When the Celtics were trailing by 16 points to the Miami Heat on Monday night Doc Rivers made a decision he has made numerous times this season when facing an opponent that continuously breaks down the Celtics feisty defense. He went to a zone defense.
Boston played the first game of the regular season in a man-to-man defense for much of the game, but it wasn't until the Celtics switched to zone that Boston was able to find a way to claw its way back into the game. Remember, the Celtics trailed by a very large margin during that game. In fact, the halftime deficit was 15.
With just over two minutes left in the third quarter on December 27th, Boston moved into the zone. Granted, Boston hit a ton of its shots during that stretch -- which the Heat noted after that game as the reason Boston was able to zone effectively -- but the fact that it worked against Miami gave Boston hope for the other times it played the Heat. Miami ended up only hitting on 6-24 shots from the 3-2 match-up zone that Boston showed, and it was Norris Cole who ran the show for most of those makes. He isn't much of a factor now.
The Celtics ran a zone during numerous other games this season, and they seemed to be able to execute it pretty well. A load of teams have trouble playing against the zone because, well, you just don't see it too often outside of practice. That's the trick Doc Rivers knew he had in his back pocket heading into the Eastern Conference Finals.
The next question: when do you use it?
When Boston switched to a zone defense in the first game of the series on Monday night, the Heat missed on its first few possessions. Boston was clamoring for a chance to get back into the game in a hurry, and Rivers obviously knew that the zone was a good option.
Rivers indicated in his post game press conference that the Heat would definitely be seeing more zone, and he wasn't sure if he should have saved the wrinkle for Game 2 instead of perhaps giving the Heat a preview of what is to come.
Boston seemed a bit lethargic when the zone was initiated, and that's to be expected from an older team that was absolutely gassed by the time Rivers sent them into the new defense. The first three plays for Miami resulted in open jumpers. They didn't hit them. Instead, they missed pretty badly.
They can't bank on that for the rest of the series. If the Celtics are to continue to throw zone at the Heat, the Celtics will have to rotate out quickly and drive the wing players off of the perimeter. A zone is definitely more prone to open looks from distance, but that doesn't mean it has to be accepted. Boston has to sharpen that up. Sure, open corner threes from Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers are far better than open jumpers from LeBron James or Dwyane Wade, but not even attempting to close out is not generally acceptable.
In the same manner, when Rivers does switch to a zone defense, the Celtics simply have to hit shots and run decent offense. As stated before, the Heat noted this after the first game of the season when Boston threw zone at them. Boston's made baskets allowed them to settle into a zone. No made baskets? Usually, no zone defense.
The Celtics are certainly not out of the series. Yet. Another game awaits on Wednesday night, and Boston surely knows how important stealing one game in Miami would be. The entire complexion of the series would change if Boston could just get one win in Miami. It won't be easy, but perhaps a few stints per game in a zone defense could help jolt Boston's chances.
The Heat has shown a proclivity to struggle with a different defense when it is thrust upon them in the middle of a game. The Mavericks confused Miami with it during the Finals last year, and the Heat has shown that occasionally it still troubles them. Boston has to find something to slow down the Miami offense when its in a phenomenal rhythm like it was during the third quarter of Game 1.
Zone doesn't have to be the primary defense for Boston to have a chance, but when they do switch to it, they have to be quick, crisp and smart on both ends of the floor. If the Celtics can execute that in Game 2, then it has a much better chance of going back to Boston with the series tied at one game apiece.