The book's out: LeBron James and the Heat have to figure out how to counter the zone defense.
MIAMI – Perhaps the best way to explain the Miami Heat’s first loss, oddly as it may seem, is with some baseball analogies.
Let’s start with this one: The Atlanta Hawks threw quite a changeup on Monday night and the Heat were caught out on their front foot.
Then: The Heat have been through the order once and the hitters are starting to figure them out.
One more: The Heat can’t lay off the high one.
There were several reasons the Hawks left Miami with an impressive 100-92 win. Tracy McGrady hit jumpers with the consistency and confidence he had circa 2004. Atlanta’s willingness to patiently and coolly execute its offense under pressure and not slip into the long-running trap of standing around and watching Joe Johnson try to create a miracle helped. Some pretty good clutch defense at the rim from Josh Smith and Al Horford in the fourth quarter was a factor, too.
But mostly the Hawks beat the Heat with their scouting report. That left the Heat with more than just a loss but with a headache. Like a hitter who can’t lay off the curve in the dirt, the Heat know they’re probably about to face a steady diet of what finally beat them for the first time in six games.
The season is now a little more than a week old and the book on the Heat has started to get around. The advance scouts have filed their reports. The assistant coaches have a catalog of games to watch to make suggestions. Head coaches have a huge bullet point for their game plan.
Right now, the Heat have a problem with zone defense and the whole league is about to realize it.
The Dallas Mavericks used it effectively in the Finals against them last June, though the champs seemed to forget that strategy in the Christmas Day opener. But the Boston Celtics, a team that virtually never goes to zone, nearly pulled off a second-half comeback last week using it until they were upended by an unexpected shooting performance by Heat rookie Norris Cole.
The Charlotte Bobcats and Minnesota Timberwolves, for some reason, decided not to pick up where the Celtics left off and barely showed it to the Heat over the next three games. The Hawks, however, did not make the same mistake. With two days to prepare for their first shot at their major division rival, they didn’t miss the chance.
Atlanta deployed the zone from the first quarter onward, mixing it in effectively throughout the game. The result was the worst offensive output of the season for Miami, reducing them from the speedy juggernaut they had fashioned themselves lately to shades of the unsteady and trustless play that plagued them at times last season.
“Inevitably, we’re going to see it quite a bit from here,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra conceded after the game. “What was disappointing was it affected us and our concentration.”
Though this doesn’t seem like it would make common sense considering how well known their star players are, the Heat came blitzing out of training camp and stunned the early opponents with a high-speed offense that was heretofore unseen. Not unlike a rookie prospect who goes on a tear after a promotion from AAA, feasting on fastballs until his weaknesses are discovered.
The Heat’s first weakness has now been identified.
“The zone has made us a little passive,” said Dwyane Wade, who struggled through a 4-of-17 shooting performance as he was forced to stay on the outside and settle for jump shots.
“There is one thing the zone has done for people throughout the years, you go from being in a triple threat to putting the ball over your head.”
It’s hardly expected to be a fatal flaw. The Heat have all the ingredients to deal with zone. They have several strong spot up shooters plus a couple of players who operate very well out of the high post in LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Even a middle school coach will tell you that the best way to beat a zone is to get the ball to the middle. Few players are better in the middle than James.
Come to that, James, Wade and Bosh literally have years of experience facing expert zone defenses together. That is the staple of international play and those three have been practicing zone offense in the summers off and on since 2006 with Team USA.
But instead of falling back on that, they fell back on to the one-on-one play that was a thorn in their side last season. This was especially the case in the fourth quarter, when Wade, James and Bosh all tried to beat the Hawks by themselves. The result was 37 percent shooting and some ugly possessions as 12 of their 19 shots were jumpers from outside 10 feet. Most of them were into the teeth of the zone.
“There were a few possessions were we rushed some shots; a couple more we had some good looks and got a little stagnant,” James said. “It is not a surprise, we just have to figure out ways to exploit it.”
For every team a season is often a foray into putting out various fires that pop up. That is one of the head coach’s primary jobs, the make adjustments between games to address weak spots. The Heat, spent only a trifle of training camp actually working on zone offense, do not have the advantage of time. Because of the nature of this season, practice time to work on these issues is scarce.
The Heat have had just one practice since the season started and will not likely get a standard practice until three more games have passed. So they are going to be forced to deal with the zone issues on the fly. They will probably get a lot of practice during their upcoming games, though.
Sitting right next to the Hawks bench Monday night was a scout from the Indiana Pacers, who certainly left the arena with an idea of what can work against the Heat when the Pacers visit on Wednesday. Until the Heat prove they can handle it, the zone promises to be a nightly focal point.
“We will get better at it,” Spoelstra said. “This is something we need to have a breakthrough with.”