Erik Spoelstra is rolling up his sleeves lately.
Despite being short-handed due to injuries on a recent West Coast road trip, the Heat have emerged with some important and masterful victories. These have not just been on individual talent, lucky shooting or gritty one-on-one defense.
Instead, Spo has integrated a 2-3 zone defense the last few weeks as Miami toured away from South Beach–and it is throwing off opponents left and right.
Consider this: the Heat have played zone on roughly 130 defensive possessions this year, according to Synergy Sports Tech. 103 of those have come during the last five games, a severe uptick from early in the season. Synergy estimates Miami defended 434 times over those four contests, zoning on nearly 25 percent. This is more than just a change-of-pace or a silly gimmick.
It has been a legitimate weapon.
The average possession of man-to-man half-court defense cedes about 0.95 points per possession (PPP). The best defense is less than a full point better, with the Oklahoma City Thunder logging 0.886 PPP against them.
The Heat zone has surrendered a mere 0.808 PPP during its limited usage. While the Heat are a top-ten man-to-man defensive team with 0.945 PPP, the difference between their man and zone is larger than the difference between the league’s best defensive team and its worst.
So what is it about their knuckleball that causes opponents to swing and miss so frequently, and is this a legitimate strategy that can last throughout the season?
Adebayo the Anchor
Look to the heart of the Heat’s 2-3 zone, and you will find second-year big man Bam Adebayo. Spoelstra’s defensive thinking changed once starting center Hassan Whiteside was inactive during both games in Los Angeles.
Adebayo has a solid understanding of how to strategically avoid the defensive three seconds violation. The rule, which discourages zone usage by nature, causes a headache for whoever roams the middle of that back line. Adebayo has been accurate with his reads and diligent about resetting a three-second count whenever he can.
The Heat’s zone is dizzying. One ingress of attack opens for only a split-second before their wackadoo rotations close the gaps players are trained to see against man-to-man. On this possession, the New Orleans Pelicans are flustered with the rotations and unable to find a quality opening near the rim:
Cutters are rendered inert by the Heat’s carelessness about their relocation. Get them the ball and, who cares(!), they cut into where a defender is going. The window is going to close before a shot can even be launched.
Isn’t it amazing how the highest-caliber basketball players in the world can be so confused by a simple zone concept?
Adebayo is quietly the key to a lot of their rotations that close those gaps for cutters. He stunts (fakes) at the ball when it goes to the top of the key—an atypical movement in a 2-3 zone at most other levels of basketball. He moves well to guard the blocks when the interior is filled, but leaves his post to challenge wide-open shooters if it’s his turn to rotate.
One of the biggest reasons the Heat need Adebayo in the middle instead of Whiteside? His activity and agility. Watch how much the former has to anticipate and move:
Without Bam anchoring the middle, this zone would be a fundamental disaster and give up far more uncontested attempts than it does.
Choosing the offense’s shots for them
A 2-3 zone by design is weakest at the perimeter spots. Spread the floor to the corners and wings, and it struggle to rotate fully. That is precisely because the Heat chooses to give up those three-pointers instead of layups or interior scoring opportunities. A zone is essentially a “dare” to the offense, bating them into taking threes and attempting the exact type of shot the defense expects.
On Sunday against the New Orleans Pelicans, 15 of the Pels’ first 18 attempts came from three. The Pels made five (33 percent), which is a win for the defense percentage-wise. The Pelicans, Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers are all around average teams from 3 (Clippers are top-five), so this is not simply a strategy taken against poor perimeter teams.
This is more about defensive control of where the shots come from. It is much easier to defend a shot and rebound a miss if you anticipate. Conversely, shooters tend to psych themselves out in anticipation knowing they are being dared to shoot.
Any zone defense has man-to-man principles, and every man-to-man defense has some zone principles embedded within it. Most standard NBA defenses rotate similarly when scrambling to take away an advantage from the offense. The same rotations must hold true if a true matchup 2-3 zone is going to have success at the NBA level against high-level drivers and playmakers.
The Heat have engaged in an X-out within their 2-3 front that prevents shots on an overload. With multiple guards and interchangeable pieces, the top defenders and low outside defenders can switch spots without much worry about matchups.
This rotation early in their game against the Pelicans illustrates that point: Tyler Johnson and Dwyane Wade essentially switch spots in the zone out of necessity to prevent an open shot from occurring:
Johnson saves this possession from a wide-open corner three by quickly realizing the need for this type of switch. These rotations can occur from anywhere, (and not just from top-to-wing). Sometimes, when Adebayo or the middleman jumps out to guard on the perimeter, the weak-side wing must slide to the rim and play the middle spot.
Just watch Derrick Jones Jr. here:
Jones Jr. has been an incredibly bright spot for Miami over the course of its road trip and has proven he’s one of the most active players in their zone. His length, athleticism and anticipatory instincts have saved several baskets:
Taking Time off the Clock
There are several ways to beat a zone from an offensive perspective. Most coaches at all levels teach ball movement, getting the ball to the middle of the floor, etc.
One way to beat a zone is to not even face it at all! Some coaches that see a zone will try to push the tempo and get an early transition opportunity before the zone can get set up. (Plus, picking apart a zone is easier when you have twenty seconds to do it.)
Spoelstra has adjusted and dialed up even more full-court pressure on the way back into the zone. Thus, teams have less time to attack, and the Heat do not have to guard, rotate or bump each other’s responsibility for as much time each possession.
These pressure situations are not constant, but rather a change-of-pace to keep teams on their heels. Spoelstra’s team will pick up full-court during dead ball inbounds plays, after free throws or late in quarters to drain the clock.
The best part: Spoelstra will do the same in those situations across most games, and then run back into man-to-man defense. That means ball-handlers—who routinely organize an offense and call a set by identifying whether there is man or zone—are facing pressure their entire trip up the court.
Those guards have an incredible onus to not only break pressure and get the team organized but do so in a timely fashion. By the time they realize the Heat are in a zone, there is not enough time on the clock to organize an effective set.
Miami has only gone 3-2 during their last five since the zone crept in, but they are 3-1 when utilizing it on more than five possessions. Now that Hassan Whiteside—a great man-to-man rim protector—is back, the zone might have served its ultimate purpose and be phased out in favor of the traditional approach.
However, the Heat are still short-handed, banged up and on the heels of losing their best shot creator (starting point guard Goran Dragic) for at least two months. Without him, Spoelstra needs to engineer every trick up his sleeve to keep the team afloat in the East.
Expect to see this trick stick around for a while.
Unless otherwise mentioned, all stats are courtesy of NBA.com, basketball-reference, or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of December 19, 2018.
Adam is a TBW staff writer and college basketball coach at Dickinson College. He loves watching for offensive schemes while specializing in individual skill development, shooting technique and coach-speak. Born in New Hampshire, Adam grew up as a Celtics fan but now claims to just love “good basketball”, which does not include mid-range jumpers.