With about eight minutes left and Boston trailing by 13 on Monday, Celtics coach Doc Rivers went to a zone defense in an attempt to confuse Miami. Over the next four minutes, the Heat missed their first five shots against the zone, scoring only in transition (a Dwyane Wade floater) and off an offensive rebound (a LeBron James basket).
Rivers said after Boston’s Game 1 loss that he expects the zone to be a weapon in this Eastern Conference finals series, and there is a general sense among NBA observers that the Heat struggle against zone defenses. (The Celtics used a zone against Miami with some success on Dec. 27 in the second game of the season for both teams.) Magic Johnson mentioned before Monday’s game that Dallas’ zone defense flustered Miami in the Finals last season, and it’s true that neither Wade nor James is a reliable three-point shooter — a classic zone-buster. The Heat are also missing Chris Bosh, a very good passing-and-shooting big man who can fill that sweet spot in the heart of zone at the foul line.
The Celtics, for their part, may have no choice but to use a zone more often than they’d like because they have no workable matchup for Wade — at least when the hobbled Ray Allen is on the floor.
But here’s reality: The Heat have played against a lot of zone this season, and they have done quite well against it. Only three teams — Utah, Charlotte and Oklahoma City — faced zone defenses on a larger percentage of their possessions than Miami did, according to a report prepared for SI.com by the statistics- and video-tracking service Synergy Sports. The Heat shot 48.3 percent against zones (112-of-232), the third-best mark in the league, behind only Sacramento and Orlando, which went against a zone less often than any other team. The Heat scored more efficiently against zones, in terms of points per possession, than they did overall for the season, per Synergy.
The Heat can become a little jumper-happy against zones — most teams get that way — but they have a fairly polished anti-zone offense involving a few key core principles. Even though they missed their first five shots — all jumpers — against Boston’s zone in Game 1, every one was a shot the Heat would happily accept. All five were wide-open three-pointers by either forward Shane Battier or point guard Mario Chalmers from the right corner. Battier shot only 33.9 percent from deep in a down season for him, but he maintained a solid 39.4 percent mark from the corners, per NBA.com’s stats tool. Chalmers has developed into a very good three-point shooter from basically anywhere, and he hit 41 percent from the corners this season.
Though Wade and James didn’t attempt any of these initial five shots, they remained at the heart of Miami’s anti-zone attack — and showed that they can put themselves in position to score against zones. The Heat can use James as the player manning the foul line, and on one possession on Monday, he cut hard from the corner, caught the ball at the foul line and found Brandon Bass on him. That’s a mismatch, and the Celtics knew it; they sent an extra defender toward James, who then kicked the ball to Chalmers, initiating an effective action elsewhere. James can drive against such mismatches in the future, and the Heat are generally very good at forcing big-vs.-small switches.
To wit: Another Miami zone set involves a big man (Udonis Haslem on Monday) at the foul line, with James and Wade on opposite wings. From here, the Heat can swing the ball around the perimeter, forcing the zone to shift around until James or Wade gets the ball with a crease to attack. They can also have one of their perimeter stars run a simple high pick-and-roll with Haslem at the foul line, something Wade did several times to draw Kevin Garnett (the Celtic closest to Haslem) into a switch. Wade drove by Garnett via this exact process for two potential assists (on missed corner threes) and one acrobatic layup.
Miami is also adept at using back screens to free up those corner shooters. Battier is especially alert at catching zone defenders watching the ball and then fading into the corner behind a surprise back screen from one of the team’s big men; Joel Anthony set a couple of those picks on Monday.
None of this is to say Boston cannot win a few stretches in this series by playing zone. Sometimes teams go on cold streaks from the perimeter, even when the looks are open, and when Miami settles for outside shots, it essentially forfeits free throws. But if one or two of those threes connect, the Heat will win those stretches, and the larger picture suggests that they do well against zones.
Boston played zone on about 3.7 percent of its defensive possessions during the season, slightly more than average, according to Synergy. In this sense, the Celtics are not the 2010-11 Mavericks, who actually did not play a straight-up zone against Miami in the Finals nearly as often as talking heads like to recall.
On a list of variables that could swing this series Boston’s way, the Celtics’ developing a killer zone ranks pretty low.