Don’t expect zone defense to suddenly be Heat stopper

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The NBA is a copycat league — what works for one team will be copied by others. Almost instantly.

So when the Boston Celtics threw a pure zone at the Heat and climbed back into the game Tuesday night, scouts took notice. You can be sure that the Heat are going to see a lot more zone than they have before.

That doesn’t mean it’s going to work.

The Heat are set to bust the zone a couple of different ways, they just didn’t execute very well against the Celtics. (Well, Norris Cole did late.) This was the second game of the season, keep throwing zones at the Heat and things will change.

One reason the zone worked for Boston is at the other end of the court, Tom Haberstroh explained at ESPN.

The Celtics hit their shots, which gave them time to set up the zone defense, and then the Heat couldn’t get into their signature up-tempo game…. “We didn’t get too many defensive stops,” LeBron James said. “When we get stops, it gives us an opportunity to run. They started shooting the ball extremely well from three. It allowed them to get back into their zone to slow us up.”

Miami’s up-tempo offense this season — they had 104 possessions against the Celtics, up 13 from their average last season — is designed to not give a defense a chance to set, to be disruptive and keep the opponents off balance. When the Celtics set their defense against anyone, they can cause problems.

Zach Lowe of Sports Illustrated re-watched every possessionthe Heat had against zone and came away with a few conclusions of his own — Miami had five turnovers or fouls in the paint and also just missed some open looks. Meaning they were close to good plays, it just didn’t work out for them. But they usually will.

None of this is to say Miami has solved this thing, obviously. The results Tuesday night were bad, but the numbers only kind of lie. James and Dwyane Wade both took one or two awful long jumpers with lots of time to spare on the shot clock, and Miami also didn’t experiment much with running its normal offense — or something like it — against the zone. That’s an alternative some teams use — run pick-and-rolls as if nothing is amiss, or move the parts around until a mismatch emerges, and then exploit that mismatch via a run of-the-mill isolation drive or a post-up. Still, the tape shows the rudiments of a decent zone attack are there, with a good use of space across the floor, and James and Wade stationed on opposite wings in a way that creates quick-hitting scoring chances.

The Heat will keep seeing zones until they solve it consistently in this copycat league. It just may not be that long.