How do you beat a zone defense?
The easy answer is to have as much shooting on the floor as possible — something the Golden State Warriors have in spades (at least, in theory). But even if there are shooters on the floor, it’s much more complicated than just finding whoever can stroke it from deep and make them shoot over a shored-up defense.
The real solution to busting a zone is to distort its shape. Every kind of zone — 1-2-2, 3-2, and the typical 2-3 — has its unique quirks, but each of them share one fundamental commonality: they have gaps that can be attacked.
Attacking these gaps creates several other gaps that can be exploited. Forcing defenders to have to continuously plug those gaps stretches them thin — it is humanly impossible to have to be in several places simultaneously.
Whether it's by stretching the floor with shooters and forcing defenders to have to close out and guard tightly, flashing middle to gain control of valuable real estate, or dribble penetration to collapse defenses inward, busting a zone is a complex art that requires tons of patience.
Going into their game against the Warriors, the Miami Heat were the most frequent zone-defense team in the league. At 70 total possessions of zone, opponents have scored 0.614 points per possession (PPP) against them — the best mark in the league, per Synergy.
The Heat employ their zone as a change-of-pace tool to give opponents different looks and to blow up any potential scripted sets, particularly during after-timeout plays (ATO). Imagine being a head coach drawing up a complex half-court set — only for it to be rendered moot by a zone, simply because busting a zone requires a different set of rules.
This is interesting. Heat with a bit of full-court pressure to delay the Warriors' ATO, which is supposed to be their "Bilbao" split action. But the Heat's zone blow it up. Duncan Robinson fronts the supposed post-entry and that's what blows the ATO up. pic.twitter.com/Qk1cJksAo3— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) October 28, 2022
After facing the Heat twice in the span of a week, the Warriors should very well be familiar with those rules. The aforementioned dribble penetration is a must in any zone-busting arsenal. When defenders suddenly have to send multiple bodies to protect the paint, the geometry of a zone is easily warped.
Pace is also a weapon against a zone. The faster you push in transition, the higher the chance that a defense wouldn’t be able to properly shore up. In consecutive possessions against the Heat last week, Moses Moody was able to use dribble penetration and pace to score against a scrambling zone:
But in situations where pace favors the zoning party, patience must therefore come into play. Constantly flashing middle, continuously swinging the ball to find attacking lanes, and preventing stagnation through player movement — all of these must be present.
In the possession above, the Warriors moved the ball around till they found the zone’s shatterpoint: Duncan Robinson. JaMychal Green flashes to the “nail” (the area approximating the middle of the free-throw line), and Robinson is compelled to help inside — perhaps unnecessarily, considering that Bam Adebayo is there to patrol the paint.
Green then kicks it out to Andrew Wiggins on the left wing, forcing Robinson to have to close out a considerable distance. Wiggins attacks the close out and gets two feet in the paint, while Green relocates to the dunker spot. Adebayo is forced to step up to help on Wiggins’ penetration, resulting in an easy pass to Green for the dunk.
That was the peak of the Warriors’ zone-busting prowess against the Heat. But in a strange turn of events, poor shot selection and lack of patience had them baffled and scratching their heads by the end of the game.
For instance, take this possession to begin the fourth quarter:
Not much was done to distort the shape of the zone above. A few passes were made, there was an attempt at a pin-in by Ty Jerome for Jordan Poole, and some attempts to flash toward the nail. But the lack of effective ball movement virtually allows the Heat to sit on this possession, which ends with a contested long three.
Even if some outside shots do manage to fall, sustainability is still an issue. Relying exclusively on long pull-up jumpers is still subscribing to mediocre process.
These shots below turned out to be fool’s gold:
Such shots led to other head-scratching attempts that came with plenty of time on the shot clock — again, lacking any sort of patience and surgical precision:
Without any sort of viable answer against the zone, the Warriors had to count on a small bout of luck to score. These came in the form of offensive rebounds that got them second-chance points.
One fundamental pitfall of a zone is that it’s prone to coughing up offensive rebounds, simply because the lack of matching up makes it more difficult to box out. Add in the element of long threes taking awkward bounces and you get fortunate opportunities like these:
The Warriors veteran unit mounted a more concerted effort to find the gaps and exploit them, but those efforts were continually rebuffed by the Heat. If ever there were gaps, they were quickly closed; perceived pockets of space turned out to be traps.
When the Warriors had the opportunity to draw a scripted set play out of a timeout (i.e., after the questionable overturn that turned a Steph Curry trip to the line into a possession for the Heat), they went to a set designed particularly for Klay Thompson — a double drag with Thompson as the first screener:
With Curry drawing two to his orbit, it leaves a single defender against the Kevon Looney downscreen action for Thompson. The process was sound, and the shot was good — but Thompson is unable to finish.
Contrast that shot with this one — against a zone — that Thompson took with 19 seconds on the shot-clock:
This is simply not the kind of shot to take during a one-possession game. Much better looks can be generated; Draymond Green, for example, was open in the middle of the floor. A pass to him would’ve gotten the Warriors a better look and a higher-quality shot.
The Heat banked on their zone to force the Warriors into questionable shot selection and decision making — and the Warriors virtually handed it to them on a silver platter.
Heat ran zone on 41 possessions tonight, 13 of them in the fourth quarter, and only allowed 0.97 points per possession on those (1.22 ppp in man coverage) per Second Spectrum.— Couper Moorhead (@CoupNBA) November 2, 2022
Those 41 zone possessions are most in the league this season and would have been 9th most last year.