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?In New Jersey, Coach Kevin Loughery holds up five fingers, and the Nets go into their Dis-co, Disco Duck alignment, wherein Bernard King finds himself guarding three men on the same play and 6'0" Kevin Porter finds himself checking a 7-footer. "Zone?" Loughery says, under intense questioning at precinct headquarters. "You must be seeing things, officer. What we do is trap."
?In Atlanta, Coach Hubie Brown explains how his team does not play a zone: "We are overmatched at four positions, usually five. We can't let you bring the ball down, back us in low and shoot in our faces. So we press and trap and double-team. We work hard at staying within the rules. We do not stand around." Brown's audience is too properly mystified to ask why, in the game moments earlier, Brown was screaming at his confused Hawks, "Stay, stay, stay! Dammit, just stay there!" as the opposition guards drifted through Atlanta's pressing, trapping, double-teaming and non-standing-around defense.
?In Los Angeles, the Times' Ted Green, who covers the Lakers, is asked if that team ever employs the infamous zone. "I think their regular defense is a zone," Green says. "I can't remember the Lakers playing man-to-man. I know they never get six to eight feet close to anybody." Jerry West, the coach, is asked the same thing. "Hell, yes, we play zone," he says. "The best one, too."
So what we have here is a failure to delineate. Placing all the cards on the table now, face up, it is safe to say that at one time or another everybody in the NBA uses a zone defense. When Bill Walton of Portland floats around the key pretending to be searching for his man when he really is looking for a bit of cucumber extract, that is a zone. When the Washington Bullets pack their front-line monsters inside and shut off access to everything but the Belt Parkway, that is a zone. When the Denver Nuggets abandon their own people to gang-attack a single man as if he had just accused John Denver of being a mass polluter, that, too, could be construed as a zone.
Weak teams use the zone to cut the clock and keep opponents out on the perimeter. Strong teams use it to protect their valuable players when they are in foul trouble. Middling teams use it to alter the flow and style of a game. Everybody tries to use it at the end of a quarter, to force a rushed shot from way outside.
"So why not permit it?" says Pete Newell, the former college and pro coach, who now scouts for the Warriors. "We have the best players and coaches in the world, but we confess we don't play a total game when we have to outlaw a part of basketball which is excellent strategy. People yell 'defense,' they know and appreciate what it means to prevent points being scored. They never yell 'offense.' I say allow all defensive tactics to make this an even better game."
Richie Powers, the senior NBA referee, evidently agreed with Newell on March 1 when he instructed both New Jersey Coach Loughery and Atlanta Coach Brown that he would take no notice of zones (he would not warn them, nor call technical fouls against them) in a game at Piscataway, N.J., which the Nets won 97-95 (SI, March 13). For his action Powers was suspended for three games and fined $2,500, a small price to pay if Powers' act has anything to do with influencing the rules committee either to strengthen legislation against zones or, better, to wipe it off the books.
"That rule is like a beard that I've been tripping over for 20 years," says Powers. "I'd like to see the zone allowed in exhibition games, just to see if it is the 'eating-up-the-game' piranha that the owners think it is. I don't believe it. The 24-second clock was put in to circumvent offenses from holding the ball. Zones would speed up the defense and force the offense to work harder. They would make everything balance out."
Of course, no lawman can take the law into his own hands, but in Powers' landmark test case, Atlanta shot 40.7%, made 29 turnovers and still only lost by two, on a technical foul at the end when the Hawks called a time-out they didn't have. "The so-called zone defenses had no bearing whatsoever on the outcome of the game," said Brown.
Drucker points out that zone warnings are up all around the league, but that only about 20 technicals have been called (on the second warning) for using the zone. That's not even a full week's screeching for Loughery.