Kevin Garnett played his share of zone defense under Flip Saunders in Minnesota, but I never thought I'd see the day when the Celtics would zone up against the Heat for an extended stretch with Garnett on the floor.
First off, let's offer up a few disclaimers. On virtually every half-court possession, the Celtics are zoned up on at least half of the floor. This is the defining characteristic of the Thibodeau/Strong-Side Pressure defense deployed by the Celtics, Bulls and the Lakers (2008-2011). The instant the ball works it way to one side of the floor, the Celtics send an extra body to the ball, then zone up 3-on-4 behind the action.
Still, the Thibs brand of defense is a far cry from a full-on zone, which is what the Celtics threw at the Heat with a little more than two minutes left in the third quarter. The Celtics rode the zone until the final buzzer, a span during which the Heat failed to score on 18 of 23 possessions and the C's sneaked back into the game.
That number suggests that the Celtics' zone gave the Heat fits, but after the game the Heat challenged the premise and insisted that the Celtics' zone was merely a symptom of the larger problem.
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.
At Heat.com, Couper Moorhead breaks down some tape of the Heat's struggle against the zone, a stretch during which rookie dynamo point guard Norris Cole manned the point. Cole was the night's big winner. He scored 14 of his 20 points in the fourth quarter (more than half of Miami's total for the period), the majority of those buckets on long jumpers against that Celtics' zone.
Moorhead noted a certain irony in the Heat's struggles against the zone. The age-old antidote to a zone defense is sharp cuts and constant motion that gets the defense's head on a swivel -- exactly the kind of stuff the Heat have been deploying in their new-look offense:
What was strangest about Miami’s struggles against the zone was that, against man defense, the HEAT are cutting so freely to the rim, but when Boston changed the look to one that often offers more predictably open space, all that natural movement that has given Miami big leads in each of its first two games stopped happening.
Shane Battier smiled, gave a little shrug and simply said he didn’t know. Dwyane Wade said it was simply a matter of getting more comfortable, given that this was the first time they’ve seen zone this season – against a team that only ran it 41 possessions last year, for that matter. Chris Bosh echoed that sentiment, that it is a feeling out process against a defense that is tougher, literally, to get a feel for.
“That’s the first time we’ve seen zone other than practice. We can’t expect us to come out and destroy it,” Bosh said. “When they change that look a little bit, it kind of makes you stall and look a little. I think we can still be aggressive. We can teach the same philosophies that we have in the man defense. The man is a little bit easier because you know where your man is, you know where you’re going, and we’re spread out.
“You don’t always want to cut into somebody. That’s the tough part about a zone, sometimes you want to make a cut and you cut right into somebody. If we’re cutting down the lane and opening it up for somebody else, that’ll be great.”
On two of Cole’s late-game jumpers, with Miami up three and under two minutes to play, exactly what Bosh described happened. The cut into space altered the zone, creating space for a shooter. Space wins.
As Moorhead points out, the Heat averaged better than a point per possession against the zone in 2010-11, and this season's roster appears more equipped than ever to combat a zone. Wade is a human zone-buster, and the Heat have added Battier, a player who has two attributes that help an offense against a zone -- he can stretch the floor and make reads off the ball.