One of the NBA’s catchiest chants acknowledges one of the most thankless tasks in the game: “Defense!” applause. applause. “Defence!” This week, the Miami Heat made a near-impact move to slow down two of the league’s most fearsome players, Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray, during the NBA Finals in front of a home crowd. While we were dealing with a near-possible challenge, it rained.
The most epic defensive matchups in the NBA are usually one-on-one clashes between opposing star players. But it’s a lot of work. really hard. Perhaps he can stop explosive scorers like Jokic and Murray in a possession or two. But every time under the floor? About 48 minutes? On an undersized roster that has endured a long postseason struggle?
Good luck. For more than 50 years, the NBA has refused to allow teams to do otherwise. It was man-to-man defense or bust. But now, teams can be more creative in shutting out their opponents. And no team is more creative than the Heat, using zone defense (a scheme in which defenders protect areas of the court rather than individual players) more than any other team in the league.
Wednesday’s Game 3 saw two players trapping Denver’s inbounds passes early in the second quarter, plus two defending the basket in midcourt and one in the far end, a 2-2-1. zone press.
With just 14 seconds left on the shot clock, the Heat’s defense had turned into a half-court zone before the Nuggets managed to steal the ball up the court. The 2-3 set had two players at the top of the perimeter and three on the sides. Base line. Nuggets point guard Murray missed a 3-point shot from the left corner, and the Heat raced to tie the bucket.
Unfortunately for the Heat, it was all they could do to take a 2-1 series lead with a 109-94 loss to the Nuggets ahead of Game 4 in Miami on Friday. Thing. Murray and Jokic both had triple-doubles in Denver and were largely unfazed by Miami’s shapeshifting defense for at least one game.
“We didn’t hold back much,” said Heat coach Eric Spoelstra, lamenting the team’s lack of effort, but thought it was an anomaly. He added, he added, “I think what we’ve proven over and over again is that we can win and we can find different ways to win.” .
And one of those methods is zone defense. This series has a talent gap. The Nuggets have more of that thanks to a wealth of specialty shooters and the all-around magic of two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Jokic. So, to slow down the pace of play and make up for the lack of size, the Heat have occasionally abandoned man-to-man defense by shuffling zones.
This is nothing new to them. Miami played the zone with a league-best 19.7 percent of defensive possessions during the regular season, according to the report. synergy sports, scouting and analysis services. The Portland Trail Blazers were second with 14.9 percent of time played in the zone, and the Toronto Raptors (8.4 percent) were third.
More importantly, the Heat used the zone effectively, limiting their opponents’ points-per-possession to 0.937, even in the midst of a regular-season struggle that threatened playoff berth. By contrast, opponents averaged 1.009 points per possession against man-to-man defense.
Miami has been playing a bit less zone defense in the playoffs (the zone defense now makes up 15.7 percent of defensive possessions ahead of Game 4), but no other team uses it as often. And the Heat have had some success with that, holding opponents to 0.916 points per possession versus 1.003 points per possession on man-to-man defense.
“I think it works because it doesn’t,” said Heat point guard Gabe Vincent.
Jim Boheim, who recently retired after 47 seasons as a men’s basketball coach at Syracuse University, has become very famous and synonymous with the 2-3 zone defense. However, in his early years at Syracuse, he was actually coaching a more one-on-one defense.
“We had a zone and we practiced it, but not all the time,” said Beheim. “But then you got in trouble with someone and you put them out of the zone and they didn’t score!”
Most teams didn’t practice it and rarely faced it in their matches.
“It just messes someone up,” says Beheim. “And if your opponent only tries to attack one or two people, they may kind of cheat against that one or two people, and that can cause problems.”
This zone is still a bit of a novelty for the NBA, which was effectively banned for the league’s first 50+ years. It wasn’t until the introduction of the shot clock in 1954 that, at a time when the league was desperate to increase crowds, too many teams packed defenders around the basket, slowing the game down significantly. There was a concern that
Critics then saw the zone as a clever way for teams to camouflage poor defenders, especially as the league continued to glorify one-on-one matches. The lower zone was stigmatized. But over time, the game turned into a series of seemingly non-stop isolation sets, with players positioned on the weaker side of the court to keep defenders off the ball, the offense stalling and scoring dwindling.
Prior to the 2001-2 season, the NBA gave due consideration to eliminating the illegal defense rule. This allowed teams to play in zones or use other types of defense that suited them. The twist was that the change was designed to encourage spacing and passing on offense.
However, this zone is still fairly rare for several reasons. NBA rosters are full of long-range shooters, and zone defenders often react too slowly when passes fly left and right, giving opposing players his 3-point shot chances. Defenders are also prohibited from camping out in lane when not defending an opposing player. Defense 3 seconds rule.
“And that changes everything,” said Alex Popp, head coach of the men’s basketball team for the IMG Academy graduate team in Bradenton, Florida. Protect your paint. “
For the Heat, the zone is worth it. It has become an asset, even if initially born out of necessity as a means for Spoelstra to play against bigger teams and cover up some of the weaker defenders. In the long Eastern Conference Finals game against the Celtics, Boston seemed embarrassed by Miami’s traps, often resolving them with (erroneous) jump shots rather than attacking the rim.
Now, every time the Nuggets bring the ball into the upcourt, they have to do the math: What kind of defense are they going to see? Zones add an element of unpredictability.
“I think this works especially well for short windows,” Beheim said.
Heat reserve point guard Kyle Lowry recently recalled his formative childhood when coaches taught him about zone presses, traps and basic 2-3 formations. When asked about those experiences, he got the direction of the investigation.
“If you’re interested in our zone issues, that’s pretty cool,” Lowry said.
OK, what’s cool?
“It works sometimes,” he said.
The Miami zone is not static. It changes from match to match, and even from possession to possession, with dozens of permutations changing based on the situation of opponents on the floor or the whim of Spoelstra.
The team’s starting center, Bam Adebayo, said they practiced the zone “too much”.
Spoelstra would rather walk on hot coals than discuss rough choices in the NBA Finals, but players acknowledge the amorphous nature of the zone.
“Spo has done a great job throughout the year to ensure that we are ready for situations like this, switching timeouts, switching schemes, switching defenses,” said Max Strass of Heat Guard 3rd. said before the war.
For Game 4, Miami will likely show off a new scheme, or a slightly different look. That may not matter — “I think Denver is too good,” Beheim said — but the Heat have had tough times before. Their zone helped.