2020 NBA Finals | Lakers vs. Heat

Film Study: How Lakers can attack Heat's zone defense

Don't be surprised if we see Miami employ 2-3 zone early and often in The Finals

The Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat haven’t played each other in 9 1/2 months. So there are many questions to be answered when Game 1 of The Finals tips off at 9 p.m. ET on Wednesday (ABC).

One of those questions is in regard to the Heat’s 2-3 zone defense. After using it for 157 possessions (27% of all defensive possessions) in the conference finals, how much of it will they play against the Lakers?

The Heat themselves probably don’t know the answer just yet. The Lakers are a very different team than the Boston Celtics, and the Heat actually went through two series (against Indiana and Milwaukee) without playing any zone at all.

But there’s one big reason why zone would make a lot of sense against this particular opponent …

Rim protection is priority No. 1

The Heat played eight possessions of 2-3 zone in the first quarter of Game 6 against Boston, and the Celtics made five 3-pointers on those eight possessions. That, along with Boston having had its best game against the zone (14 points on nine possessions) in Game 5, might have been reason to go away from it. But the Heat stuck with the zone and used it for almost all of the 37-27 fourth quarter that put them in The Finals.

The Celtics certainly got more comfortable against the zone as the series went on, and they got a lot of open 3s (many from the corners) against it. But overall, they scored 1.11 points per possession against the zone and 1.15 otherwise.

As we look forward to Lakers-Heat, the point-per-possession numbers may not be the most important. Against the zone, the Celtics took more than half of their shots (73/145) from 3-point range and attempted just 13 free throws per 100 shots from the field. Otherwise, they took only 39% of their shots from 3-point range and attempted 33 free throws per 100 shots from the field.

So the zone forced more jump shots and allowed fewer free throws. That’s an even more important formula against the Lakers, the team that, in the regular season, had the biggest differential between its field goal percentage in the paint (60.9%, first) and its effective field goal percentage on shots from outside the paint (47.7%, 26th).

That outside-the-paint number has been higher (50.4%) in the playoffs, but protecting the basket remains priority No. 1 against the Lakers. In the postseason, the Lakers have scored 1.06 points per attempt from 3-point range (1.20 on corner 3s), but 1.42 per attempt in the restricted area and 1.49 per (2-shot) trip to the line. And the zone may be the best way to prevent the latter two.

When the Heat play man-to-man, Bam Adebayo switches almost every ball screen. That allows him to neutralize the man with the ball (he’s allowed just 0.58 points per possession on isolations), but it also takes him away from the rim.

In Games 3 and 5, the Heat played 25 total possessions of zone, and the Celtics scored 133 total points in the restricted area or on free throws. In Games 4 and 6, the Heat played 89 total possessions of zone and the Celtics scored 91 total points in the restricted area or on free throws.

As noted, forcing jumpers is more important against the Lakers than it is against the Celtics, who had the sixth smallest differential between their field goal percentage in the paint (54.6%, 22nd) and their effective field goal percentage on shots from outside the paint (51.6%, ninth) in the regular season. So don’t be surprised if we see zone early and often in The Finals.

Angles of attack

If we see the zone, here are some ways that the Lakers might attack it …

1. Inside screen and go from there

The Celtics attacked the zone the same way for much of Games 5 and 6. They had their big man set a ball-screen on the inside of one of the top defenders.

If that screen is solid and the other top defender doesn’t slide over to the nail (the middle of the foul line), the ball-handler is able to get into the paint …

Tatum drive through middle of zone

If the other top defender does slide over, the ball-handler can pass to the opposite side of the floor, where a huge seam has been created…

Zone seam

And if the defender on the weak-side baseline steps up to close off that seam, a shooter is wide open in the corner.

Corner 3 against zone

LeBron James is the Lakers’ primary ball-handler (especially in the starting lineup), but would obviously be the best guy to attack the seam from the wing, as he did in the first regular-season meeting when the Lakers set an inside screen up top …

James attacks seam

So the inside-screen action may work best with Rajon Rondo or Alex Caruso in the game and with Danny Green (18-for-43 on corner 3s in the playoffs) or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (18-for-38) in the corner.

2. Outside screen and attack

If one of the ball-handling guards isn’t on the floor, the Lakers can set a screen for James on the outside of the zone, allowing him to attack those seams on the side of the zone directly.

Celtics outside screen

A shooter in the strong-side corner gives the baseline defender a difficult decision to make.

3. Davis in the middle

That inside-screen play above (where James drew a flagrant foul on Meyers Leonard) was one of 27 possessions of zone that the Heat played in the November meeting between these two teams (they played just eight possessions of zone in the December game). But it was one of only a few times where the Lakers used that inside-screen action.

Most of the time, they had somebody (usually Anthony Davis) flash into the middle of the zone. More often than not, he got a shot for himself (a layup and a short jumper are two examples).

But if the Lakers are playing big and Adebayo steps up to guard Davis in the middle of the zone, he can find either JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard on the baseline, which he did a couple of times in November …

Davis high-low assist to Howard

With the lineups the Heat have been using in the playoffs, they’re relatively small at those two baseline positions in the zone. So McGee and Howard can score above guys like Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson. And if the baseline guys manage to take away the high-low option, Davis can kick out to open shooters.

4. Post and cut

Enes Kanter was the only guy that the Celtics posted up against the zone, but the Lakers have both Davis (third in the postseason with 8.0 post-ups per game) and James (12th with 3.1). Getting the ball into the post against the zone is tougher than it is against man-to-man, but it can open some things up by turning the defense around.

McGee actually got a post-up in that November game. Jimmy Butler turned his head and Caldwell-Pope cut behind him for a layup…

Caldwell-Pope cut through zone

You can get into the teeth of the zone via the dribble or the pass. James could be the toughest guy in the league to stop off the dribble, while Davis is arguably the league’s best interior target.

But getting into the paint isn’t the same as getting all the way to the basket. And if the Heat can mostly force short jumpers from Davis or James or catch-and-shoot 3s from the Lakers’ guards, that’s a lot better than a heavier diet of layups and dunks. The Lakers have options in regard to bending the zone. Breaking it is easier said than done.

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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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