OK, it’s not really killing the Heat. After all, they won 58 games and went to the NBA Finals last year, and so far they’re 5-1 this year.
But you know what I mean. The zone is hurting the Heat badly when applied correctly by good teams. Dallas did it in the Finals last year. Boston did it this year. And on Monday, Atlanta did it well enough to defeat the Heat, 100-92.
And so the struggle continues. So does the search for answers.
“We have to be aggressive,” guard Dwyane Wade said. “I think the zone has made us a little passive.”
A little passive? The Heat is confused against the zone.
And it works.
“You can’t play them one-on-one, I’m sorry,” Hawks swingman Tracy McGrady said. “LeBron and D-Wade, I don’t give a damn how good your defense is, you can’t play them one-on-one, so you’ve got to come up with something.”
Dallas’ zone defense was a big reason the Mavericks defeated the Heat in six games in the Finals. It did two things: it prevented Wade and LeBron James from getting to the basket, and, as it turned out, it prevented them from getting easy points at the free throw line. Dallas defended without fouling.
Beyond Wade and James attacking, Miami doesn’t seem to have many answers for the zone defense.
“We’re surprised we didn’t see more of it up to this point,” forward Shane Battier said.
It’ll happen with regularity until Miami shows it has a cure.
When Atlanta coach Larry Drew had his team jump into the zone defense Monday, its effects were immediate. Bad shots. Turnovers. Indecision.
“There were a few possessions where we rushed some shots,” James said. “And sometimes we got a little stagnant.”
The Heat is supposed to be better than this. They aren’t. At least not yet. Obviously, Drew has bee paying attention.
Drew, you’ll recall, came up with the “Let Dwight Get His” defense against Orlando in the first round of the playoffs last year. The Hawks let center Dwight Howard score all he could (he averaged 27 points per game) and dared the rest of the Magic to beat them. They couldn’t; Atlanta won in six games.
On Monday, Drew knew his Hawks couldn’t run with the Heat. He also knew Miami gets a lot of points in transition and fastbreak offense. Offensively, Atlanta had to take good shots, and make them.
“A bad shot is as bad as a turnover against those guys,” Drew said.
Defensively, Drew forced Miami into halfcourt offense. That was smart. This year, coach Erik Spoelstra is allowing his offense more freedom. He calls very few set plays, and the Heat uses way fewer pick-and-roll plays than most other teams. Spoelstra got the idea after a summertime visit with Oregon football coach Chip Kelly, who basically allows his athletes to be athletes in his up-tempo offense, thus creating mismatches.
Spoelstra relies on Wade and James to do the right thing. The deal is as long as they play hard defense, they pretty much get free rein offensively. It’s a pretty good system. Wade and James are world-class talents with good decision-making and passing skills. The system, for the most part, works.
The problem is Miami doesn’t have an efficient offense against the zone. The Heat get confused.
Forward James Jones, the three-point shooting champion, is basically out of the rotation, so he doesn’t help. Swingman Mike Miller is still sidelined after having hernia surgery. Newly-acquired forward Shane Battier still hasn’t found his shot. He’s 4-for-17 (.235) from the field, including 4-for-14 (.286) from three-point range. This is a guy who shoots .385 from three-point range for his career. Forward Udonis Haslem, a master of the mid-range jumper, is shooting .333 (11-for-33) this season. He’s a career .498 shooter. Once Battier and Haslem, a pair of seasoned veterans, find their shots, the Heat’s zone offense should improve vastly.
Beyond that, however, Miami needs point guards Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole to penetrate, collapsing the defense, and then either finish or kick it out to the shooters.
Mostly, however, the Heat needs Wade and James to take control of the offense against the zone.
“We know a lot of teams are going to try to stop us from getting out on the break and stop our man-to-man offense and go to the zone,” James said.
The Heat knows what it needs to do against the zone: create some drive-and-kick opportunities, swing the ball, and move without the ball.
“Basketball is basketball,” forward Chris Bosh said.
But it hasn’t been that way for the Heat. Everybody knows they have trouble scoring against the zone defense. The secret is out. Dallas created the model, and Atlanta found it still works. Spoelstra and his players are on alert.
“We do need to get better and address it,” Spoelstra said after the Atlanta game. “They went to the zone and we got out of our rhythm, and what was disappointing was it affected us and our concentration from that point on. We will get better at it. This is something we need to have a breakthrough with.”
Chris Perkins is a regular contributor to SheridanHoops.com, covering the NBA and the Miami Heat. His columns appear every Tuesday. Follow him on Twitter.