There are a lot of things about life in 2020 that a younger you would not believe. Maybe one of those is that zone defense is playing a big role in the NBA playoffs.
A year after Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse broke out a “janky” box-and-one in the NBA Finals, zone defense remains more than just a gimmick to get a stop or two. And if the Miami Heat make it to this year’s Finals, we may point to 20 minutes of zone defense on Thursday as a big reason why.
The Boston Celtics’ own defense was good enough in the conference semifinals to get past Nurse’s Raptors, who played zone in all seven games of the series, throwing that janky box-and-one at Kemba Walker for almost the entire first half of Game 7.
The Celtics’ loss in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Tuesday was more about them letting their guard down defensively than it was about how they performed (pretty well, actually) on 14 possessions of Miami zone.
Game 2 was another story. The Celtics blew a 17-point lead on Thursday in part because they couldn’t execute against the Miami zone for much of the last 20 minutes of a 106-101 defeat that put them in an 0-2 hole.
> Game 3: Celtics vs. Heat, Saturday at 8:30 ET on ESPN
After handling the zone competently in Game 1, the Celtics scored the first two times Miami played zone in Game 2. Midway through the second quarter, they got an easy layup for Marcus Smart, who sneaked behind Duncan Robinson as Walker and Daniel Theis ran a pick-and-roll up top. Later in the second, Walker missed a wide-open pull-up jumper against the zone, but Jaylen Brown chased down the rebound and eventually made a pull-up himself, giving the Celtics that 17-point lead that they eventually blew.
The Heat cut into the lead with some man-to-man stops at the end of the second quarter. But after the Celtics got Jayson Tatum to the line with a clever after-timeout play with a little more than eight minutes to go in the third, the Heat went back to the zone. And they would use it on almost every half-court possession from then on.
While the Celtics were just as efficient against the zone as they were otherwise in Game 1, things were different in Game 2…
- Against the zone, they scored 26 points on 29 possessions (0.90 per).
- Otherwise, they scored 75 points on 65 possessions (1.15 per).
A mixed bag
For the most part, the Celtics’ offense against the zone didn’t look terrible. They were able to get into the paint and also attack from the baseline.
But there’s a difference between getting into the paint and scoring in the paint. After scoring 38 points in the paint (12 more than they had in all of Game 1) through the first 28 minutes on Thursday, the Celtics scored just eight points in the paint over the last 20 minutes.
They made up some of that difference with free throws (7-for-8 through the first 28 minutes, 12-for-16 over the last 20), but it wasn’t enough. Some of their jumpers against the zone were open, but open jumpers aren’t layups.
In all, the Celtics’ 16 empty possessions against the zone were a mix of bungled offense or bad decisions, open shots that were missed, tougher shots that were missed and great defensive plays.
- On the initial third-quarter zone possession, Walker got into the paint and threw a pass through Brown’s legs.
- With the Celtics up three with less than four minutes to go, Walker’s lazy pass was deflected by Jimmy Butler (who then made an incredible play to save the ball).
- Two possessions later, with the score tied, Smart took a brutally bad turnaround jumper with seven seconds left on the shot clock and with Tatum open on the other side of the floor.
- In the third quarter, a Brown baseline drive got Walker an open 3 from the top of the arc.
- Late in the third, Tatum missed an open 3 off an inbounds play.
- With 15 seconds to go in the fourth, Brown (who made 3s on each of the previous two possessions) missed an open look from the left corner that would have tied the game.
That was the extent of the self-inflicted wounds against the zone on Thursday. The rest of the possessions that came up empty were more a result of how good the Heat were in that zone.
There were some contested or rushed shots, for which this 10-foot floater from Walker is a good example…
And there were some cases of the Heat just being athletic, smart and instinctive.
Zone with disposition
For Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, the difference between the first half and the second half of Game 2 was less about man-to-man vs. zone and more about effort and energy.
“There wasn’t much that we liked about what we were doing defensively, man or zone,” Spoelstra said afterward. “I know everybody wants to talk about a scheme but for us it’s disposition, effort, making multiple plays and multiple efforts, regardless of the scheme. And we were more committed there in the second half.”
Exhibit A in the effort-vs.-scheme argument is, well, the entire NBA. A lot of teams employ the same (or very similar) defensive schemes, but some execute those schemes better than others. It starts with buy-in and it continues with energy, cohesion, intelligence and instincts. And all of that was on display from the Heat over those last 20 minutes on Thursday.
