And a well-timed zone possession could be just what a defense needs to take the opponent out of its rhythm. “There’s a reason teams don’t run it all the time,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.
The Dallas Mavericks have been playing a healthy share of zone for several years now. When they won the championship nine years ago, the Mass played almost 800 possessions of zone in the regular season.
And this year, they’ve played almost twice as much zone (764 possessions, according to Synergy) as any other team. The game turned when Dallas went scoreless on its first five possessions (all against zone) of the fourth quarter, but that was with both Luka Ionic and Kris taps Mornings off the floor, and the Mass got some decent shots in that stretch.
The players at the top of the zone are high and active, running shooters off the 3-point line. The Toronto Raptors have played the second most possessions of zone this season.
And they’ve been slightly more successful with it (0.94 points allowed per possession, seventh in the league) than the Heat (0.97, 10th). Raptors coach Nick Nurse was asked about the personnel needed to be successful playing zone at a high volume.
Interestingly, Nurse’s Raptors are the team against whom zone defenses have been most effective. According to Synergy, the champs have scored just 0.76 points per possession against zone, compared to 0.97 against man-to-man.
If it’s a team that that does it sporadically, and they do it to take away your timeout, you’d like to have one that works against man and zone. “The hard thing to convince NBA players is that, even if they are in a zone, still run the play that we called.
Brett Brown, Mixers head coach: I want to run, by and large, the same thing. It’s ‘Run the play, and this is what you’re going to be looking at if they’re in a zone.’ Because toucan really scout and know if teams do that more than they don’t.
Toucan scout and know if they do that, they’re more apt to be in a 3-2 (Toronto) or (Golden State) 2-3. Taylor Jenkins, Grizzlies head coach: “Obviously, when it’s thrown out as a surprise, I try to get the guys to just execute the play.
But here are a few where toucan see the “something” that they run, a “wheel” action to put pressure on the defenders on the left side of the floor… The Pacers got a wide-open corner three from Doug McDermott against the Spurs’ zone on Monday with a similar overload of the left side of the floor.
THE Los Angeles Lakers entered the fourth quarter of Game 3 of the Western Conference finals trailing the Denver Nuggets by 18 points when Lakers coach Frank Vogel called for a zone defense -- a strategic move NBA coaches once considered a last resort, but one that is becoming increasingly common this postseason. The Lakers used their zone to rack up five steals in less than three minutes, cutting the lead down to as little as three points.
And while the Nuggets recovered to win the game, the defensive switch nearly led to the second-biggest comeback of LeBron James lengthy playoff career. The past two seasons have produced the most efficient offense on record behind ever-growing numbers of 3-point shots.
“I think that the offense changed drastically, and the defense stayed pretty much the same for a while,” Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse said, “and now I think the defense is starting to have to adjust to such a different and drastic style of offensive play.” And now the zone defense, once disdained, has the potential to reshape this year's NBA Finals.
AS RECENTLY AS two seasons ago, the NBAzonedefense -- which has been allowed since 2001-02, when the league removed the “illegal defense rule preventing its use -- had all but gone extinct. After peaking at 3% usage during the 2009-10 season, zone was used for just 638 plays in 2017-18, 0.2% of all possessions, according to Synergy Sports data.
That was the culmination of six seasons of decline after zone defenses were more common in the NBA from 2009 through 2012, highlighted by the Dallas Mavericks zone helping them upset the heavily favored Big Three Miami Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals. Seven years later, Miami played a key role in bringing the zone back in vogue.
On Dec. 20, 2018, the Heat used a zone defense to slow down reigning MVP James Harden in a nationally televised win over the Houston Rockets. Harden, who was amid a historic run of 32 consecutive games of scoring at least 30 points, went just 7-for-23 from the field against the unorthodox defense.
Answer questions on the NBA playoffs and compete for $30,000 of guaranteed prizes! Though Heat coach Erik Spectra dismissed the notion that there was any grand strategy behind turning to a zone a handful of games earlier -- “We did it because our man wasn't working,” he said -- other coaches took notice of how much zone Miami was playing.
“Teams have tinkered with zone rules and tinkered around the three-second rule for the middle man, so it's not your typical college 2-3 or 3-2 zone anymore,” said Detroit Pistons coach Diane Casey, who was the architect of the Mass' 2011 defense. Spectra has also changed where those players are by putting two athletic forwards on the perimeter in the Heat's 2-3 zones, with the team's smaller guards playing on the wings in the back line.
Snyder borrowed that innovation when Utah implemented a zone defense at midseason. “Having more length at the top, that player has an opportunity to impact the offense two different ways,” Snyder explained.
