LAS VEGAS, July 25, 2008 -- Former NBA head coach Don Casey once started a blog entry off in 2006 (he was ahead of his time) with the headline “RILEY PLAYS ZONE! I Repeat: RILEY PLAYS ZONE!” Yes, seeing guys in the NBA play an area rather than a man on defense, really gets him going. Like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had the sky hook, MJ had the fadeaway and Dikembe Mutombo has the finger wag, Casey has the coaching of zone defense.

In his coaching career spanning from 1973 until today - from Temple University as the head coach, to the Chicago Bulls as an assistant, to the L.A. Clippers as the head coach, to the Boston Celtics as an assistant, to the New Jersey Nets as the head coach - it has always been Casey at the zone.

The author of Own the Zone was invited by U.S.A. Basketball to be a special assistant to Select Team's head coach P.J. Carlesimo. Casey taught the young squad how to play the 2-3 zone (two men up at the foul line, three men down on the baseline) and how to play against it so the Men’s Senior National Team could scrimmage against a zone-playing opponent before heading overseas.

“It’s really important because they’re going to see a lot of good zone, and [Casey’s] as good of a zone teacher as there is in the country,” Carlesimo said. “When you only have a little bit of time to get something in to try and help these guys out and be ready, for him to be able to do that in this short of time was really important for us.”

I caught up with Casey on Wednesday, the first day of training camp that U.S.A. Basketball implemented the zone …

I know that today Coach Boeheim introduced the senior team to the 2-3 zone and I assume you were working on it with the select team. How do you approach teaching it to these players for the first time?

Casey: It was a quick teach. All you do is try to familiarize them with where they should be or could be in relation to where the ball is. It’s more intricate than that and I think the senior team got more into it, but again, our guys did awfully well at picking things up on our own. I think our group did good enough against the Olympic team since they had more offensive plays in than we did.

P.J. kind of let them flow and I think we did well. I think we gave them a lesson to be learned.

What’s the advantage of having the zone in your arsenal when entering an international tournament?

Casey: You know, the world doesn’t say you have to play man-for-man, just like in the NFL secondary, they don’t say you have to play man-for-man. Zone concepts, which are territorial and then playing the man in that territory are a way to neutralize great athletes that you’ll face.

Now, they need skill. They need to know how to pass, they have to know how to shoot, they can’t always dribble and shoot so, the zone forces skills to be exerted or demonstrated and most players in the United States are not used to that. That’s why when the FIBA players come over here, they’re great at catch-and-shoot and that’s also why when a lot of teams go over there, we struggle to some degree against the zone.

The zone is a lethal weapon if given the chance.

Coach Boeheim stopped the team during instruction and everybody sort of had their hands down at their hips and he said, “Stop, put your hands up and out,” to show them how much ground they can cover in an active zone ...

Casey: That can crowd the court severely when you’re looking in there to try to make a pass. When the defensive players have their hands out so wide that they’re almost touching, then the passer can’t pick and choose as easily. That’s a very good teaching point.

If you’re going to give something up in the zone, basically you want to give up the outside shot?

Casey: Not necessarily. You want to contest almost everything. It’s not like when you’re playing man and you want to give up Shaq and concentrate on Nash; you do a little bit of both. You don’t want the ball to go inside against the zone because it has pierced the veil and now the inside-out game takes place and that you don’t want. They didn’t get that much today, but if they can get it inside and carve up the defense, then we’re open for good things.

Can you talk a little bit about your involvement with Team U.S.A. this time around and what it means to you?

Casey: It’s a great honor. Coach K and Jerry [Colangelo] e-mailed and talked to P.J. to have me come in just as a supplement, obviously, to teach the zone and put it in in the shortest about of time, which we tried to do today. It makes me feel good. It makes me feel alive. It makes me feel part of something again.

My goal is that I hope to move up because I’d love to see the zone, the match-up part of it, played in the NBA in any way, shape or form as a legitimate way to win. I would like that shot to try it as an assistant. Tom Thibodeau had his day as an assistant and now he got a chance to thoroughly put his ideas in and Doc [Rivers], to his credit, allowed it to happen.

I would like to have the same opportunity with the zone. I’m not saying it won’t ever be used, but it’s hard. It’s hard getting a comfort factor for those coaches and players who aren’t used to it but it can gradually take hold. In my opinion, also, it would influence the Draft because in the Draft, if you’re seeing this type of defense you’re going to need the Kerrs, the Paxsons, the Eddie Johnsons … you’re going to need them. They don’t have them too much today.

Look at the Olympic team. You have Michael Redd, you have Kobe …those are your pure shooters. The NBA guys today, they have to do something with the ball before they shoot it. Now Kobe can catch-and-shoot, Carmelo is great at it too, but I think if you’ll get more guys like that.

If you’re going to get rid of the 3-D rule, which the zone in effect would end, I don’ t think it would hurt the game at all.

[Editor’s Note: The “3-D rule” is a warning the first time for illegal defense by playing your defensive man in the lane for more than three seconds. Any subsequent violation results in a technical foul shot.]

I thought that the help-side defense that our team was playing, the scrambling around … no big man was just hanging around and blocking all kinds of shots like they say because the offense was moving him and they were playing the 2-3 zone with their big guys out there and it didn’t bother us. It would allow more creativity for the coach. If was a man-for-man coach and I couldn’t put my help-side man in there, I would be disturbed. So I have to keep him out there because of some rule?

This team here is really getting used to the non 3-D rule and they’re really helping each other out. They’re going to be tough to beat, I think.

You mentioned that they’ll be playing the 2-3 zone, is there any other zone that they’ll be playing like the 3-2?

Casey: I think they’ll stick to the 2-3 because they know it better and that’s Jimmy’s zone, he’s been doing it for 40 years. Also the reason why is because I think they’ll be able to make the adjustments as they need against the other teams from the 2-3, vs. 1-3-1 or 3-2. They don’t have to dig around with stuff, they’ll just play their basic zone.

When you coach zone, obviously teaching how to play offense against it is a big part of it. So like you said, you’re trying to get into the lane and make that pass into the middle?

Casey: Yeah and you’re also trying to get the zone offense to be moving, so it’s not always standing around. You force it to do something, whether it’s a dribble or a pass and cut. If you just stand around passing it back and forth to one another, you’re going to be struggling.

You also mentioned the match-up zone, is that anything different? I know John Chaney who followed you at Temple is famous for his match-up zone.

Casey: A match-up in the purest sense, in the purest sense, is that if they come down 1-3-1, you match up 1-3-1. If they come down 2-3, you match up 2-3. Our contention is that we show 2-3 and make adjustments according to their players. So if they come down in a one-man front, we’re not going to hold a two-man front. But, it’s not a full, full out match-up. You follow guys through sometimes. It’s good, it’s a good defense.

I think the zone could end up being very helpful for the U.S.

Casey: It’s good for the game. You can see how the players can put their hands up like that, how they do scramble and talk to one another. I thought they played the zone well considering that they hadn’t played it. The senior team hit a couple shots set a couple picks and got a couple rebounds because they were more familiar with it, but as time goes on it will be good to see how it continues to play out.

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