Here’s some of their best work in the zone…
Play 1: One way to beat a zone is to overload one side of the floor to the point where there’s not enough defenders to guard everybody. The Celtics have done that at times, and early in the third-quarter stretch of zone, both Brown and Smart are open on the right side as Theis sets a screen for Walker…
Walker gets the ball to Brown and he attacks the seam, drawing Bam Adebayo to the ball. But Adebayo is able to recover to Theis and block his layup.
“You have to present a threat at the rim,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said of his team’s execution against the zone, “make the guy in the middle play multiple guys, shrink the bottom in. I thought we did a good job attacking to the corners on several occasions. We missed shots or we drove it, dumped it to the roller and he just missed. But Adebayo had a big part of that.”
Play 2: The Heat apply some pressure in the backcourt (something they did a few times on Thursday) to work some extra seconds off the shot clock. Smart drives baseline and draws Adebayo and tries to hit Enes Kanter rolling to the rim. But Jae Crowder drops down from the opposite side to get his hand on the ball, forcing one of the Celtics’ seven live-ball turnovers in the second half.
Play 3: The Celtics seem to run a sideline out-of-bounds play for Tatum to flare off a back-screen from Grant Williams. He’s open for a split second, but he’s a few steps beyond the arc. Smart beats Derrick Jones Jr. off the dribble, but Jones makes an incredible recovery to contest (and maybe block) Smart’s layup.
(WYD, Kelly Olynyk?)
Play 4: Smart flashes to the middle of the zone and quickly kicks the ball back out to Walker, but Butler and Tyler Herro keep Walker from launching off the catch. He gets into the paint, but Butler stays with him and Jones deflects his pass back to Smart. Tatum recovers the loose ball, but his pass to Brown on the baseline is wide.
Play 5: On a baseline out-of-bounds play, Adebayo covers Tatum’s dive to the rim and Butler bounces off of Theis’ screen to deflect Smart’s inbounds pass to Brown.
Butler can sometimes get himself (and his team) into trouble with how aggressive he is in seeking steals and deflections. But it sure feels like he’s guesses right more than he guesses wrong in those situations. He’s one of two players who have played at least 100 minutes in these playoffs and have more steals than personal fouls. Kawhi Leonard finished with 30 steals and 29 fouls. Butler, who was one of two players (Memphis’ Tyus Jones was the other) who played 1,000 regular season minutes with more steals than personal fouls, now has 25 and 20 through the Heat’s 11 playoff games.
You might have a hard time coming up with a better top line to a 2-3 zone than Butler and Jones (more evidence here). Having Adebayo as the back-line anchor is nice, too.
“It’s a hard zone to play against,” Stevens said. “We did play well against it in Game 1. We played with way better pace than we did tonight. So we’ll go back and look at it, figure out if it was a technical thing or a pace thing or an execution thing, or just not-as-focused-on-the-important-stuff thing.”
More to come
There was important stuff on the other end of the floor, especially in the third quarter, when the Heat scored 37 points on just 23 possessions, with Adebayo scoring 12 of those 37 in the restricted area. But the game really started going south for the Celtics when the zone slowed them down and kept them from getting to the basket.
Spoelstra’s it’s-about-effort-more-than-scheme talk could mean that he doesn’t see the zone as necessary to win more games in this series. Of course, he’d ever give us any hint about how much he plans to use it going forward. Heck, his team played the most zone in the regular season, didn’t play any zone through the first two rounds of the playoffs, and then had it ready for Boston in Game 1.
Also, when the Heat went back to man-to-man for a couple of possessions midway through the fourth quarter on Thursday, the Celtics got a dunk from Tatum and a pull-up 3 from Walker. Maybe that was a temporary change of disposition and maybe the scheme had something to do with it.
Whether it’s about scheme or disposition (it’s both), we can expect the Heat to go back to the zone at some point in Game 3. With more film to watch, Boston will have a better idea of what works and what doesn’t.
The Celtics’ own disposition can be just as critical as that of the Heat. They’ll certainly look to get into their offense quicker to avoid rushed shots late in the clock. And they may have an additional playmaker — Gordon Hayward, who hasn’t played since the first game of the first round — to help find holes in the defense, maybe as the center in a tougher-to-guard small lineup that’s played a total of 18 minutes this season.
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John Schuhmann is a senior stats analyst for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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