Cole and the First Zone

There’s little doubt that Miami’s 115-107 victory over the Boston Celtics belonged to Norris Cole. In just his second NBA game, the rookie displayed nuclear levels of confidence, both passing over LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to find more open players in the half court and scoring 14 points in the fourth quarter to fend off a Celtics rally. On national television, this was Cole saying, “Hello, World.”

But Cole, strangely, was uniquely prepared for this game, in which the Celtics went to a zone defense triple the total number of possessions (8) they zoned Miami in all of 2010-11. Cole’s Cleveland State team saw zone on 15 percent of all their possessions last season, with 78 and 313 used by Cole for a shot, assist or turnover, and Cole scored nearly nine points for every ten of those possessions.

Seventeen of the zone possessions Tuesday came in Cole’s big fourth quarter.

“I knew the spots that were going to be open, just from the sets that we were drawing up,” Cole said. “It was in spots where they kick it and there’s a shooting pocket. You step in and knock it down.”

He knocked them down, but given that five of Cole’s eight field goals came from the typically inefficient 16-23 foot range – three of those against zone in the fourth – the HEAT, who shot 47 percent from that range Tuesday and 43 percent last season, may have been a little fortunate given the looks they earned. Something they seemed to acknowledge after scoring on just a quarter of Boston’s 24 zone looks.

“We have a pretty good idea of what we’ll be seeing quite a bit, so there will be plenty of time to work on it. We will get better against the zone,” Erik Spoelstra said. “At times we looked a little anxious, we missed some open looks, and that compounded our anxiousness.”

As in, these plays:

So, in a sense, though they weren’t the most efficient looks, Cole stepping in to more comfortable spots after missing a couple spot-up threes against the zone may have been the best, most calming thing for the HEAT in their home opener.

But clearly there is still a lot of work to do, and in a season when the supply of practice time won’t come close to meeting the demand.

What was strangest about Miami’s struggles against the zone was that, against man defense, the HEAT are cutting so freely to the rim, but when Boston changed the look to one that often offers more predictably open space, all that natural movement that has given Miami big leads in each of its first two games stopped happening.

Why?

Shane Battier smiled, gave a little shrug and simply said he didn’t know. Dwyane Wade said it was simply a matter of getting more comfortable, given that this was the first time they’ve seen zone this season – against a team that only ran it 41 possessions last year, for that matter. Chris Bosh echoed that sentiment, that it is a feeling out process against a defense that is tougher, literally, to get a feel for.

“That’s the first time we’ve seen zone other than practice. We can’t expect us to come out and destroy it,” Bosh said. “When they change that look a little bit, it kind of makes you stall and look a little. I think we can still be aggressive. We can teach the same philosophies that we have in the man defense. The man is a little bit easier because you know where your man is, you know where you’re going, and we’re spread out.

“You don’t always want to cut into somebody. That’s the tough part about a zone, sometimes you want to make a cut and you cut right into somebody. If we’re cutting down the lane and opening it up for somebody else, that’ll be great.”

On two of Cole’s late-game jumpers, with Miami up three and under two minutes to play, exactly what Bosh described happened. The cut into space altered the zone, creating space for a shooter. Space wins.

Of course, saying the HEAT struggle against a zone is a bit like saying James Cameron struggles to implement convincing computer graphics after watching The Abyss. After all, Miami scored over a point per possession in over 50 attempts against zone in the playoffs last season. It’s just something, as with most things in basketball, that takes time and repetitions to improve. There are weak points in a zone to exploit, and even Doc Rivers, whose team held Miami scoreless in 18-of-24 zone possessions, was happy that the HEAT found some of them.

“The only mistake we made on the zone was giving them dribble-drives,” Rivers said. “Just because you’re in a zone, someone still needs to guard the ball. That’s what we kept telling them and that’s where we failed.”

But all of this is something for tomorrow, and all of this season’s tomorrows after that. For now, it’s important to linger, even for a moment, on the fact that Miami’s offense was so good it forced a prolific man-to-man defensive team to something it used less than one percent of the time in 2010-11.

“But that’s a testament to our offense and the way we’re moving a ball,” Wade said.

As Battier said, you don’t see Kevin Garnett and the boys in zone too often.