Miami Heat: Is their zone defense the key to a deep playoff run?

Is the Miami Heat’s zone defense the key to a deep playoff run?

Let’s talk about zone defense. For the most part in the NBA, the use of zone defenses is seen as a gimmick. The idea is that zone defense is something that is used mostly by high school and college teams as a way to give them competitive balances and force turnovers. In the modern NBA, there are just too many superstars who are “zone breakers” for that defense strategy to work.

That’s actually not the case, though. Zone defenses, which were once illegal in the NBA until the 2001-02 season, have actually become very much underrated in the modern NBA and this year’s Miami Heat team is showing that a zone defense can really disrupt the rhythm of a modern NBA offense.

Unlike the college teams that use zone defenses almost exclusively which is how zone doesn’t work in the modern NBA, the Heat has unlocked become one of the better defenses in the NBA by using defense as a package style defense. That defense and its change-ups under coach Erik Spoelstra could be the reason why Miami is a dangerous team in Orlando during the coming weeks.

Breaking down the Miami Heat’s zone defense

The easiest way to explain Miami’s use of zone is as if it was defensive play-calling in football. Many NFL teams tend to run a base defense which they use on a lot of their plays, but then in order to stifle an opposing offense and throw them off they will often call a substitute defense. The change in defense then throws off the opposing offense for maybe a play or two which could swing the game.

That is how Miami uses its 2-3 zone defense. For the most part like any NBA defense, Miami runs a lot of man-to-man defense in which they like to keep their defenders attached to their assignment, but for a few possessions, they throw in a 2-3 zone which is designed to stifle passing-lanes and force turnovers.

With the 2-3 zone, Miami sets up two players at the top of the key who is focused on guarding the wing and ball-handler stopping dribble penetration. Then, behind those two players are three other players who are mostly wings and a big man who are designed to take away the corners and paint and make it hard to get to the rim.

Miami runs their zone very well because they have the athletes to do it. Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder, and Derrick Jones Jr. are all bigger defenders with long wingspans who give Miami players with skill sets ideal for the 2-3 defense. The 2-3 zone can then cover up for Miami’s mediocre defenders like Goran Dragic and Tyler Herro by preventing them from being put in 1-on-1 defensive situations.

In big games this season against both the Philadelphia 76ers and Toronto Raptors, Miami threw in the zone and it had a great effect on Miami winning both of those games it allowed the Heat to stop ball-movement, extra passes, and shots at the rim while giving up 3-point shot attempts that the opposing team continued to miss.

While the 3-point defense is incredibly important in the NBA, Miami has moved away from that philosophy a bit. Yes, a 2-3 zone defense can be stopped by having great 3-point shooting but Miami who is one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the NBA has decided to give up volume 3-point attempts and prevent easy points in the paint.

This is a philosophy that some of the best defensive teams in the league like the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto Raptors, and Boston Celtics have also used to become elite defenses this season, and Miami is using a 2-3 Zone defense to do it.

Why the 2-3 zone could be a weapon for the Miami Heat in the bubble 

The Heat uses its zone defense at the highest rate in the NBA, so in one case it can be argued that with all the time off due to the pandemic that opposing teams are bound to figure out how to break Miami’s zone just like the Lakers did during the season.

That can be true but with how Miami uses their zone, it might be hard for opposing teams to stop at the moment. The Heat won’t come out the gates throwing a zone at their opponent, they will save it for the times in the game where it could be most crucial.

When using their zone in a situational way it has the potential to continue to confuse opposing offenses because they might be in a grove playing against Miami’s man attack only to suddenly get a different defensive look on their next possession.

Better yet, in the East, the Heat are set up to face some teams who have been poor shooting teams from distance like the Indiana Pacers and Philadelphia 76ers. If the Heat’s zone can be effective against those poor shooting teams enough to maybe get them to win a round in the playoffs then Miami can rely on some of their offensive fire-power from there.

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In Orlando, a lot of teams are looking at the circumstances as something that levels the playing field. The “bubble” could make the playoffs this season be very reminiscent of NCAA’s March Madness so if a team like Miami can throw a wrench to their opponents with the 2-3 zone and get hot 3-point shooting then they might be a dangerous out in Orlando.