the player away from it. In practical terms, this means a backdoor cut.
Great shooters are typically the target of such a tactic because it tries to prevent them from getting to the three-point line in the first place. While this might appear to be a superior defensive strategy at first glance, the reveberating effects of a top-lock make its implementation a dangerous propsition. And then there’s the matter of the execution of the tactic itself, which isn’t exactly a walk in the park.
How to Top-Lock
Recognizing the action is the first step for top-locking an offensive player. Wide pindowns are usually set at a comfortable distance away from the ball’s location. The defender involved, therefore, has help-side responsibilities to which he is attending before the pindown takes place. Because top-locking involves close and physical contact, he has to significantly shift his positioning to execute it properly. The quicker the defender diagnoses the action, the more time he affords himself to react appropriately.
Once the defender is in close proximity, it becomes an old-fashioned, physical face-guard. As soon as a top-locking defender senses a wide pindown is coming, he locks up with the offensive player face-to-face, putting the screen directly on his back. At this point he only has one purpose, which is to send his man backdoor. Better defenders will even shade themselves slightly toward the sideline and on the high side (three-point line side) of the screen to further encourage movement toward the rim.
Most offensive players, however, don’t cede willingly. There is a good deal of hand-fighting and quick cutting to shed the contact. Eventually, however, the offensive player will reject the screen to keep things flowing. It’s no use if he’s still trying to get open off of a wide pindown after a few seconds. In essence, the backdoor cut is a self-sacrifice at the altar of floor spacing.
The defender cannot lose this battle for two reasons. The first is a function of the defensive guard’s positioning. Take a look at C.J. McCollum of the Portland Trail Blazers below, who is top-locking Wes Matthews of the Dallas Mavericks in a wide pindown situation. If McCollum allows Matthews to get up the floor, McCollum will likely get stuck several steps behind. Without vision of the screen, he‘ll have more difficulty avoiding a direct hit in the back.
The second is a function of the defensive big’s positioning. Take note of Mason Plumlee here, who is several feet off of his man and the screener, Salah Mejri. This is to protect against the backdoor layup, which is as crucial to a top-lock as the top-lock itself. Once Matthews cuts backdoor, McCollum will be in a trail position. Plumlee’s proper sag toward the baseline prevents this backdoor pass.
If, however, Matthews wriggles free and flies up to the three-point line, Plumlee will not be there to give McCollum time to recover. This is the most important reason why McCollum has to win the battle. Mejri is essentially operating as a free fullback ready to bulldoze a defender, and Plumlee is in no position to help.
Damian Lillard’s ball pressure at the top of the key on Deron Williams is another important piece here because it clogs up the passing lane. Should Matthews somehow find a sliver of space between Plumlee and McCollum, Williams will have a much harder time pinpointing an accurate pass.
We can see below that McCollum does his job here and forces Matthews away from Mejri. But once he clears that space in the corner, Plumlee must wait for Matthews’ cut to reach the weak side before he can return to Mejri. Even though this leaves Mejri alone, basket protection comes first. Against offensive bigs who can shoot, a top-lock can turn into an easy mid-range jumper. Take a look below at how disconnected Plumlee is from Mejri when Williams flips the ball over to his big.
The Trail Blazers steer clear of danger here because Mejri is a non-threat from the outside. But the explosion of shooting bigs across the NBA has knocked the top-lock somewhat out of style because of this deficiency. The big has no choice but to respect the lob or layup opportunity over the mid-ranger.
The natural progression of a backdoor cut off a pindown is a pinch post action (to be more fully discussed in another post) in which the point guard (Williams) hits the big (Mejri) for a two-man game. Even though Mejri cannot shoot, he’s free to dribble handoff (DHO) with Williams, essentially getting a second clean shot at a Trail Blazer (Lillard) with a screen. Luckily for Portland, Lillard is able to get his hand in to muck up the action. But even with a non-shooting big, the top-lock creates an automatic offensive advantage.
This is the give and take nature of NBA defense. The top-lock tends to create more defensive problems than the lock and trail, which is why the latter is favored over the former. But variance in a defense is always a positive, and some defenders are so physically gifted that they can top-lock an offensive player while simultaneously cutting off the backdoor layup. This gives his defensive big an extra second or two to scamper back out toward his assignment, thereby cutting off the mid-range shot or unencumbered DHO.
Most NBA coaches understand which of their players will be top-locked and have created corresponding counters. Kyle Korver, for instance, is one of those players who is rarely given a clean look off of a pindown. Defenses know that if he gets even a sliver of space, he will knock down a three-point shot.
The most common action in response to a top-lock is an embrace of the tactic. Instead of fighting to get over the screen, the offensive player will simply start sprinting backdoor with the intention of flying off of a pindown on the other side of the floor. At full speed, a defender has no time to legally get himself between his man and a screen that is 30 feet away.
Here’s Korver doing just that with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Joe Ingles of the Utah Jazz starts out top-locking Korver on the far side of the floor, but is forced into a lock and trail when Korver darts away from him. The result is an open look from three-point range.
Probably the most common result from a top-lock is a form of the example below involving James Harden of the Houston Rockets and Bradley Beal of the Washington Wizards. Offensive players start with an advantage because they know where they want to go. Defenders try to make the fight more fair by grabbing, holding or shoving. But if an offensive player does get over the screen, he more than likely does so without disengaging from the defender. Given the physicality of the play, it’s prone to a lot of whistles.
The way in which this top-lock morphs into a lock-and-trail of sorts is relatively frequent. Some defenders actually prefer this tactic — instead of shading toward the high side, they’ll shade slightly baseline. What appears to be a top-lock is really a planned lock-and-trail with the added bonus of mucking up the path. This, however, can be dangerous, as it leaves the defense susceptible to a backdoor cut. Defensive bigs who are unaware that this is happening might already be several steps up the floor.
You might have noticed that in the above example, Marcin Gortat is actually setting a regular pindown — making Harden’s tactic sub-optimal. The primary reason is that it leaves himself vulnerable to an over-the-top pass for a layup. This is not a danger when top-locking a wide pindown because the offensive player is in the corner. Here, he’s right at the rim. Ryan Anderson has to account for this possibility by getting tighter to the two guards.
Anderson’s appropriate reaction, however, creates an offensive counter: A quick thinking Beal might recognize his proximity to Anderson and actually screen him. Harden is so locked up with Beal that he likely would not react with a quick switch. And even if he somehow does manage this, Washington now has Gortat with deep post position on the much smaller Harden.
Film Study: “Top Lock”
Below is a video compilation of various examples of top-lock defense in NBA games. Most of the examples aren’t perfectly clean — that is the reality of live game action. In some instances, the offense manages to generate a good look despite the defense. In others, the defense wins. Try to pick out how, where and who is winning based on the aspects of top-locking.