The Progression of Zone Offense

The Atlanta Hawks took a page out of the Boston Celtics recent playbook in throwing a zone at the Miami HEAT, and it helped them to a 100-92 victory Monday night.

But it wasn’t the sole reason the HEAT lost their first game of the season. Miami appeared to struggle against the zone and definitely struggled after the zone, so that’s the storyline. But a lack of Atlanta turnovers and a propensity to settling for long jumpers (10-of-29 from 16-23 feet) had far more to do with Miami’s not-all-that-bad offensive efficiency of 101.1 points per 100 possessions. Of course, there’s certainly something to be said about a zone affecting offensive rhythm.

“We were never able to get into a clean, comfortable aggressive rhythm,” Erik Spoelstra said. “You could see our minds were heavy from that point on. Our minds were occupied, rather than playing free.”

But when it came to executing against the zone itself, Miami has appeared to make significant strides within a week’s time.

While the HEAT weren’t as bad as it seemed in scoring on just 5-of-22 zone possessions against the Celtics last week – earning some good looks from efficient sectors – much of their actual scoring was done from the that region of perpetual inefficiency, 16-23 feet. Thanks to Norris Cole, who has been Miami’s best shooter against zones scoring .929 points per possession, that shot allocation was successful, but it was Miami’s progress in scoring on everything but outside shots that provided encouraging signs against Atlanta.

In the loss, Miami scored on 11 of the 25 possessions they faced an Atlanta zone – often of the 1-3-1 variety – in the half court.

“You got to get better if you see the same thing twice,” Chris Bosh said. “Boston kind of caught us off guard that time, Atlanta caught us off guard the first couple of possessions. We knew that we had to get better off-the-ball movement, and better drive and kick situations.

“We’re just standing back on our heels every time teams play zone, like it’s different. Basketball is basketball, we just have to move the ball, move off the ball, make the right passes and make the right plays.”

Miami had two standout possessions against zone Monday that fit every criteria Bosh mentioned, but before we get to that, it’s important to see just how that off-ball movement can affect the defensive alignment even if the cutting player never ends up touching the ball.

Take this possession, for example:

LeBron James makes the correct play to finish this possession, driving the lane creating by Shane Battier’s high screen. In a later play, even as he got blocked at the rim, Mario Chalmers would demonstrate the same point: that zones can be beaten with quick attacks from the perimeter. But rewind the above video. Watch what James Jones does after he gives the ball up. Instead of spotting up from the right wing – where he could be a “zone buster” – Jones cuts through the middle of the zone, bringing Joe Johnson with him until Johnson releases him to Al Horford, and Horford to Marvin Williams.

With just a simple cut, Jones has dragged Horford back toward the rim and created a horizontal chasm through the middle of Atlanta’s defense. When James attacks that space, Horford has to step up and meet James, carrying his momentum slightly forward, the opposite direction that James is traveling in. And with Udonis Haslem sealing off the help defense on the right block, all James has to do is sidestep Horford and finish at the rim.

If Jones doesn’t make that cut, Horford possibly shades closer to Battier one the initial screen and gets into position on James higher up the floor, deterring the second dribble that completed the drive.

Now let’s look at a similar play, this time with a cut being rewarded in the best way possible:

Here, it’s Mario Chalmers making the James Jones Memorial off-ball cut, with Joel Anthony trailing him across the paint. And when two guys shift across the lane, two defenders go with them, leaving a gap in the right side of the zone.

That’s not always enough, though. Sometimes, the zone will reform quickly enough to seal up all the gaps. But this time, Josh Smith and Horford get caught with their heads turned, communicating the rotations, while Williams closes out on James. And Bosh takes advantage in the simplest and most effective way possible.

He attacks the empty space and trusts his teammate to get him the ball. James is all too happy to oblige.

Sometimes the defense won’t be out of position, however. Sometimes the zone is sitting there in front of you, tempting with its holes on the perimeter. And an off-ball cut works just the same.

This possession might be the best example of manufacturing offense against the zone this season, and is the type of play rarely seen last year. The defense is set so well that even when Wade splits the defenders off a Battier pick, there’s two players in front of him, leaving him nowhere to go but retreat back to the outside.

But James gives the ball somewhere to go.

Wade draws Jeff Teague’s attention just long enough to create the opportunity for James to move into space, and even though Smith is technically in good enough position to help, he’s left by himself – like Horford in the earlier video – waiting for James to come right at him. In that position, there’s little any defender, in any defensive layout, can do.

Now, did Miami display this sort of prowess against the zone all night? If they had, nobody would be talking about it. The HEAT settled far too often for looks in those open pockets on the perimeter, but even when those perimeter shots fell, the Hawks were disciplined enough to stay in their defense.

“A few possessions we rushed some shots,” James said. “A couple more we had some good looks, and sometimes we got a little stagnant. We know a lot of teams are going to try and stop us, stop us from getting our break, stop our man-to-man offense. They’re going to go zone, so we’ve got to continue to work at it with the limited amount of practice time we have and continue to get better at it.”

That’s the issue at large for Miami right now. There’s little-to-no practice time available this season – even Tuesday, with no games, is just a day for watching film – which means little time to drill a zone offense. Games, for much of the year, will be their practice. And in just their second game this season seeing more than 20 zone possessions, the HEAT showed that they’re working on the right instincts.