Miami Heat’s secret weapon to a title? Zone defense.

One of the catchiest chants in the NBA is an acknowledgment of one of the game’s most thankless tasks: “Defense!” Clap. Clap. “Defense!” It rained this week as the Miami Heat pulled off the nearly impossible challenge of slowing down two of the league’s most fearsome players — the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray — during the NBA Finals in front of their home crowd.

The most elevated defensive matchups in the NBA are typically one-on-one matchups as opposing stars go head-to-head. But it’s hard work. Really tough. Maybe you can stop an explosive scorer like Jokic or Murray for a possession or two. But every time down on the floor? For 48 minutes? With an undersized roster that has endured the long grind of the postseason?

Good luck. For over 50 years, the NBA refused to let teams do it any other way. It was man-to-man defense or bust. But now teams can be more creative in how they go about trying to put the clamps on their opponents. And no team is more creative than the Heat, who play more zone defense — a scheme in which defenders guard areas of the court instead of individual players — than any other team in the league.

On Wednesday in Game 3, that meant two players catching Denver’s inbounds pass, two more at midcourt and one protecting the basket at the far end — a 2-2-1 zone pressure — early in the second quarter.

By the time the Nuggets managed to get the ball up, there were only 14 seconds left on the clock and the Heat’s defense had morphed into a half-court zone — a 2-3 set with two players up on the perimeter and three along. baseline. Murray, the Nuggets’ point guard, missed a 3-point attempt from the left corner and the Heat raced off to get a game-tying bucket.

Unfortunately for the Heat, that was about as good as it got for them in their 109-94 loss to the Nuggets, who took a 2-1 series lead into Game 4 on Friday in Miami. Murray and Jokic both finished with triple-doubles for Denver, which for at least one game was largely untouched by Miami’s shifting defense.

“We didn’t put up much resistance,” said Heat Coach Erik Spoelstra, who lamented his team’s lack of effort but considered it an anomaly. He added: “I think what we’ve proven over and over and over is that we can win and find different ways to win.”

And one of those ways is with their zone defense. There’s a talent disparity in this series: The Nuggets have more of it thanks to their array of expert shooters and the versatile wizardry of Jokic, a two-time winner of the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award. So, in an effort to slow the pace of the game and compensate for their lack of size, the Heat occasionally abandon their man-to-man defense by scrambling in a zone.

It is nothing new to them. Miami played zone on a league-high 19.7 percent of its defensive possessions in the regular season, according to Synergy Sports, a scouting and analysis service. The Portland Trail Blazers, who played zone 14.9 percent of the time, were second, and the Toronto Raptors (8.4 percent) were third.

More importantly, the Heat — even in the midst of regular-season struggles that nearly kept them out of the playoffs — used their zone to great effect, limiting opponents to .937 points per possession. possession. In comparison, opponents averaged 1.009 points per game. possession against their man-to-man defense.

Miami plays slightly less zone defense in the playoffs — zone has accounted for 15.7 percent of its defensive possessions prior to Game 4 — but no other team has come close to using it as often. And the Heat have had some success with it, holding opponents to .916 points per game. possession against 1.003 points per possession with man-to-man defense.

“I think it’s effective,” Heat point guard Gabe Vincent said, “because it’s different.”

Jim Boeheim, who recently retired after 47 seasons as the men’s basketball coach at Syracuse University, was so known for his 2-3 zone defense that he became synonymous with it. But in his early years at Syracuse, he actually coached more man-to-man defense.

“We had a zone and we wanted to practice it, but not all the time,” Boeheim said. “But then we’d have trouble with somebody and you’d put the zone out there and they couldn’t score!”

Most teams did not practice it and they rarely encountered it in matches.

“It can just destroy somebody,” Boeheim said. “And if your opponent only goes to one or two guys on offense, you can kind of cheat against those one or two guys and that can cause problems.”

The zone is still somewhat of a novelty in the NBA, which essentially banned it for the first 50 years of the league’s existence. Before the advent of the shot clock in 1954, the concern was that too many teams would pack the area around the basket with defenders and slow the game to a crawl at a time when the league was desperately trying to increase its audience.

Later, critics viewed the zone as a gimmicky way for teams to camouflage poor individual defenders, especially as the league continued to glorify one-on-one matchups. The low zone was stigmatized. But over time, offenses stalled and scoring dropped as games devolved into a seemingly nonstop series of isolation sets, with players stationed on the weak side of the field to draw defenders off the ball.

Prior to the 2001-2 season, the NBA had seen enough and eliminated its illegal defense rule, which meant teams could play zone — or use any other form of defense that suited them. The twist was that the change was designed to spur spacing and passing attacks.

However, the zone remains quite unusual for several reasons. NBA rosters are loaded with long-range shooters, and when passes zip from side to side, zone defenders are often too slow to react, leaving opposing players with open looks from 3-point range. Defenders are also prohibited from camping out on the pitch when not guarding an opponent – also known as the defensive three-second rule.

“And it changes everything,” said Alex Popp, the head boys’ basketball coach for IMG Academy’s postgraduate team in Bradenton, Florida. protect the paint.”

For the Heat, the zone has value. If it was originally born out of necessity — as a way for Spoelstra to match up against bigger teams and hide some of his weaker defenders — it has become an asset. For long stretches of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Celtics, Boston seemed frustrated by Miami’s traps, often settling for (errant) jump shots instead of attacking the rim.

Now, every time the Nuggets bring the ball upfield, they have to make a mental calculation: What kind of defense are they seeing? The zone adds an element of unpredictability.

“I think it’s something that can work,” Boeheim said, “especially in short windows.”

Kyle Lowry, the Heat’s backup point guard, recently recalled a formative period of his childhood when his coaches taught him about the zone press, traps and the basic 2-3 formation. When asked about these experiences, he knew where the line of inquiry was headed.

“If you get into the question of our zone, it’s pretty cool,” Lowry said.

OK, what makes it cool?

“It works sometimes,” he said.

Miami’s zone is not static. It changes from play to play and even from possession to possession, with dozens of permutations based on which opposing players are on the floor — or even Spoelstra’s whims.

Bam Adebayo, the team’s starting center, said they drilled the zone “to the point where we’re tired of it.”

Spoelstra would rather walk on hot coals than discuss his schematic choices in the NBA Finals, but his players have acknowledged the amorphous nature of the zone.

“Spo does a great job of preparing us all year to be ready for situations like this, to be able to switch in a timeout, switch a scheme, switch a defense,” Heat guard Max Strus said before Game 3 .

For Game 4, Miami will likely unveil a new scheme or a slightly different look. It might not matter — “I think Denver is too good,” Boeheim said — but the Heat have been in tough spots before. Your zone has helped.

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