What the Tall Blacks Run and How To Defend It

NZ HakaThe Olympic Qualifying series between the Aussie Boomers and the New Zealand Tall Blacks is now only days away.

For many, the Boomers are overwhelming favourites. No Steven Adams or Kirk Penney equals no problems, right?

Well, not so fast.

The Tall Blacks are a tough, tight, talented unit. Corey Webster, Thomas Abercrombie and Mika Vukona are all experienced internationals who play together throughout the year, giving them outstanding chemistry and continuity.  Add talented big Isaac Fotu to the mix and you’ve already got the makings off a dangerous proposition for the Aussies.

The Kiwis have also enjoyed an excellent preparation over the past few weeks, playing seven official warm-up games and one closed-door scrimmage against Great Britain.

Their excellent form saw them take out the FIBA Stanković Cup; a tournament held annually in China which this year involved Mexico and Venezuela, New Zealand and the host country. Ok, so that’s not exactly world-beating competition but the Kiwis got the job done nonetheless.

In his first year leading the national team, head coach Paul Henare is pleased with the preparation thus far, including the Stanković win.

“It is important that we enjoy this and take the time to reflect on what we have achieved,” Henare said. “These moments are rare for New Zealand basketball and we need to take the chance to be proud of what we have done, be humble but be proud.

“But now we quickly turn our attention to the main focus, this is all leading up to the series against Australia, that is our one and only goal and we are only a few steps along the way.”

Meanwhile, the Boomers are currently turning their attention to the Kiwis.

New Zealand’s primary advantage is their synergy. Whereas the Boomers are made up of a very talented core of players who rarely play together, the Tall Blacks have a talented core who play together all the time.

Offensively, the Tall Blacks execute a system involving plenty of crisp ball movement, pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs.  They lean heavily on the elite shot-making of Webster, working hard to get him open most times down the floor.

Make no mistake, Webster is a legit game-breaker. And like Joe Ingles with the green and gold, his game goes to another level when he’s repping his country.

Abercrombie off down screens and Fotu down low are options 2A and 2B for the Kiwis with Vukona crashing the offensive glass in his usual way.

Here are some of their go-to plays (and how to defend them):



The Tall Blacks will usually flow into a 5-out transition game, especially if Vukona is the first big down the floor.  This motion is essentially made up of four components; an early on-ball screen, spacing, back-cuts and dribble handoffs.

The fact that Fotu possesses legitimate shooting range makes this hard to defend, as Fotu’s man generally finds it difficult to offer weak-side help on dribble handoffs.

In this instance, it’s Lindsay Tait’s man who hangs around to help out and the Tall Blacks take advantage, reversing the ball and finding the open man.

The key here is for the defenders of Webster and Abercombie, in particular, to see the handoffs coming early and prevent their use.  In the play above, Webster’s man actually does a great job of preventing the handoff and, as you can see, the star guard’s not keen on battling through that kind of defense.  One quick look backdoor and he’s done, literally turning his back on the play as the ball gets reversed to the other side.

Here’s another look at this transition motion…

As you can see, Webster lulled his man to sleep along the baseline before rubbing him off the Abercombie back-cut and Fotu handoff.

He doesn’t need much separation to let it fly and is deadly when he’s flowing with confidence.

Mexico almost never doubled Webster off this type of action so Corey established some great rhythm coming off these handoffs and pulling the trigger.

Doubling Webster is a definite option here – as he hates it – but the threat of Fotu diving to the rim makes that difficult.  The real key is to stay alert off the ball and to impact the handoff by either top-blocking or staying attached.



The Breakers call this ‘Two Down’ but I’m not certain what Henare has termed it with the national team.

After some early baseline-runner action, this begins with a 1-4 set and a high-post feed that always heads opposite Webster.  The strong-side wing clears out with a back-cut, while the point guard cuts for a hand-off (primarily for deception), before also clearing out to the weak-side.

The opposite big, Vukona in this instance, makes contact with Webster’s man as Webster heads across the horn towards the ball.  The big with the ball usually takes one dribble for a handoff close to the split line, although in this instance Fotu pivoted into the handoff instead.  The idea here is to gift Webster an entire side of the floor to operate one-on-one.

Webster loves to come off handoffs with his man trailing and the big defender providing a soft hedge. If he gets a little separation he will let it fly.

The key to defending ‘Two Down’ is for Webster’s man to recognize the high post feed and not get hit – or even to top block – on the first down screen. If not top-blocking, he needs to stay tight and chase around (or beat him to) the hand off. If there’s any separation Webster will get a shot off.

The big defending the ball has to commit to Webster late if the guard is stuck on his hip. There’s lots of weak side help available to get the roller if the big goes to help on Webster. ‘Late’ is the key here though as the big can’t hedge early on handoffs with Fotu and Vukona as they’ll just keep it and drive.



This is essentially the Breakers’ ‘Runner’ play which they (and the Tall Blacks) use primarily against the zone.

It starts with a two-guard front, the small forward (usually Abercrombie) on the strong side and the bigs on the blocks.

Abercrombie’s job on the catch is to dribble towards the corner and engage the baseline defender.  After the guards exchange they reverse it to the original ball-handler who is straight off the elbow.

