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Breaking down how the Celtics couldn’t crack the Heat’s zone defense

Jaylen Brown and the Celtics had a tough time getting good looks against the Heat's zone defense during the second half of Thursday's Game 2 loss.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

The Heat played more zone defense during the regular season than any other team. But as they charged through the first two rounds of the playoffs with wins over the Pacers and Bucks, the scheme was essentially absent.

“I don’t know if [coach Erik] Spoelstra literally got ahead in those series and thought, ‘You know what? I can win in these series without showing it,’” ESPN NBA analyst Tim Legler said in a phone interview Friday. “And then people couldn’t scout it.”

During the Eastern Conference finals against the Heat, though, the zone is back, and it appears to be causing Boston some fits. Miami fell behind by 17 points in the first half of Game 2 on Thursday before switching almost exclusively to its zone, as it surged in front to grab a 106-101 victory and a 2-0 series lead.


Legler said Miami’s zone — a bit of a 3-2 and 2-1-2 hybrid — has no real secret sauce. He said the Heat have simply had success with it because they practice it more than the rest. And over the first two games of this series, Legler has been puzzled by the Celtics' apparent inability to find their way through it.

“They just didn’t have guys in the proper spots, and you never really got ball reversal where you force the zone to shift,” Legler said. “And that’s when zone defenses make mistakes. I just thought they were easy to guard. Spoelstra had no intention of staying with that as long as he did, I guarantee you that.”

Legler said the Celtics need to find seams in the middle of the zone, a role typically reserved for a big man who can set screens or dive to the middle of the paint and force defenses to pinch in. He said there are also opportunities along the baseline between the corner and the hoop, an area that can sometimes confuse a zone defense and create openings to find cutters or make simpler cross-court passes.


Legler added that a potentially potent option for Boston might be to have one of its talented wings roaming in the middle.

“Put Jayson Tatum in there,” he said. “Put Jaylen Brown in there. Now you have a guy that is absolutely going to force attention to that area, which means there’s going to be harder closeouts to contest to 3-point shots. And if it does get in there, now the ball’s in the hands of one of your best offensive players.”

Legler added that the best option for this role has yet to play a game in this series.

“The thing I love about Gordon Hayward is he’s an incredibly decisive player who is a ball-hopper,” Legler said. “When it gets in his hands he gets it to the right spot every time. And he does it quickly and he does it with [6-foot-8-inch] height. He’d be a great guy to have on the floor to attack the zone.”

Legler broke down two late-fourth quarter possessions from Thursday night in which Boston came up empty against Miami’s zone in critical moments.

▪ PLAY 1. Kemba Walker brings the ball up the court with 3 minutes left and the score tied at 95. Walker passes to Tatum as they cross half-court, and Tatum feeds Brown, who drives and kicks the ball out to Marcus Smart at the left arc. Smart then motions for Brown to vacate the area before completing a handoff with Walker and getting the ball back, and taking a tough, contested fadeaway jumper that misses. The ball never leaves the left side of the floor.


NBA/Globe illustration

Legler’s take: "They have four guys on the same side of the floor within like 10-15 feet of each other, and Jayson Tatum’s on the other side of the floor. So there’s nobody in the middle. Now, right from this spot, Marcus Smart should take the ball back to the middle of the floor off the dribble. Get it more balanced. And then one of those two guys, either Brown or Walker, should run back through to get to the right corner, and now you’ve got balance. You’ll have Smart at the top, you’ll have Tatum on the wing, you’ll have Jaylen on the wing. Kemba runs through and then [Daniel] Theis should come up, ball screen on that top defender and then dive to the middle of the floor.

“The defense has to pinch in there to keep the ball from getting there, and if you don’t pinch in and the ball is thrown to Theis, he is going to have a dribble straight-line attack or a jump shot, or, as he starts to go, those back two defenders then have a decision to make. Are you going to pinch in to take away that drive? If that’s the case, he’s got an easy kick out to the corner for a 3. But they never occupy that area.”


▪ PLAY 2: Walker brings the ball upcourt on Boston’s next possession and passes to Tatum, who gets a screen from Theis and dribbles into the right corner, where the possession stalls. He eventually kicks the ball out to Walker, who misses a contested 3-pointer from about 4 feet behind the right arc.

NBA/Globe illustration

Legler’s take: “Theis goes up and sets the screen, but here’s where Tatum makes a mistake. He’s setting the ball screen with 17 on the shot clock and Tatum takes it off the screen. The problem is, when Theis sets it and he goes to the middle, right at that point, Jayson Tatum should pick the ball up and give Theis an opportunity to get to the middle and see who’s going to take that away. Is it going to be [Jimmy] Butler from the top? If that’s the case, you’ve got a reversal with Kemba, who has a ton of space and can either shoot it or drive it back at the closeout defender. Maybe you get [Goran] Dragic then to pinch in and you get a kick to the corner.

"But Tatum dribbles the ball all the way down to the corner before he picks it up. He holds the ball too long. By the time he passes it, Kemba is out here at 27 feet. And this isn’t a terrible shot, but it’s not Kemba’s strength either, because he’s way better off the dribble from distance. They never really did anything to make that zone shift.”


Adam Himmelsbach can be reached at adam.himmelsbach@globe.com. Follow him @adamhimmelsbach.