MIAMI — With Shane Battier draining nine 3-pointers through two games, it seems like an odd time to bring it up. But it is worth discussing:
As the NBA Finals shift to Miami, I can’t help but remember last season: The Dallas Mavericks utilized all their parts and all of their schemes in an attempt to slow down the fast and powerful offense of the Miami Heat. If even for a string of possessions at a time, the Mavs made use of the league’s best zone defense in order to take the Heat out of rhythm during crucial stretches on their way to becoming 2011 NBA Champions.
Most notably, the Mavs decided to deploy their defensive weaponry early on in Game 6 – just after LeBron James started 4-of-4 from the field. The move took James out of his rhythm and helped to contribute to a 21-4 run over the course of 5-plus minutes that helped give Dallas a 40-28 lead toward the middle of the first half.
Yet for all of Dallas’ success just a year ago, the thought of playing a zone defense during this series doesn’t seem to have crossed the Oklahoma City Thunder players’ or coaches’ minds.
“Personally, as players, we don’t think about that,” said Thabo Sefolosha, one of the Thunder’s best on-the-ball defenders. “Right now the concept is to play them straight up man-to-man and get help. If we make a change, we make a change, but right now we don’t really think about that.”
“We have the toughness, length and athleticism to match up with them,” emphasized Harden, implying that man-to-man was the way to be. We have long and athletic guys on our team. That’s our advantage. We’re long, athletic, tall and strong, and we’re trying to use that to our advantage.”
When discussing the subject Saturday at American Airlines Arena with players and coaches from both teams, it seems that the reasons for the Thunder not playing any zone during this series are more complicated than the one might assume.
First and foremost, identity plays a huge role in the initiation of zone defense. A team like Oklahoma City doesn’t use zone regularly and isn’t likely to pull it out of their back pocket during the most crucial stretch of the season.
“Each team has to play to their identity,” said Ron Rothstein, a longtime Miami Heat assistant coach. “If you try to do something that you’re not familiar with and isn’t something that got you there, it’s usually not going to work.”
“That’s not something we do,” said Mark Bryant, a former NBA veteran forward and current Thunder assistant. “We’re a defensive oriented team. We like to cover the elbows and blocks. We like to have our hands up – pick-up defense, like right above the 3-point line.”
Oklahoma City’s identity, much like Miami’s, is playing high pressure man-to-man defense so that they can dictate where their help defense comes from and, ultimately, force bad shots and turnovers so that they can create fast-break opportunities.
“If they turn you over, forget about it,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. “It’s two or three going down the other end.”
The problem with this, however, is that when you are playing against one of the game’s biggest, strongest, and potentially greatest driving/creating/playmaking forwards of all time, that task can wear on defenders (no matter how good they are) over the course of a series.
It’s true that the Thunder have the ever-improving Kevin Durant and the excellent defensive specialist Sefolosha to guard Miami’s James and Wade, but thus far in the first two games they have been spread out during the first two quarters by Battier (13 points and 9 points during first halves) early and diced up by James (14 points and 14 points, respectively) often. In Game 1 Nick Collison came off the bench and gave the Thunder a nice lift with 8 points and 10 rebounds (plus-13 in 21 minutes), but perhaps most importantly, he ensured that Serge Ibaka could be roaming the perimeter on players like James and Battier, whom he started the first two games on. In Game 2, Collison was +8 in 15 minutes on the floor without scoring a point – a true sign of his value.
It’s clear that the Thunder will have to make a decision about how they are going to divide minutes between Ibaka, Collison and Perkins. In order to keep up with Miami’s small starting lineup of Chalmers, Wade, Battier, James and a healthy Bosh, it might be best to start the versatile Collison so that he can roam the perimeter on Battier and Ibaka can bang in the middle with Bosh.
Whatever the case may be, it’s clear that unlike Dallas, the Thunder will not be trying to confuse the Heat with a zone defense — unless they are playing possum.
“With Dallas, they were different like that,” explained assistant coach Bryant. “We’ve talked about it, but it’s just not something we’d do. We have long and athletic guys on our team. That’s our advantage. We’re long, athletic, tall and strong, and we’re trying to use that to our advantage.”
“We have the toughness, length and athleticism to match up with them,” Harden said. “We haven’t thought about playing zone. Maybe the coaches did, but as players right now we don’t think about that. Our plan is to play straight up man-to-man. That’s what it’s going to be for now and if we make a change, we make a change.”
Jeremy Bauman is a 2011 graduate of Indiana University and the newest writer for SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter.