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NBA Playbook: Dealing with Dallas' Zone on Offense

Something worth noting - the Thunder put 112 points on Dallas without really having any sort of coherent offensive strategy at all. Dallas is a good defensive team because they have good, competent players. It is not because they have Kevin Garnett or Tony Allen hell-hounds prowling the court. They are never going to aspire to be a shut-down defense, but they don't need to. They're simply smart enough to take away a few offensive options from the opposition, and that is usually enough to give their efficient offense enough margin for error.

Sebastian Pruiti once again did great work looking at the Dallas defense to reveal how they created sets that were just enough to allow them to give OKC the Heisman for three quarters.

OKC vs the Zone | NBA Playbook

I grabbed the first clip he posted because it is the most basic mistake that teams make against a zone, but be sure to look at all of them to see the various ways in which the Thunder met the Dallas zone with hesitation rather than purpose.

A few more comments after the jump.

  • I've had the privilege of both playing and coaching basketball, and I have my own perspective on how to bust zones. I'm sure that any others who have had that experience have their own philosophies as well, and I'd be eager to hear them).  My basic take on how to approach this zone, which is a basic 2-3, is to see the court not in terms of where the defenders are, but where they are not. See below:


  • Against this 2-3 set, there are several "soft spots." Not only are there no defenders in these areas, but if the ball moves to them, it causes the zone to shift. However, as you can see in the above clip, the Dallas zone never shifts because it does not need to. As long as perimeter guys are dribbling around the 3-point line, the up-men can simply slide side to side with little fear. A pass to the wing is a start in the right direction, but only if the offense has a plan on what to do. Also, a skip pass from one wing to the other has to travel over at least three very tall people, so it carries more risk than reward. High screens also do not work very well because the up-men are already in a "switch on everything" mode anyway.
  • Instead of dribbling the ball around the perimeter, the most straight-forward way to break a zone down is to get the ball into those soft spots. Without even going into "plays" against a zone defense, the player first must have this proper mentality. Getting the ball to a soft spot can be done either with the dribble drive or the pass, although a pass is preferable. If the ball moves to the circle at the top of the key, the back men have to move up, which will open up the baseline. If the ball goes to the high post or baseline circles, the middle and weak side players must shift toward the lane to prevent both a drive as well as a pass.
  • Just as the key to a good zone defense rests on each man's commitment to his zone, so too the key to a good offense against a zone is a commitment to how to break it down. Rarely is the initial move going to cause the opening, because all five defenders can react. The ball handler must know this and have a plan in mind for where he's going to go with the ball. So while getting the ball to that soft spot is the first move, it is not likely to be the final move. The ball handler must already have a passing option in mind to go to once the defense closes on him. It did not seem like the Thunder had much of a plan, so in the end they had to either settle for contested jump shots or charge into the lane.
  • A zone is designed to give up perimeter shots. In college, this philosophy is often a good one because usually only a few players on the team can comfortably face up and shoot from 18 feet. In the pros, it is not uncommon for at least four out of five guys to be able to face up and shoot. I think this is one area where the Thunder can break down the zone, but did not seize the opportunity. The Thunder have a number of big men - Nick Collison, Serge Ibaka, Kevin Durant, and even Nazr Mohammed - who can turn and shoot that medium range shot. However, they have to be ready for the opening.
  • In the 4th clip, you can see much better ball movement right from the beginning, and it immediately stretches out the zone past its point of usefulness. As a result, the opportunity presents itself - the ball goes right into the top of the key where Collison receives the pass. He is in perfect position to pivot, turn, and shoot a wide open 15 footer. However, he hesitates and instead of shooting tries to drive the ball into three defenders, which results in a turnover. We know that both Collison and Ibaka shoot a high percentage from that range, but they have to be ready for that shot to be there. 
  • Pruiti makes the argument that this is is the type of zone defense situation where still having Jeff Green would have paid dividends. He's probably right, but a team only needs to break a zone two to three times before the defense abandons it, and I think that the Thunder have the necessary pieces to deal with a zone. 
  • When this defense is applied in Game Two, the two most important guys on the court will be Russell Westbrook and the flash post player (Collison or Ibaka). As long as those two guys recognize quickly what is going on, they can start working the ball into the soft spots, and openings will reveal themselves.
Finally, compare the clip above to this one below, which Pruiti grabbed from earlier in the season. Watch how quickly the ball moves, and no ball handler takes more than two dribbles before passing it up. The ball is constantly moving, which causes the zone to constantly shift.  OKC looking and waiting to get a man into that soft spot. Finally, Serge Ibaka flashes through the baseline spot, which gives Durant enough space to dribble-drive the ball into that area. When the zone collapses on him, Durant makes the good bounce-pass to the cutting Ibaka. As a result of constant engagement and not allowing the defense to set, they get a dunk with three seconds left on the shot clock. The play showed remarkable patience and purpose, two elements to which the Thunder need to return tomorrow.