Zone Of The Game Enders

The HEAT Go Up 2-0 On Boston By Admitting What Wasn't Working And Finding What Would
Heat Defense
Jesse D. Garrabrant
by Couper Moorhead

You know the old saying of necessity being the mother of invention? Wherever you see zone defense in the NBA, you can usually find in the same place a man-to-man defense that wasn’t working.

“They were carving us up when we played man-to-man,” Tyler Herro said.

After the Celtics hung a 122.4 offensive rating on the HEAT during the first half of Game 2, leading by as many as 17 on the back of 58 percent shooting, the second half didn’t get much better. On the first defensive possession out of the break, Daniel Theis rolled right down the lane for a dunk. Then Marcus Smart barreled right through Duncan Robinson for a layup, followed by Jayson Tatum drawing a driving and-one on Goran Dragic in the paint. By the time Tatum took another free roll to the rim and drew a foul, Erik Spoelstra had seemingly seen enough.

The next time Boston came down the floor, and most times after that, the HEAT were sitting in their zone.

The result on that possession? A turnover.

The result on the night? A win.

“There wasn’t much that we liked about what we were doing, defensively,” Spoelstra said. “Man or zone.

“Everybody wants to talk about a scheme. For us, it’s disposition, it’s effort, making tough plays, making multiple efforts regardless of the scheme. We were more committed in the second half.”

Spoelstra was reticent to give the zone all the credit, and he had a fair point. No defense, no scheme works without the necessary energy and force. Boston comfortably scored against a handful of zone possessions in the first half. But the second-half zone clearly threw a Celtics team firing on all cylinders off its game, as they scored just 0.76 points per scoring chance on 33 opportunities per Second Spectrum tracking data.

“We’ll go back and look at it, figure out if it’s a technical thing, a pace thing or an execution thing, or just a not as focused on the important stuff thing,” Brad Stevens said.

Zone struggles are nothing new for Boston, despite all the offensive talent at hand. The Celtics scored just 0.92 points per scoring chance against zone in the regular season, 23rd in the league, and they’re coming off a seven-game series against the Toronto Raptors when they scored 0.75 points per chance in 90 opportunities. The scheme was widely identified as an option for Miami coming into the Eastern Conference Finals. But the HEAT put their own spin on it.

What separated Miami’s zone from the rest of the league over the last couple of years is how much length – the Butlers, Jae Crowders, Andre Iguodalas and Derrick Jones Jr’s of the roster – they can put at the top of the floor. When others go zone, they’ll sometimes stick with traditional size-for-size assignments, putting their smaller players at the top of a 2-3 and bigger players at the back line. But that can often leave your defenders that most often get targeted in position to be targeted again. Not many teams are as comfortable attacking mismatches from the corner as they are from the top of the floor. Spoelstra puts his length up top – even Bam Adebayo has spent time at the top of the zone this season – where time in front of the ball is maximized.

And when the offense puts pressure on the top line of defense, the smaller players in the corners are ready to step up and hinder the drive much in the same way they did in the previous round against Giannis Antetokounmpo.

“We play it in an unorthodox way, we put our length up top and really try to be disruptive,” Robinson said.

That help can leave you susceptible to open shooters if the ball is moved quickly and accurately enough, as is the risk with most zone looks. That’s a fair tradeoff, given that just three of Boston’s 22 shot attempts against the zone were at the rim. When Bam Adebayo is rolling down the paint for dunk after dunk in the third quarter because the Celtics couldn’t figure out how to send the necessary help without leaving a shooter like Robinson open – Miami’s spacing was superb during that stretch – then seeing mostly jumpers on the other end probably isn’t going to cause much consternation.

The other benefit of having your best defenders at the top of the zone is they get to see a lot of passes. Many teams fall into a sort of routine or pattern, swinging the ball back and forth across the arc as they look for a seam to attack. As we all just saw against the Milwaukee Bucks, few players devour routine passes quite like Butler.

“We’re really good in that zone because we have guys that have long arms and get in that passing lane,” Butler said.

That steal, and one a couple minutes later which led to another pick-six score, was probably the difference in the game given that Boston eventually stalled out Miami’s offense with a switch-everything, small-ball approach. Time and time again this postseason, the HEAT have been able to quench an offensive drought with a defensive play. The HEAT’s 26 points off turnovers were a high for any Boston opponent during the playoffs.

Help might be on the way in Boston’s case. Gordon Hayward reportedly is in line to play in Game 3, and he has traditionally been a nice target to flash into the middle of the zone and make play at the free-throw line. When Hayward was on the floor during the regular season, Boston scored 0.98 points per chance against zone. When he was off the the floor, that number dropped to 0.88. Hayward hasn’t played a game in about a month and there’s no telling what sort of impact he’ll have, but as it pertains specifically to zone he can certainly be of use.

Maybe none of this matters by then. The Celtics started puncturing the zone as the game wore on, despite Butler’s plays. Playing the passing lane isn’t a guarantee, either, as a lunge in one direction can spell doom in the other if hand doesn’t meet ball.

If that’s the case, if Game 2 is the most Miami gets from the zone, that’s perfectly fine. If any coaching adjustment gets you a win in the Conference Finals, it was a good adjustment.

It’s also an adjustment plenty of teams have made over the years. Some viewers may not enjoy the aesthetic of a zone, but it’s part of the game. Tom Thibodeau’s vaunted defensive schemes in the past decade used plenty of zone principles. The Dallas Mavericks employed zone to strifle Miami’s offense in the 2011 Finals. Nick Nurse helped push the Toronto Raptors to a championship a year ago using just about every zone variation in the book. Even when teams are ostensibly in a traditional man-to-man, most of the time there is a zone concept in there. The line between what we call regular help defense and a zone can get pretty blurry.

There’s no Samurai Code when it comes to NBA defense. You don’t just go down with your man-to-man defense because that’s the way defense should be played. Like any scheme, you have to have the personnel and precision to execute it the right way.

And you have to practice it, too. If the HEAT hadn’t run the most zone possessions in the league this season, maybe this wouldn’t have been such a good option for them. Spoelstra has always used the season to find things, plural, that work.

“Hell, I’m glad he’s my coach,” Butler said.

The HEAT have found something, for now. It’s on Boston to figure it out.


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