In the NBA, teams often employ a zone defense with the same sensibility of a man watching 'Sex and the City"- more by necessity than choice, and always with a palpable sense of embarrassment tinged with shame.
Not the Dallas Mavericks.
Rick Carlisle's crew may play more zone than any team in the league, and do it very effectively. Rather than papering over weaknesses, it has enhanced strengths and helped the Mavs become a more effective defensive unit. Opposing squads frequently throw zones at the champs, attempting to mitigate their advantage in the paint while encouraging long jumpers, something the Lakers don't do particularly well, whether from 16-23 feet or beyond the arc.
Often it's an effective strategy, and the degree to which it works for the Mavs will be an important factor in the series. In three regular season games, if nothing else Dallas was able to contain Kobe Bryant.
"Sometimes against a zone, I think you over-analyze what you should or shouldn't do, instead of taking what opportunities present themselves. You still can get the ball inside, you can still get penetration, and you can still do certain things defensively against a zone, just like a man [defense]. So just don't overthink it," Derek Fisher said Sunday afternoon.
A roster of great passers in an offense demanding motion makes for plenty of ways to create looks closer to the rim, doing exactly what the Lakers try to do against a man-to-man. There is no need, Fisher said, to settle for jumpers. Still, sometimes beating a zone simply comes down to knocking down perimeter shots. "You're a pro. If somebody's going to zone and leave you open, at times you've just got to be willing to take the shots and make 'em. And if you don't make them, the coach will put somebody in who will," Fisher said.
Assuming he can find one. Based on their collective track record as shooters, such a player really isn't at Phil Jackson's disposal, though I didn't debate the point with Fish.
"You can't allow somebody to think that they can put two people [on the other side of the floor] and just leave you standing out here. It's just not possible," he continued. "So yeah, at times get the ball inside, but at other times you've got to make them pay for not respecting your abilities. Then once they come out after you make a couple, then you go inside."
It's interesting to hear him speak so openly about the "macho" factor at work. Little is more insulting to a player than being left alone on the floor, dared to shoot. It's hard not to fire away, even if getting him to do just that is entirely the point. As a matter of percentages, the Mavs would certainly benefit from the Lakers hoisting jumpers without discretion.
During last season's Western Conference Finals, an undersized Phoenix team threw a ton of zone at L.A., generally out of necessity. The Lakers at times struggled to execute, helping extend a series that might otherwise have been shorter. Dallas zones up far better and is a more dangerous team overall. There's nothing wrong with an open perimeter look against the zone, particularly one generated by solid execution instead of ego or impatience. As Fisher points out, they can't and shouldn't be avoided. For the Lakers, it's a matter of showing patience, moving themselves and the ball, and making sure they don't take a jumper with 17 seconds remaining on the shot clock likely available with seven.
That said, they'll still need to shoot well enough to keep the Mavericks honest, and remove one of their potential defensive weapons.