It might seem obvious but you can't set up a zone when LeBron James is doing this on a fast break.
MIAMI -- There's an old cliche in sports that says that a team's best offense is a good defense. It might take some time to fully wrap your head around that idea. It may seem like a load of coaching hogwash. After all, aren't offense and defense two separate entities on the playing field?
Well, if you watched the Boston Celtics slow down the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, you would begin to understand why that old cliche might actually hold some truth. During the first three quarters of the Heat's eight-point victory, it looked like the Heat were going to run the shorthanded Celtics right out of the gym. Employing a sparkling new run-and-gun offense, the Heat flew out to a 20-point lead and it looked like the battered Celtics were toast.
Then something odd happened. The Celtics reached deep down in their bag of tricks and threw a zone at the Heat. The mighty Celtics defense defaulted into a zone? Yes, it happened, and the rare move from Boston coach Doc Rivers certainly derailed the Heat. At one point, the Heat failed to score on seven straight possessions, a slump that seemed like an impossibility just a few minutes prior when the Heat were on pace to score roughly a gazillion points.
Many will remember the sequence going like this: the Celtics ran a zone and then the Heat couldn't score.
However, the Heat actually see it differently. In their nuanced version, it played out like this:
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.
It's a critical distinction and LeBron James made it clear after the game when someone asked him why the offense sputtered in the second half.
"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."
Even for a team that wants to create fast breaks out of thin air, you can't run-and-gun without a trigger -- unless you have Steve Nash on your team. The Heat created havoc defensively for the first 30 minutes of the game, using a litany of Boston turnovers to ignite their virtually unstoppable fast break attack spearheaded by LeBron and Dwyane Wade. And then Keyon Dooling and Ray Allen started draining shots from downtown and the Heat had to take the ball out of bounds every time down the floor.
"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."
If you watch the tape from Tuesday's game, the Heat generated good opportunities against the zone even though they scored only five times in 22 possessions against it. That's a terrible success rate. There were plenty of NBA scouts on hand for the Heat's home opener and the poor results from Tuesday will undoubtedly inspire other teams to follow the Celtics lead and break away from man-to-man defense.
But Heat coach Erik Spoelstra wasn't worried about his team's ability to combat the zone and he expects Charlotte and Minnesota to test the Heat in the coming days.
"We missed some open looks and that compounded our anxiousness," Spoelstra said. "We’ll certainly see a lot more, which is good so we can work on it. We will get better."
The Heat won't have much time to work on it outside of a real game. The Heat traveled to Charlotte early Wednesday morning for their second game of a back-to-back and then they follow that with three games over their next four days. It's not like the Heat haven't seen this before; the Mavericks deployed the zone many times during the Finals and found mixed results. With Miami's core returning, the Heat won't have to start from scratch.
Implementing a zone defense against the Heat is easier said than done. As LeBron and Battier emphasized after the game, the Heat can avoid fighting the zone altogether by generating stops and exerting pressure off of misses and turnovers. You didn't see Boston go to a zone in the first half mostly because you can't really initiate a zone defense while back-pedaling and chasing down LeBron and Wade in the open court.
This is where "a good offense is a good defense" mantra comes from. Last season, the Heat coined the term "skirmish" to describe when they break open a game within a matter of seconds by causing turnovers and flying out in transition for easy buckets. You saw it in the first half of Tuesday's game, but once the Celtics started raining from downtown, Miami had no choice but to put on the brakes. Without that brand of hyperactive defense, they effectively encourage other teams to use the zone on the other side of the court.
In the end, the Heat will have to make some small tweaks to their zone offense. LeBron, Wade and Norris Cole pierced the zone off the dribble when they wanted to on Tuesday and you can expect more of that next time around. And with Battier or James Jones waiting on the perimeter, they should be able to bust the zone on kick-outs with greater ease.
But the more you think about it, the most effective way to attack the zone is preventing it from occurring in the first place.
"We know what our game is all about," LeBron said. "And that’s getting defensive stops."