Why the Mavs’ zone defense will decide the Finals

While continuing their near flawless offensive execution will be paramount to the Dallas Mavericks’ hopes of winning an NBA Championship, limiting the Miami Heat attack will be just as important. It won’t be easy.

Miami has already beaten two of the best defenses in the NBA in the 2011 playoffs, defeating both the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics, teams that are readily accepted as having superior defenses to Dallas. The Mavericks, however, have the benefit of the best zone defense in the league, one they have used with tremendous success against the Heat in the past.

In two regular seasons with the Mavs this year, Miami faced a zone defense on 56 offensive possessions or about one-fourth of the time. On these plays, the Heat shot 13-of-45 from the field (28.9%), resulting in an offensive efficiency of .55 points per possession – both marks are well below their season average. It’s a limited sample size to be sure, but given the success Dallas has had with short spurts of this approach and the manner in which Chicago pestered Miami with their quasi-zone in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Mavs will likely show flashes of this defense throughout the series. Furthermore, Dallas has been much more liberal in their use of the zone against Miami. During the regular season they went to the zone look a little more than 10% of the time as compared to nearly 25% against the Heat.

After watching footage of Dallas’ zone against Miami on Synergy Sports two things become readily apparent: the Mavs limit the Heat’s dribble drive game and force the ball out of the hands of their primary scorers.

Of the 45 shots the Heat attempted in these two games, just 10 were in the paint, surprising when considering that a majority of these touches came in isolation and pick-and-roll sets. This isn’t to say players like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade aren’t able to penetrate against this zone look, but rather the swift rotation of the Dallas frontcourt forces them to kick and settle for perimeter jumpers. This could prove to be a double-edged sword for Dallas in the Finals. Certainly forcing a team into settling for long two’s rather than shots at the rim is good in theory, but Miami has been making these in the postseason and the Mavs potent lineup of shooters leaves something to be desired defensively. Still, any team would likely rather take their chances with James and Wade settling rather than attacking.

Dallas has also managed to force the basketball into the hands of Miami’s role players much more frequently when defending with the zone. During the regular season the Heat’s Big Three accounted for just over 64% of the team’s total possessions. This mark drops to 55% when facing the Mavs’ blanketing zone approach. This may not seem like a significant change, but based on the Heat’s pace of play, it works out to a difference of more than eight possessions per game that the ball is going to say Mike Bibby or Mike Miller rather than James, Wade or Chris Bosh. Over the course of a seven game series that expects to be hotly contested, this is pretty significant.

Overall Miami hasn’t struggled significantly against zone defenses – but there has been a noticeable drop-off. The Heat ranked second in the NBA in offensive efficiency while shooting 48.1% from the floor, they were just 15th against zone defenses on 38.8% shooting.

Given the excellent adjustments that Miami head coach Erik Spoelstra has made throughout the playoffs there’s no question his team will be versed on the Dallas zone when the teams take the floor later tonight for Game 1. The question is, can they execute against it?

The data indicates that the Heat will need their role players – specifically their perimeter shooters – to step up and make shots. The traditional marquee matchup putting two great superstars against one another will occupy headlines, but ultimately a form of defense considered unfit for the rigors of the NBA may be what truly decides this year’s Finals.

Twitter: @JoeyWhelan

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Trackbacks

  1. [...] Some good details here on how poorly the Heat fared against the Mavs’ zone in two regular-season games. The personnel this time around is [...]

  2. [...] shooters. Those two HAD to play big and in doing so, teams couldn’t pack the paint anymore. They couldn’t do what the Mavs in winning their championship because LeBron was getting on the low block and Bosh and 3 shooters spread the floor. And then they [...]

  3. [...] modern day NBA zone might be best known for it’s value to the 2011 Dallas Mavericks championship run.  After limiting the Heat’s dribble drive game, and often taking the ball out of the hands [...]

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