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David Aldridge

Don Casey and Derrick Rose
Don Casey (right), with Derrick Rose in 2008, is a master of zone defenses.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Casey: How to handle the Heat, and how Miami has to counter

Posted Aug 23 2010 5:06PM

Welcome to the Morning Tip. While I'm on vacation I've enlisted the help of some very capable people to write guest columns. I wanted people who would come from different backgrounds to write about different aspects of the NBA, to give you (and me) something to think about and talk about. Our first guest columnist is longtime coach Don Casey, who has a simple task: Tell us how teams can stop LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of the new-look Miami Heat next season.

Casey is a true basketball lifer. He's been around the game for more than 40 years, dating to his days at Bishop Eustace Prep in New Jersey, where he won the Catholic state championship twice and was twice named New Jersey Coach of the Year. He then took the head job at Temple University from 1973 to '82 and was named Eastern Coach of the Year in 1978 and 1979. (He followed the legendary Harry Litwack with the Owls and preceeded a young man named John Chaney.) He then made the jump to the NBA, as an assistant with the Bulls. A two-year stint as head coach of the Clippers followed a few years later. Casey survived Donald Sterling and was rewarded with six seasons (1990-96) on the Cetlics' bench. Two in New Jersey as an assistant to John Calipari followed before Casey was given the Nets' head job in 1998.

Off the court, Casey was part of the NCAA Rules Committee that legalized the dunk. In the pros, he was senior executive vice president of the NBA Coaches Association for eight years. He was appointed to the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports (now the President's Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition) by President Clinton and served eight years. President Clinton also named Casey to serve as part of the official U.S. delegation to the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

All along the way, Casey has been a tireless proponent of zone defense -- he helped teach the U.S. Select Team zones that they could play to help prepare the '08 Olympic Team -- and has been in numerous training camps the last few years helping teams that want to play more zone to put in their principles. There's a reason his website is

That's why I thought Casey would be perfect to discuss the Super Friends, both from the perspective of the Heat and their opponents next season. If you're Erik Spoelstra, what kind of offense do you put in that will keep LeBron, Wade and Bosh happy? If you're playing Miami, how on earth do you try and stop all that firepower? Coach Casey tackles all the Xs and Os, as well as settling the question of whether the Heat can break the Bulls' 72-10 all-time record, in this week's Tip. Hope you enjoy it. - DA

The Miami Heat Syndrome

This time of year, the experts are predicting and/or advising what the Miami Heat -- its players and coaches -- should do before anyone has stepped on to the court.

There is a saying that a coach does not know his players until he is in the gym with them. I imagine a player feels the same. However, in this case, we are talking about three or four players that not only the coach, Erik Spoelstra, but others as well must get to know. Blending, meshing, getting a distinct feel for each other in relation to the flow of the game is similar to wine -- it takes time.

For coach Spoelstra, time could be an ally. Some feel it might be an enemy. It should be neither. Just coach and play and the gods will prevail. The marketing gurus always promote the team's expectations, but whose expectations govern?

Jeff "Conrad the Great" Van Gundy predicting the unpredictable doesn't calm things -- it piles more on coach Spoelstra's shoulders. We realize "the Great" is a former Yalie (for one year) who got religion, transferred to Nazarene and now is offering his own version of Kool-Aid to the basketball world. Now brother Stan (who is sipping the Kool-Aid as well) states that this will be the best team ever. And on paper they are overwhelming.

Let me set the record straight though: The Heat will not win 34 straight games, and will be hard pressed to top 72 wins! Get over all this nonsense -- they will have a terrific year and that's all.

What Stan has to realize is there are those that take these comments seriously, so one must be careful. The NBA now has MIT "experts" in the front office who have taken the game beyond rocket science for predictability on who can play where, and when, and what time of the day. What do they say about this roster of potential? (Richard Feynman, the MIT magician, certainly would have an opinion if he were still alive.)

So what's in store here? Who knows? That's the interesting part -- players must play within the boundaries of team concepts, both on offense and defense. As the Lakers and Celtics -- and, yes, the Heat -- have proven, it's a team game, period. Teams win championships with team-skilled players, or play the team game to be in a position to win. The statement that "great players don't always need to play great -- only when they must play great" is something we'll find out with the Heat.

Containing the Heat's offense

This is the issue that each opposing team, their coaches, scouts and veteran players will ponder as they prepare for what appears, now, as "the" offensive armada in the league. We're talking about point production per minute here -- will it be overwhelming? It might be, but I believe there is the possibility of controlling things enough to compete and win. It's a strong statement, but doable.

Enter: the matchup zone, and its offspring.

Even with the defensive restrictions (e.g., illegal defenses via three seconds), the matchup zone will be more effective than man-to-man defense. In the "pure" man defense, coaches cannot provide strong help-side defense, as the USA World Championship team and its opponents can do in international competition.

We just saw Phoenix shake up the basketball world, avoiding a sweep by changing defenses in Game 3 of the Western Conference finals against the Los Angeles Lakers.

