Game 1 of the 2022 WNBA Finals brought a strategic twist we haven't seen often lately at the highest levels of playoff competition: The Las Vegas Aces using a zone defense to help slow down the Connecticut Sun in their 67-64 victory on Sunday.
"We know we are going to see zone in stretches in this series," Connecticut coach Curt Miller said postgame. "They are going to play more zone than they did all of the playoffs. I think they played three or four possessions against Seattle in totality. So we know we are going to see it."
With first-year Las Vegas head coach Becky Hammon, the WNBA Coach of the Year, as one of the biggest proponents, WNBA teams have played more zone defense this season than at any point since the league instituted a defensive three-second violation in 2013 to prevent players from camping out near the basket, as is possible at the high school and college levels.
Why has the zone made a comeback in the WNBA and how might it influence the remainder of the Aces-Sun series? Some of the league's top coaches help break it down.
WNBA teams get back in the zone
A decade ago, zone defenses were common in the WNBA. Synergy Sports has tracked the league's zone usage since 2011, and it peaked the following year, when teams played an average of 6.2 plays of zone per game and all but one team used zone for at least 100 plays over the course of the season.
After 2012, presumably anticipating the arrival of 6-foot-9 Brittney Griner as the No. 1 overall pick in the following year's draft, the WNBA's competition committee instituted the defensive three-second rule, matching a rule on the books in the NBA since the league scrapped illegal defense and permitted zones in 2001.
With the defensive rule making it more difficult for big defenders to protect the rim, zone usage fell drastically, with nearly a 70% reduction in zone plays in 2013, according to Synergy Sports. By 2019, teams were recorded as playing zone barely more than 100 plays leaguewide all season. Zone usage trickled up the past two years then jumped this season to 2.8 plays per game -- easily the most since 2012.
The difference also has been felt in the playoffs. Las Vegas' 31 plays marked as zone thus far are more than all teams combined have played in any postseason since 2016.
We saw a similar trend toward increased use of zones in the NBA beginning a few seasons ago. Under coach Nick Nurse, the Toronto Raptors made use of a variety of exotic zones, including box-and-one and triangle-and-two defenses, as they beat the Golden State Warriors in the 2019 NBA Finals.
The following season, my colleague Tim Bontemps and I wrote about the importance of zones in the playoffs, including their role in the Miami Heat's surprise run to the NBA Finals. WNBA coaches were taking note of what was happening in the NBA.
"You have all this time in the winter to watch NBA games, and we do," said Washington Mystics coach Mike Thibault, who's in his 20th year on the sidelines in the WNBA. "You steal stuff that is working for people. I think it's just the evolution of the game."
Zone defenses solve similar problems in the WNBA to those of the NBA. Thibault highlighted the difficulty of defending pick-and-rolls, which have been on the rise in the WNBA as teams have moved away from post-centric offenses. (Despite that, Thibault's Mystics were one of three teams to be tracked with fewer than 10 zone plays all season; he felt his team was more aggressive matching up.)
The influence of the NBA was most evident this season when Hammon left the San Antonio Spurs' coaching staff to take over as Las Vegas head coach, bringing other coaches with NBA experience (assistants Tyler Marsh and Natalie Nakase) along. Nurse's Raptors were one of the teams Hammon was responsible for scouting in San Antonio, and she also saw the Spurs incorporate more zone defense over time.
"It's like, 'Why not?"" Hammon said. "The score's not going to be 0-0, so why not mix it up and try different things? Maybe you get lucky and some of it works occasionally. We did some box-and-one against Dame [Lillard]; we did it against Steph Curry. If you can roll the dice on those players, you can roll the dice on anybody."
When Hammon was hired by the Aces, she felt using zone defense was something that could set her team apart.
"Nobody was really running it," Hammon said, "so I felt like it was something different that we could throw out there. They're professional basketball players: If you give anybody a steady diet of the same defense, they'll adjust and they'll figure out. It was really just coming into it, ways that I wanted to steal maybe two or three possessions a game, give the team a different look. That was really it. I wanted to mix it up a little bit."
Although Las Vegas played zone more frequently on a per-game basis (5.8 plays) than any team had from 2018 to 2021, Hammon wasn't alone in using zone. Six other teams played zone more often this season than anyone but the Atlanta Dream had the previous year.
In fact, despite Griner's wrongful detention in Russia, the Phoenix Mercury surpassed the Aces as the league's most frequent user of zone defense. Turning to zones to compensate for a lack of size up front after the departure of Tina Charles midseason, Phoenix averaged 9.6 zone plays per game, fourth most of any team in the Synergy tracking era.
Zone in the Finals
As Miller noted, zone defense wasn't a big part of Las Vegas' run to the WNBA Finals. After sweeping the short-handed Mercury in the opening round, the Aces played very limited zone during their four-game semifinal win over the Storm, who boasted willing 3-point shooters at all five positions.
"Why not mix it up and try different things? ... If you can roll the dice on those players, you can roll the dice on anybody." Becky Hammon, who was part of the Spurs' staff that used a zone on Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard
The matchup is different against Connecticut, which finished ahead of only the lottery-bound Los Angeles Sparks with 6.4 3-pointers per game this season. Miller was right to expect the zone after Las Vegas used it an average of more than 16 plays per game in the teams' three head-to-head matchups during the regular season.
On Sunday, the Aces particularly saw zone as a counter to the Sun's bigger frontcourts featuring both 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones and reigning Sixth Player of the Year Award winner and post threat Brionna Jones, who scored just two of her 12 points in Game 1 after halftime.
"We just kind of sat in that zone and just mucked it up," Hammon explained.
Meanwhile, Miller was looking forward to reviewing the tape and seeing whether his team got good shots against the zone, knowing more of it will likely be coming in Game 2.
"That was part of the fourth quarter," he said. "And again, we got a good 3 in the corner by Natisha [Hiedeman], but not every possession was productive against their zone."
Overall, Connecticut had success against the Las Vegas zone. Per ESPN Stats & Information tracking, the Sun shot 6-of-13 on zone possessions, with half of those makes coming from 3-point range for an effective field goal percentage (eFG%) of 58%. By contrast, Connecticut shot an eFG% of 38% against the Aces' man-to-man defense, making just two 3-pointers in 10 attempts.
Much of that success came in the second quarter, meaning the Sun's zone offense wasn't as strong down the stretch. During a best-of-five series, Connecticut will have the chance to adapt and adjust to the zone, which might force Las Vegas to find different counters as the series goes on. Still, in a close game like that on Sunday, the Aces mixing things up for a handful of plays could end up a difference-maker in the Finals.
"It is a possession-by-possession game," Hammon said. "You don't want to drop possessions. They're too important."