Deja-vu. The zone defense came back against the Heat last night, almost creating the same nightmarish situation the Heat offense saw in last year’s finals against the Mavericks. As soon as Boston went into a zone mid-way through the game, Miami’s fire-hot offense immediately cooled off.
Before getting into the specifics of last night’s game, I’d like to note one thing about Boston’s zone. On almost every half-court possession, the Celtics are zoned up on at least half of the floor. This is what we call strong-side pressure defense, something Thibodeau popularized in the last few years. In fact, it is the defining characteristic in Thib’s pressure defense, implemented by the Celtics, Lakers and the Bulls (2008-present). The moment the ball works it way to one side of the floor, defense sends an extra body towards the ball, while zoning up 3-on-4 behind that action.
Although LeBron noted after the game the difference was not the zone, but rather Boston finally making some shots, and not allowing the Miami track & field team to get going: “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.”
As Tom Haberstroh of Heat Index noted, even for such a talented team, fast breaks aren’t going to be pulled out of the magician’s hat, there has to be some sort of trigger.
“The ironic thing that the best way to beat a zone is on your own defensive end,” Shane Battier said after the game. “It all starts on defense. If we make them miss and we can push like we did in the first half, you can’t get in the zone.”
Early on, it was a stifling defense that allowed LeBron and Wade to get their Usain Bolt on; however, once outside shots by Ray Allen and Keyon Dooling started falling, we saw the Heat half-court offense struggle once again. When everything was said and done, there was one player who deserved that game ball: Norris Cole. Only zone Cole cared about was his own. In just his second NBA game, the rookie played like a seasoned veteran, scoring 14 points in the final quarter, outshining both James and Wade.
Let’s look at what Cole did right to beat the Boston zone, and stop their comeback.
Early in the fourth quarter, Cole breaks down the D by finding a gap and driving it to the hole. From pee wee hoops, we’re taught that the best way to beat the zone is to move the ball and drive it in. Settling for outside shots is what the defense wants, don’t fall into their trap. Cole, who saw plenty of zone defenses back at Cleveland State, clearly understands this principle.
Next, let’s look at how Cole fills in the open spot perfectly. While Wade is dribbling the ball at the top of the key, Cole waits not only for Bosh’s screen up top, but also his cut down the paint before he fills in the left wing spot. It’s all about spacing against the zone, and Cole waits for the opportune time to fill in that position.
At the 1:33 mark of the fourth quarter, we see Cole fill in a spot against the zone once again. Once LeBron drives right, the defense gets distracted by Wade’s cut from wing to basket. Cole starts at the baseline but strategically moves up to the wing spot so Ray Allen can’t easily defend him. If Cole stays put closer to the baseline, I can guarantee you the defense would have gotten a stop on this possession. Playing against the zone is simple, just keep moving. Cole’s timing on his positioning was a thing of beauty.
On the last play, one that sealed the game for Miami, notice the spacing Cole provides for LeBron. After giving it to LeBron on the left high post, Cole steps back close to five from the three point line. Rondo’s arms are long, but not that long. This spacing is vital as it allows LeBron some extra space, but also puts the defense on its heels once Cole gets the ball back at the top. Pump fake, confidence, game time.
Like Battier said, you don’t see KG and company in a full zone too often. It is a testament to Miami playing good defense, running and moving the ball. And if they do see a zone again, at least we know Mr. Cole and his company will be ready.
Ced said, “Look, my niggas, we got a foot in?”
Being good is good, that’ll get you Drew Gooden
But me? I want Jordan numbers, LeBron footin’
Can’t guard me, Vince Lombardi, John Wooden
J. Cole – ‘Return of Simba’
Follow me on Twitter @RohitGhosh.