HANG TIME NEW JERSEY BUREAU — The Miami Heat can indeed be beaten this season.
The Heat enter Friday’s game in Denver (10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) having lost two straight games out West in overtime. The Heat shot 6-for-25 in clutch time in the two games, with almost as many turnovers (five) as buckets.
Before these recent West struggles, the Heat’s only loss came on Jan. 2 against the Atlanta Hawks, who played zone for much of the middle two quarters. A zone also helped the Celtics come back against the Heat in the fourth quarter in the second game of the season.
The Heat really struggled against Boston’s zone (even though the Celtics have never played zone otherwise) and had some ugly possessions against Atlanta as well. Here’s a sampling…
Play 1: Dec. 27 vs. BOS, third quarter
The Heat are moving, but the movement resembles what you’d see when a team walks through its zone offense the morning of a game. And when Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem flash to the middle of the zone, they’re both in the same spot. The ball moves slowly around the perimeter before Norris Cole launches a 3-pointer from the top…
Play 2: Dec. 27 vs. BOS, fourth quarter
Chris Bosh flashes to the middle, but doesn’t really make himself available and then ends up in the same spot as Haslem, allowing Brandon Bass to guard them both by himself. LeBron James then flashes to the middle, but isn’t open. That doesn’t stop Dwyane Wade from tossing a lazy pass over James’ head…
Play 3: Dec. 27 vs. BOS, fourth quarter
Once again, the Heat have two guys (Bosh and Haslem) in the same spot at the same time. James, with his heels on the 3-point line, launches a quick jumper off a skip pass from Wade. It’s not the worst shot he could take, but it’s close, considering that there are still 15 seconds left on the shot clock…
Slow cuts, lazy passes and guys occupying the same space at the same time. Those were the Heat’s first attempts at a zone offense.
Seeing the above, other teams followed the script, throwing a zone at the Heat in order to slow their offense down. Miami has seen zone in six of their 11 games thus far, and the results have been mixed…
Miami’s zone possessions
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
As you can see above, when the Hawks went to zone in their second meeting and the Heat immediately hit two 3-pointers, Atlanta went back to man-to-man.
The Nets also ran into trouble when they tried to trap James near the midcourt line. The 6-foot-8 point guard saw over the trap, got the ball to a teammate, and the Nets’ defense was then compromised.
Overall, the Heat’s offense ranks ninth in the league, scoring over 103 points per 100 possessions. They’ve faced zone on about seven percent of their possessions, and have been less efficient than when they face man-to-man defense.
But as the Heat see more zone, they get more comfortable with it.
Here are some examples of how, lately, they’ve been more organized and more effective against a zone…
Play 4: Jan. 2 vs. ATL, third quarter
The Heat space the floor perfectly, with Bosh and Joel Anthony staying out of each other’s way. When Wade throws a skip pass to James, Anthony comes high to set a screen and Bosh cuts from the elbow to the basket. James knows where Bosh is going before he even catches the ball, and he takes advantage of the Hawks’ turned heads to hit Bosh on the move for an easy dunk…
Play 5: Jan. 10 at GSW, second quarter
Out of a timeout, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra designs a special play to expose the weak side of the Warriors’ zone. As the ball is swung, Bosh flashes high to draw Kwame Brown away from the basket. On the weak side, Anthony sets a (not-so-legal) back screen on David Lee and Cole tosses a perfect lob to James for the throwdown…
Play 6: Jan. 10 at GSW, second quarter
The floor is spread and the ball movement is crisp, with all five Heat players touching the ball in the span of three seconds. As the Warriors try to recover, James finds Bosh open on the baseline. If Bosh goes up strong, at worst he’s getting to the free throw line. But he allows Brandon Rush to come over and block his shot…
On that last play, the result wasn’t great, but the execution was near-perfect. And that’s what Spoelstra is looking for when his team goes against a zone.
“Not necessarily whether the ball went in or not,” Spoelstra said after the Heat chewed up the Nets’ zone on Saturday. “I think that’s easy for people to judge it based on that. Our comfort level has already grown. We like now to see zone. We want to see zone, because we want to get better at it. We know we’ll see it quite a bit.”
“It’s about being comfortable against it,” James added, “knowing you’re going to see it, and then knowing what sets you go to that all five guys are comfortable with.”
Come playoff time, Miami’s opponents would probably prefer that they aren’t so comfortable. But there’s no doubt that the Heat will continue to see zone throughout the season. If the prideful Celtics are willing to try it, anybody is.
But teams should know that the Heat have already come a long way from the way they looked against zone in December.