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Art Garcia

Phoenix's zone defense has made the interior a little less easy to navigate for L.A.'s big men.
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Zone guru Casey picks apart Suns' new-look defense

Posted May 27 2010 11:19AM

LOS ANGELES -- The zone defense has the Los Angeles Lakers all in a tizzy. That's the idea, anyway, after the defending champs dropped two games in Phoenix to leave the Western Conference finals all square at 2-2.

Game 5 is Thursday night at Staples Center.

The zone is a staple of basketball fundamentals, just not in the NBA. The Association is all about man-to-man defense, and since the reintroduction of zone in the league years ago, the defense has been considered gimmicky and less than, well, manly.

But can anyone really argue against its effectiveness? In what's considered possibly the greatest upset in NBA playoff history, No. 8-seeded Golden State used the zone extensively in upending No. 1 seed Dallas in 2007. Many credit zone defenses with narrowing the gap between the rest of the world and the USA in international competition.

Talking zone is big again this week as the Suns stormed back to win Games 3 and 4 in Phoenix. Suns coach Alvin Gentry went to essentially a 2-3 zone in the second half of Game 3 and has stuck with it for long stretches since.

"Today's game is generally vanilla because almost all teams play man and run pro sets," said Don Casey, a former NBA coach and longtime zone proponent. "Alvin is doing something different and it's working."

Casey isn't the godfather of basketball zone defenses, just one of its caretakers. He's studied the nuances and variations of the zone going back more than half-a-century to Philadelphia's Big 5 college programs. Casey has coached the Los Angeles Clippers (1988-90) and New Jersey Nets (1998-2000), and began his coaching career at Temple in 1973.

Casey has written several books on the defensive tactic, including Own the Zone: Executing and Attacking Zone Defenses, and currently authors the blog The Temple of Zones ( Casey, 72, has retired from coaching, but continues to advise coaches and programs. He has spoken to Gentry during the West finals. caught up Casey to talk about zones and its impact on the Suns-Lakers series.

Art Garcia: So have you been surprised by Phoenix going zone and how has it worked?

Don Casey: I'm a little bit surprised, but I am not shocked. What the Suns are doing is presenting a two-man front and from there they're making decisions. For instance: if the ball is coming up to [Steve] Nash's side, Nash will either take or shadow the ball. The other front man will come over and defend the elbow area so the ball can't go easily to [Pau] Gasol. [Is the ball] over his head? Yes, but when it goes over his head it gives the rest of the defenders time to react and get to their spots.


AG: Why do you think Alvin decided to go with this now?

DC: He's been flirting with it back and forth. In a seven-game series, teams can hone in for the next game and the next game and the next game. It lends itself to try something new, maybe out of desperation. Alvin probably said to Nash and [Grant] Hill and those guys, we've got to try this.

AG: How well can Phoenix be running it?

DC: Phoenix is playing at this stage a very average zone. They haven't been at it long enough, but here's what's happening. The Lakers are taking deep shots late in the clock, they miss, it rebounds long and off goes Nash. It's perfect. Instead of Nash maybe being down on the baseline or coming off screeners, he's ready to run. The Suns have eliminated the stack, you don't see anybody come off baseline screens, they've eliminated the pick-and-roll, which can be used against the zone but the Lakers aren't, and they've got Gasol up at the high post. Where would you rather have Gasol, high post or on the block?

AG: Why don't teams attack the zone?

DC: It's not in players' mind sets. The mind set is what you see [Derek] Fisher doing, it's we've got to set up and attack this thing. Well, ok, but the best thing to do is to get it up faster so the zone can't organize and get itself set to meet you as you're coming up. And that's what the Lakers are not doing. In a way they're being sucked in and playing into the hands of the zone defense, instead of going after it. Get it up the court, make those big guys run, make [Robin] Lopez get tied and go from there. If the Lakers continue this way, Phoenix had a chance.

AG: Do you expect Phil Jackson and his staff to make adjustments?

DC: Not really. The Suns are neutralizing the Lakers' athleticism, except for Kobe [Bryant], and what they like to do best. For Phil Jackson to say no one uses this in the playoffs, like it's unmanly, is somewhat unfortunate. Now if the Lakers went zone, Alvin would know how to deal with it.

Art Garcia has covered the NBA since 1999. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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