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Bruce the Shark, or How the HEAT Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Zone

Feb 23 2012 11:41AM

Do you know the story of Bruce? You might know him better as the shark from Jaws, but to the filmmakers, the mechanized shark – really, there were three – they used to create an underwater terror was known simply as Bruce. And Bruce was a pain.

The first time Bruce was tested out, he sank. The second time, his hydraulic system exploded. Most of the time, Bruce simply didn’t work. And even when he was functional, Bruce was attached to a steel sled that moved along by being dragged along the ocean floor by men in scuba suits. Filming went 100 days over schedule, and millions of dollars over budget.

It was also the best thing that could have happened for Jaws.

Originally, the shark was going to be seen throughout the movie. Whenever the camera crept up on an unsuspecting victim floating in the water, you were supposed to see the shark. But with Bruce not cooperating with that plan, Steven Spielberg had to change the way he shot the movie. You would just see a fin here, a glimpse there, with the camera acting as the shark’s eyes. You knew it was a shark, but you didn’t know exactly what it was until long into the two-hour runtime. But when Roy Scheider finally sees Bruce, all twenty-five feet, three tons of him, you knew exactly why he wanted to get a bigger boat. And a couple of cannons.

Last year, Spielberg spoke on the subject with Ain’t It Cool News:

“The shark not working was a godsend. It made me become more like Alfred Hitchcock than like Ray Harryhausen in the sense that Ray Harryhausen in his day could do anything he wanted because he had control of his art. When I didn’t have control of my shark it made me kind of rewrite the whole script without the shark.”

Early in this season, when the Miami HEAT were flying up and down the court, showcasing a new transition attack, the team had its own shark. Trying to disrupt the free-flowing attack, teams were resorting to zone defenses.

It worked. The moment that zone came out, Miami would get stopped dead in its tracks. It would spend a few possessions passing around the perimeter, feeling things out, and though they would generate the occasional good look, there was never a cohesive and consistent approach. Like a broken-down Bruce, the zone was derailing the project, the offense, it was a major part of.

This was probably a very good thing.

“We learned early on what doesn’t work. Sometimes that’s just as important as knowing off the bat what does work,” Shane Battier said. “In a way, those early struggles were beneficial.”

"Just having some kind of body of work to look at and evaluate and say OK, this is what we need to get better at, this is what we’re already good at. Just having some examples to teach off of, it definitely helped us,” said assistant coach David Fizdale.

Half the battle with the zone, it seems, was mental. The HEAT would spend so much of the shot clock last season trying to figure out what defense their opponent was in, and then trying to execute specific sets against it, that they would simply run out of time. This year, despite some early success hitting open mid-range jumpers – such as against Boston – the results were much the same. Too much thinking about the zone, not enough doing.

So the coaching staff did a little script rewriting.

“That’s been a point of emphasis this year from [Erik Spoelstra], getting better at attacking zones and not over-thinking it,” Fizdale said. “Last year a lot of times we got caught up trying to out-think the zone, or recognize if they’re in a zone or a man or all of that. We’ve gotten away from that now and we just keep the package simple, we got some basic fundamental rules but we want to get into our offense quick and attack. And just don’t overthink it.”

The less time there is to think, the less time there is to worry. Now, after early struggles and stagnation, during which Spoelstra said you could see the team’s minds were heavy and Chris Bosh said they got caught off guard and on their heels, minds are unanimously clear.

“When a team goes to zone, we just call our play and keep going,” Dwyane Wade said. “We don’t look at it and say, ‘Uh oh, they’re throwing a zone at us.’ We know if we come out aggressive against man-to-man we know a team is bound to go to the zone, so we’re not worried about it.

“We look forward to seeing the zone,” Bosh said. “We take of the mindset of it doesn’t really matter what a team throws at us.”

“We’re not as rattled when we see one,” Battier said.

Decide for yourself. Does this look like a team rattled? Like a team full of worry?

So how has this progress translated statistically? After lingering around the bottom third of the league for much of January, the HEAT are now 14th in points scored per possessions against zone (.982). Slightly above average, sure, but that ranking is also slightly deceiving.

Those .982 points per possessions Miami scores against the zone would also be the best, by a significant margin, efficiency posted by any team in the league against man-to-man defense. Or in half-court offense in general. Those .982 points per possessions would be the second-best offense in the league, behind where the HEAT are now. It’s even better than one team scores in transition.

And last night, against the Sacramento Kings, when Miami saw three times as much zone as they had over the entirety of the current winning streak, it scored on 21 of the 34 possessions against the defense.

You’re probably thinking at this point that the Kings aren’t a great defensive team, and you would be right. In over 100 possessions using zone, Sacramento is decidedly below average. How could an efficient night against that defense be much of a breakthrough? Because the hurdle is about Miami’s approach, not about whether defenders are sliding into cutting lanes, turning would-be dunks into eight-foot floaters.

“We try to drill our fundamentals, our concepts, not looking as much at playing out of sets,” Fizdale said. “We try to drill concepts. So that whoever is out on the floor feels very comfortable with what their job is.”

Concepts like moving without the ball, as seen in the video above. Concepts like attacking quickly with the ball. Concepts like making quick decisions, and finding the open man.

What happens against a team like Dallas, then, which used the zone in short, effective bursts to the detriment of Miami in the NBA Finals? What happens against the best disguised zone in the league, with dynamics far beyond those of a conventional 2-3 defense?

Same thing.

“What [Dallas] taught us was don’t worry about what they’re in,” Fizdale said. “Whatever we call, you run that, and if you recognize that it’s a zone, attack it with certain concepts.”

And don’t stop to think about it.