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Celtics using Summer League to experiment with zone defense

After struggling against zone defense vs. the Heat in the playoffs, the Celtics are considering using more of it themselves.Madeline Carter/Associated Press

LAS VEGAS — Perhaps the biggest development with these summer Celtics lies not with one individual player but their defensive approach.

The Celtics have spent the first three games playing an extensive amount of zone defense — a strategy they have rarely used — to generate rallies, including Friday when they shaved a 23-point deficit to 2 in a 97-89 loss to the New York Knicks at Cox Pavilion.

Boston committed 21 turnovers and missed several open shots but used the zone to come back in the second half before losing momentum in the final minutes. Six Celtics scored in double figures, including recently signed Dalano Banton, who led the way with 18.


More important is the development of the zone and a possible organizational shift in how often it becomes a part of the Celtics’ arsenal this season. Summer League coach Tony Dobbins confirmed that the team’s brass decided to experiment this summer to determine if zone will be implemented in training camp with the veteran players.

After years of being besieged by the zone defense, especially against the rival Miami Heat, the Celtics are considering countering with zones of their own.

“I think that’s the great debate in the NBA,” Dobbins said of how often teams should zone up. “With the personnel we have, the size and the length and athleticism that we have, to try to see what it looks like. What the strong points are, what the weak points are, what the vulnerable areas that teams may look to attack.

“I think we’ve got some good things on film from just this couple of games stretch.”

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The Celtics gave up 57 points in the first half but just 40 after halftime as the zone confused the Knicks and forced turnovers. The Celtics have rarely played zone and only used it last season when their base man defense was getting scorched. The Heat, by far, used the most zone of any NBA team, and the Celtics struggled with its various wrinkles during the Eastern Conference finals.


Using zone in summer league may allow the big club to become more defensively versatile.

“We definitely want to see what it looks like and what it looks like to teach it,” Dobbins said. “If you’re going to play zone, what are your core principles and values? Are they the same as when you build a man-to-man defense? In order to do that, we have to see what it looks like. We’ve had an opportunity to do that over a few games and then we’ll see as we break that film down together, we’ll see what that looks like for us during the regular season.”

Dobbins said the zone can be frustrating because, when facing proper ball movement, it does allow open 3-pointers and players can hide in gaps for open looks.

“You see some of the things you can do to make teams uncomfortable and it really piques your interest,” Dobbins said. “But as a coach when you get a breakdown then you’re like, ‘Does that happen if we’re in man-to-man?’ You can’t take away everything. But you have to be objective and not emotional in the decisions that you make so that you can really see how you can potentially apply it.”

Boston Globe Today: Sports | July 14, 2023
Watch the full episode of Boston Globe Today: Sports from July 14, 2023.

Gary Washburn is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at gary.washburn@globe.com. Follow him @GwashburnGlobe.