With the Lakers scoring just 15 points in the second quarter of Game 3, coach Alvin Gentry found diamonds in his own backyard. While The Lakers' zone offense concepts date back to the Neanderthal Man, after they shot 18-for-60 from the 3-point line in two games, the Dawn of Zone Enlightenment arrived. Afterward, Phil Jackson stated real teams don't play zone in the playoffs.


Phil should take notice; real teams have a zone defense as part of the package. He and others should check Synergy Systems and scroll to Game 3 of the 2006 Finals between the Heat and the Mavericks. Pat Riley changed his defense to a quasi-two-three matchup zone, and guess what? Miami went on to win four straight for the title.

The matchup zone will accomplish the following against Miami:

1. It will neutralize the Heat's athleticism.
2. It will disrupt Miami's offensive rhythm.
3. It will impede the pick-and-roll drastically.
4. It will contain or push out or down Miami's drive and kick plays.
5. It will force the Heat's offense to take time. The matchup makes the shot clock your ally.
6. It will make the Heat a "catch and shoot" team. How many of those players does Miami have? I'm not talking about spot-up shooters; I'm talking about guys who can catch and shoot. I see maybe one, Mike Miller.
7. It will make Miami's offense more routine, and the more routine an offense, the easier it is for a defense to groove into its schemes.
8. It can make Miami think "zone" even if the other team is back in man-to-man defense.


As you can see from the above diagrams, when James or Wade drives against the zone, X5 will pick him up thus stopping him from attacking. This simple action can take away the offenses aggressiveness and make the Heat into a jump shooting team. Can Miller, Eddie House and Mario Chalmers make enough jump shots to keep them in games? Only time will tell.

Over the weekend, the U.S. National Team won close games against Lithuania and Spain in pre-tournament friendly matches. But the U.S. showed the reality of NBA players -- they have a hard time scoring from the outside!

How the Heat can break the zone

So what does Miami do against zones?

We all realize that the fast break hurts and/or destroys defenses. We all want easy scores. But the break is not always available. The "push game," however, coupled with the "push-pull," will take a toll on the zone.

The word "push," here, means get the ball upcourt -- usually a pass to the wing area -- to make the zone react. Now the zone becomes "flattened," and vulnerable to the next option. The "push-pull' means after a push pass, or play, teams will pull the ball out up top and get into a set or play call. This is where the offense must be aware of the clock; a late shot clock equals a poor shot.

What Miami should avoid is having the zone lying in wait for the offense, as the Lakers were doing. Then the zone is in control. Players can see the ball in front. That makes the zone slides easier .

What the Heat will need to do is have a tactical zone offense that goes for the gaps, that has the offense either break or come to the ball from in back or on the opposite side, an offense with a short corner game. A "skip pass," or throwing over the zone, is a good tactic for that.

Most importantly, the Heat needs wing "catch-and-shoot" players. They must be well-schooled. They must shoot without having to do something with the ball. If they don't, all types of defenses, zone or not, will pack it in against them.

So, can the Heat blend and mix talent, skill and mind for the good of all?

They could. And, they should. But it will not be easy.



Putting it all together

New teams go through the "getting to know one another" phase. Discovering tendencies, finding your teammates' comfort zone for shooting, figuring out who you can trust on defense ... it all takes time. And much of that takes place off the court.

Successful teams always have that label of "they have a good locker room." If not, everyone is in phase one or two of a problem. And locker room problems become on-the-court problems. The season can become a disaster.

Smart players realize that you can't run a pick-and-roll by yourself, and if you're in the post, you need someone to pass you the ball. You need someone else to be in the flow of the game. This isn't tennis.

That said, we hear that LeBron or Dwyane will have to defer. But, can one defer too much? Yes! Don't show the world that you're a nice player who's on a mission of team happiness. Just play. Run the concepts, and as those who believe in Zen say, "It will happen. Let it happen."

Trust the coach. His goal is to put players in the best possible position to express themselves. The coaches know what the opponents are thinking, and probably planning. The coaches will counter, and the players will perform within the counters.

Wade, the "Great Convincer," is responsible for those he brought to the dance. He is the man. Others have to follow and join in; if anyone doesn't want to row the boat, it's Wade's responsibility to shape them up, or tell Pat Riley to ship them out. Surely Wade remembers he came off the bench in the Olympics, for the good of the team and USA Basketball.

Here's another point: In team sports, the daily grind of demands is tough enough. If you add unneeded drama from friends or family from your "other" life, you're going to have a bad atmosphere.

Keep the friends and business associates off site. They're a noisy distraction to the real cause. They are not your teammates. A teammate is one of the great personal experiences in life.

And, for every player, don't embarrass yourself or the franchise with selfish requests. Don't create scenes outside the demands of the game. Live as "normal" as possible.

James and Bosh need the Heat, its coaches and their new teammates to show themselves and the outside world that they can get to the next level. It's their obligation to do everything possible to get there.

No excuses now. Winning -- just do it.

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