According to Synergy play-type tracking, 18 of the 30 teams have played at least 100 possessions of zone through Thursday. 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. In those situations, the coach of the offense has often drawn up a play to get an open shot.
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.
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 if we see zone over a period of possessions, we definitely have two or three things that we go to, maybe some different screening angles.
But for us, we kind of fall back on what we do and just emphasize something a little more, in terms of getting in and getting to the second side.” Steve Kerr, Warriors head coach: We usually just run the same play.
“So we just say, ‘Just play.’ And for the most part, if you play against a zone, toucan find an open shot.” Nick Nurse, Raptors head coach: “There’s some stuff youcanrun against both.
Frank Vogel, Lakers head coach: We typically audible to our zone set, our zone alignment, once we see that, and just play through that … There is value in just running the action and finding space.” Anthony Oliver, Grizzlies forward: “Most coaches that I’ve played for just say, ‘ Run the play.’ Keep it simple.
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.
The Los Angeles Lakers and Miami Heat haven’t played each other in 9 1/2 months. 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 … But the Heat stuck with the zone and used it for almost all 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. 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.
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… And if the defender on the weak-side baseline steps up to close off that seam, a shooter is wide open in the corner.
But if the Lakers are playing big and Debate steps up to guard Davis in the middle of the zone, he can find either Naval McGee or Dwight Howard on the baseline, which he did a couple of times in November … 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.
Ends Banter 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.
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.