By Jesse Cinquini
In today’s NBA, a majority of team defenses are predicated on constant switching. The Miami Heat, guided by old-fashioned head coach Eric Spoelstra, are one of few exceptions. If playing at the league’s fourth-slowest pace doesn’t scream archaic, the Heat also utilized a 2-3 zone defense this season. You’ll see teams playing zone quite frequently at the college and high school levels, but it’s a somewhat lost art in the pros. Miami was able to see tremendous success when implementing their trademark scheme though, and against top-tier competition, no less.
What is a 2-3 zone exactly? To put it simply, it consists of two players positioned near the top of the key while the other three are behind to account for the corners and painted area. Its purpose is to protect the interior as well as the lane. That being said, the 2-3 is not without its weak spots. Its vulnerable to clubs with a plethora of capable outside shooters, as the zone can leave open areas on the wings and high post. With this in mind, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the Philadelphia 76ers (a squad notorious for their lack of perimeter threats) struggled to put points on the board at times against Miami.
One of the Sixers two losses at Wells Fargo Center this season came at the hands of the Heat on Dec. 18, who wreaked havoc and forced turnovers with their zone strategy. Miami’s pressure led to 13 Philadelphia blunders, and the team operated in a 2-3 for a total of 39 defensive possessions. While playing zone, the Heat limited their opponent to 38 percent shooting from the field including 7-for-21 from distance. It’s evident that the 76ers were discombobulated and uncomfortable; they had no answer for a scheme that mitigated their greatest strength on offense: interior scoring. Keeping Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons from away from the inside is no simple task, but it’s safe to say the Heat were victorious in accomplishing this feat.
Miami rolled out the zone on a nightly basis; it wasn’t exclusively reserved for Philly (or other sub-par outside shooting teams). As I already alluded to, zone defenses aren’t common in the NBA. Consequently, the opposition was oftentimes left unsure of how to crack Miami’s. Big league coaches likely aren’t prepping their guys to combat a 2-3; there are plenty of defensive schemes that are used with more frequency, so it wouldn’t be necessary to do so. Although, I’d argue it’s necessary for whoever takes on the Heat in the postseason. Opponent’s unfamiliarity with zone defenses and how to exploit them certainly gave the Heat an advantage.
Just because the zone has been effective doesn’t mean the Heat should run it all the time, though. Part of what made the 2-3 so lethal was the fact that Miami would leave the defense guessing as to when they’d employ it. Coach Spoelstra still used man-to-man coverage for a majority of possessions. He recognized that if the Heat played zone every time down the court, they’d become predictable. Not to mention opponents would develop a better feel for how to carve up the coverage if they constantly went up against it. Because of this, Miami would be wise to keep their 2-3 zone usage to under 20 percent of their total possessions on any given night. That way, the opposition will be on their toes and have to adjust on the fly to whatever sort of alternate schemes Spo throws out of his back pocket.
2-3 Zone In Action (Film)
Here at The Playgrounder, we pride ourselves on adding insightful tape to our pieces. Sometimes video provides a better explanation than words ever could. That’s why this section will feature a compilation of Miami’s stingiest defensive possessions whilst functioning under their patented 2-3 zone. Letters and numbers alone simply don’t do it enough justice.
There are two important takeaways from the film above. Firstly, team-wide defensive prowess has a lot to do with coaching. Spoelstra’s basketball genius rubs off on the entire roster; he has his guys in sync and communicating on defense. Everyone on the court for Miami knows exactly where to be. Players such as Derrick Jones Jr. and Goran Dragic aren’t known as perimeter lockdowns, but they both showcased an encouraging amount of effort and intensity in the compilation. As long as Spoelstra remains at the helm, Heat faithful should rest easy — because his presence guarantees that they’ll continue to rank among the league’s top defenses for seasons to come.
Secondly, the Heat’s guards and wings were tremendous at contesting perimeter jumpers when in the 2-3 zone. Even though the formation is traditionally weak against marksmen-filled ball clubs, Miami’s constant player movement resulted in a ton of excellent closeouts and missed shots. The Heat are exceptionally quick to contest open shooters in the half court. If opponents head into a playoff matchup with Jimmy Butler and crew assuming they’ll be able to let it fly from beyond unchallenged — they’re in for a rude awakening.
In short, the 2-3 zone defense should be Miami’s go-to scheme if they are in need of a stop with the game on the line. It’s capable of completely destroying a foe’s rhythm on the offensive end. The Heat don’t possess the star studded casts of the Raptors, Celtics, or Bucks, so to pull off an upset they must do it with their defensive chops. It’s Miami’s only hope for a lengthy postseason run in Orlando.