“It's such an interesting contradiction,” Washington Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. When the Mavericks used zone in the 2011 NBA Finals with Casey as their defensive coordinator, they were exposing a Miami weakness.
At that point, before adding Shane Battier and unleashing Chris Bosh as a 3-point shooter, the Heat had a shortage of shooting. Yet, there's a paradox to all these 3-pointers: In a counterintuitive twist, they've made controlling the area around the basket more important for opposition defenses.
The Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Miami Heat 4-2 in the 2020 NBA Finals to claim their 17th championship. Conversely, four of the top 10 (including Milwaukee and Toronto) were among the eight teams that allowed the most 3-point attempts.
UNLIKE IN COLLEGE basketball, where legendary coaches such as Syracuse's Jim Botham and retired longtime Temple coach John Chaney built their defenses around exclusive use of 2-3 zones, NBA teams have found it more effective as a counterpunch. He went back to it again during this year's Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston to try to slow down Emma Walker after he tore apart Toronto's defense early in the series.
After outlasting the Raptors, the Celtics have struggled against Miami's 2-3 zone in the conference finals. In a series in which the Heat's three wins have come by a combined 11 points, those possessions loom large.
Between players getting more and more creative with the ball in their hands, an influx of quality shooters at every position on the court, and rules being created and enforced to aid offense, defenses are left in a nearly impossible spot. “It's going to be hard for defense to trump offense like it used to in the late '90s,” former Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown said earlier this year.
Players change speeds, switching from fast to slow and then back to their quickest gear. It was a performance not unlike most other nights for Houston, which has posted one of the greatest offensive seasons in history.
Teams don’t use zone mostly because most modern offenses are built around shooting and ball movement, which can stop the scheme dead in its tracks. Moving the ball from one side of the floor to the other, with dribble penetration and several crisp passes, can shake a zone like a snow globe and easily open up a shooter.
It’s easier for offenses to tear holes in zones, where gaps are inherent to the scheme, than with cohesive man-to-man defense. I know Don Nelson did it, Rick Carlisle does it, those guys who have some credibility in this league,” Nets coach Kenny Atkinson told reporters.
They ended up getting a solid look with an Eric Gordon spot-up 3, but the process of finding that shot took them out of their comfort zone. Houston plays at a slow, deliberate pace, runs pick-and-roll on nearly every possession, and passes the ball less than all but one team in the NBA (Oklahoma City).
The lengthy playoff schedule gives coaching staffs time to make necessary game-to-game adjustments. One NBA assistant coach noted that it’s not a coincidence that the zone’s prominence deteriorates as the level of competition increases.
It’s a mainstay at youth and high school levels, drops off precipitously in the NCAA, then falls almost entirely off the map in the NBA. But for teams with the odds stacked against them, a zone is worth trying: The strategy was one of the biggest features of Dallas’s shocking championship run in 2011 that went through the Blazers, Lakers, Thunder, and LeBron James’s Heat.
Casey would clench his fist to signal to players to run zone, usually after made baskets, though sometimes after misses. It didn’t give opponents time to mentally or physically adjust, and if even they did, the Mass might be back in man-to-man the following possession.
The Heat were heavy favorites to beat the Mavericks before that Finals; the way in which the zone discombobulated the Miami offense is one of the reasons Dallas came out with the upset. The Suns and Spurs implemented it in playoff series in the early 2010s, and the Celtics used it in recent years as a means of hiding Isaiah Thomas.
Since March 23, the Spurs and the Celtics, led by two of the league’s best head coaches, mixed in 2-3 zone defense for an extended stretch over a total of five separate games. Boston went to a zone in the second half to close a game against the Jazz, and then again late in the fourth quarter against the Raptors.
The Celtics also showed the Bucks another zone on Tuesday night, sprinkling it in at the end of the first and fourth quarters, and the beginning of the second. The little zone wrinkles Gregg Pooch and Brad Stevens introduced feel like small research and development sessions in preparation for the playoffs.
The result was similar for the Celtics on Tuesday, as Milwaukee was able to get to the lane and find open shooters. They eventually made adjustments by making more decisive passes and improving their ball movement, but Boston went back to the zone late in the game, and held them to just two points over the final 2:25.
Over that short stretch, the Raptors turned the ball over three times and hit only one shot (a miracle corner 3 off a screen by Kyle Lowry). Boston quickly went away from the zone and closed out the game with its regular scheme, but that short run was all it needed to secure its late-game lead.
Zone defense requires a set of rules that are hard to commit to on every possession, so there’s less room for error. Every play matters in the postseason, and even a handful of successful zone possessions over a mere two minutes could be the difference between a win or a loss.
For the teams that need to increase their risk profile to have a shot against the favorites, it at least seems like a plausible strategy to employ.