From here there three main options (in order):

  1. A back screen for the small forward, looking for the alley oop.  Abercrombie gets a lot of these with the Breakers.
  2. That screening big can then flare-screen for the weak-side guard for a jumper.
  3. The other big sets a flat on-ball for the ball-handler to get into the lane. If there’s no flare-screen on the weak-side that big sneaks behind the backboard for the drop off pass.

Key to defending ‘Runner’ is to first pre-empt and get through the back pick for Abercrombie so that the centre of the zone doesn’t have to sag and help on the lob. Running through with Abercrombie – as Mexico did in the clip above – is a good idea.  This allows the centre to stay high and show or even double Webster coming off the flat pick-and-roll.

Again, Webster is not great at dealing with an aggressive double team. Soft hedges, like the one above from Mexico, won’t get it done – he’ll shoot over it every time.

Here is another example of ‘Runner’.  This has Webster in Abercrombie’s usual role and ends with a horrible defensive breakdown by the Mexicans (who were playing a matchup zone at the time).



The Tall Blacks often use the threat of an Abercrombie lob as a decoy to create other action.  In this play Vukona’s back-pick (and Webster’s pass fake) are designed to suck the defense towards the basket.  That leaves the defenders of both Vukona and Abercrombie a step or two behind on the dribble hand-off action that’s coming next.

Vukona’s man has to sag to help on the (possible) lob but Abercrombie’s man has to work harder to stay attached on the hand-off.  Abo is money for jam from that kind of range.

Here’s that same play again but with Abercrombie attempting to kick-back off the back-screen.

Abercrombie’s man actually recovered well (with a little help) but Webster’s defender pressed the snooze button for an instant on the weak-side.  You know the rules.



The Breakers call this play ‘Three Middle’ but, again, I’m not certain that the Tall Blacks are using the same name.

‘Three’ refers to the shuffle offense but ‘Three Middle’ is a read where Webster doesn’t reverse the ball around the horn.  The point guard shuffle cuts off the five with the aim of dragging the screener’s defender down with him.  The five quickly steps up in to a pick-and-roll, before his defender can get up to show on the pick. Mission accomplished here…Three MiddleThe key to defending this is to have the defensive five man stay attached to his man on the shuffle cut. The defender in the weak-side corner can step in and help (if necessary) so that the five can be there to double or show on the pick-and-roll.

Again, doubling Webster hard early is always a good option, he hates it. He’s excellent at dragging the big defender away on a soft hedge, and can make the late pass if the big commits to a late double. But if you jump it early and give him no chance to see the floor he loses his effectiveness.

Here is that same play with Webster’s defender gifting a middle driving lane.  Corey collapses the defense and finds Fotu for the wide open three.

Horrible defense here.  Force Webster to the screen and double aggressively.



This is one of the Tall Black’s preferred end-line plays.  The two key options here involve the small forward (usually Abercrombie) coming off the staggered-double and Webster working off the middle pick-and-roll.

Again, if the screener’s defender is nowhere to be seen…Endline Play…Webster will kill you all night long.



Yet another play that ends in hand-off and pick-and-roll actions for Webster.

Webster is the inbounder for this play, so the key is to recognise what’s coming as early as possible.  Firstly, don’t let him get it back. You can top-block this high hand-off comfortably as there is plenty of help behind you.

If he does get it, well, you know my thoughts on defending Webster on the pick-and-roll by now.  This kind of soft-hedging plays right into his hands as he’s quick to pull the trigger and his mid-range floater is much-improved.


The Tall Blacks are like a well-oiled machine when it comes to their offensive execution.  With such little time to prepare, the Boomers will need to be on-point defensively to limit their effectiveness.  Especially in terms of Corey Webster as he’s central to their productivity.

As always, however, diligent preparation with whatever time’s available is the key.

As Abraham Lincoln once said, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”


Article written by

I like to think that I bring the all-important little man’s perspective to the Downtown crew. The rim may be 10-feet high folks but the court, itself, is at ground level. My one season playing ball on the national scene was back in 2001/02, when I played the vital role of 4th-string PG as a member of the Victoria Titans. Go back and watch the tapes, I’m confident that only Patty Mills outranks me worldwide as an end-of-the-bench towel-waver. This experience, however, gives me the kind of an insight into pro hoops that can only be gained by spending time ‘behind the curtain’. These days I spend most of my spare time squeezing every last cent out of my League Pass subscription. And when I’m not playing, watching, writing about or podcasting about basketball, you’ll find me soundly outplaying all-comers at the fantasy version of the game. Safe to say that if I had a tattoo it would say ‘mum’. But if I had two tattoos, the second one would definitely be of a basketball. Follow me on twitter: @liam_santa

One Response

  1. Paulo at |

    Super article Liam, we need more of this in Australian hoops!

    No doubt the Aussies will be following similar strategies to what you have pointed out, I think the series will be determined by how well the Kiwis execute their counters, particularly under second half physical pressure, and whether they can avoid enough TOs to put the Boomers’ 1/2 court defence under consistent pressure.

    Look forward to seeing lots more of these articles in NBL season.

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