In the zone: the Celtics add another wrinkle to their defense

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

You don't see a lot of zone defense in the NBA. It's almost taboo, a gimmick a coach will use to buy some time or confuse their opponents. But over the last two games, the Celtics have departed from their vaunted strong side overload D and found success in the zone.

The Celtics were getting killed in the first quarter last night against the Sixers in elbow pick-and-rolls. The Pitbulls would get knocked off Jrue Holiday's hip with a free throw line extended pick, Holiday would have a free lane to the rim, and either he'd have a layup or Thaddeus Young would clean up the rebound with the weak side big coming over to help.

That recipe helped the Sixers jump out to an early 6-point lead, but then the Celtics went zone.

The seams shut down, the shot clock dwindled, and the Sixers were forced to take some bad 3's:

Celtics find success turning to zone early on vs. Sixers

Sixers coach Doug Collins points to the Celtics' use of the zone defense in the second quarter as being one of the game's turning points.

"They went to a smaller lineup," Collins said. "They went to a zone, and they really tried to run out of their zone, and I thought that they hurt us with that early."

Boston's use of a zone defense was one of the keys to the C's having an 8-2 advantage in fast-break points in the first half.

Zone defense is the kissing-your-sister of defenses. When you're playing pick up at the park, no one ever says, "let's play zone." You see it in high school and you see it in college, but it's a rarity, especially in the NBA. Even Garnett has bristled at the idea of playing it:

C's vintage D aided by novel zone

"[The zone] was a different look. Good shooting teams, you've got to be very, very talkative in the zone," said Garnett. "I was kind of leery of it, but it was a different look. I thought it was a great call on Doc's part. He and [assistant coach] Mike [Longabardi] made a great call and I thought it slowed them down and I thought they went to a more individual game. I thought that played into our favor. More importantly, we got stops when we had to get stops. We rebounded together and just came out with a win."

According to Synergy Sports data, the Celtics rank sixth in the NBA in allowing a mere 0.898 points per play (a number that's dropped steadily since Bradley returned to the lineup). Boston actually owns the fourth-best man-to-man defense, allowing 0.846 points per play in half-court sets. But the Celtics are not afraid to throw the zone changeup and with good reason: Despite the fact that zone has accounted for a mere 145 possessions (2.7 percent of total plays), the Celtics have allowed only 0.786 points per play and opponents have shot 35.6 percent against it.

With the way the zone has worked over the last two games, I'm sure we'll see it more often that 2.7% of the time. With KG on the 5-5-5 plan, it buys us time without our best PnR defender and hides our deficiencies in paint protecting big men. Tonight's game against the Pacers should be interesting. Indiana has one of the slowest paced offenses and is in the middle of the league in terms of perimeter shot attempts. The zone probably won't come out as often as it did vs. Philly, but if Doc needs a change of pace in order to confuse Frank Vogel's squad in order to generate turnovers, the zone has worked nicely against two quality point guards.

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