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Zoned out: how OKC's 2-3 defense stifled the Celtics

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During the four-day layoff, we were all basking in the glow of Boston's offensive numbers after the first six games of the season. And then the Celtics faced the Thunder.

Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

Anthony Morrow's 22 points in the 2nd half beat the Celtics last night.  The defensive effort in the final 24 minutes that turned Boston's defense into a "sieve" and allowed the Thunder to shoot 62% with only three turnovers beat the Celtics last night.  And yes, Oklahoma City's 2-3 zone defense beat the Celtics last night.

What's disappointing is that we saw this coming.  After Saturday's win in Chicago, the team had three days to prepare for Scott Brooks' zone.  The Thunder were coming off three-games-in-four-nights and the second of a back-to-back and with so many starters injured and OKC needing something to conserve energy, Boston should have expected a heavy dose of the 2-3.  And yet, they were rattled.

This is the NBA and zone defenses are a rarity.  You see it a lot in high school and college, but at the professional level with better shooters on the floor and the defensive three seconds rule at play, it seems more gimmick than strategy.  In Celtics.com's Marc D'Amico's preview for last night's game, Brad Stevens talked about how OKC utilizes their length and athleticism to stifle teams in the zone:

"That baseline zone is - if you're stagnant, they'll eat you up because of their length," Boston's coach added.

Such a description is most commonly reserved for the vaunted 2-3 zone of the Syracuse Orange. Stevens, a former collegiate coach, actually compared the two teams on Tuesday.

"It's like whenever you play Syracuse when you were coaching in college," he said, "the 2-3 zone is a great scheme for them. It also works really well, because they're a lot longer than everybody else. That's a big part of it."

Beating a zone sounds simple.  Basically, you try to engage two defenders with one player and attack the seams and gaps.  Rondo was up for the task and said, "I probably use more ball fakes. I try to drive and kick regardless of man or zone, so you definitely want to get into the teeth of the defense and collapse the defense and kick it out to the open shooters."  That didn't happen much last night, but there were moments:

Rondo 3
Olynyk in the middle
Rondo calm 3

Sullinger catching the ball in the soft spot of the 2-3 and finding Rondo for the 3 (I'm sure Kevin loves Rondo's 1-2 hop into a smooth, rhythm jumper). Another with Olynyk finding Avery wide open and Sullinger to Rondo again.

Green Alley Oop

Even though this is a failed alley oop, I love that off-ball action with Bass setting the back screen for Green to get a free lane to the lob.  In my humble opinion, Boston didn't run enough screens on and away from the ball to get the defense out of the position.

Olynyk dunk

This pick-and-roll between Evan Turner and Sullinger is another perfect example of how a simple screen can disrupt the shape of the defense.  Perk shows on Sully's flash to the free throw line.  With his defender engaged, Jared goes quickly to Turner who in turn drives the line and finds a cutting Olynyk on the baseline.  Sometimes against a zone, you have to create the seams with a pick and a hard drive attacking the lane.

Green back door

Even the threat of a pick can freeze a zone.  Zeller sets a screen for Rondo and the back line of the zone is watching Rajon to see which way he'll go and Green quickly cuts back door for the dunk.

Sullinger to Bass

Other times, this type of tic-tac-toe passing without a dribble works better.  As soon as Sullinger gets the ball near the elbow, Bass knows to cut right away for the lay up.

Rondo in the middle of the zone

And if nothing else is working, get the ball to Rondo.  It's a little unorthodox to have your shortest player in the middle of the zone, but when he's your best passer, it might be your best option.

But too often, the team settled on an outside shot that just wasn't falling last night (9-33 from beyond the arc and generated only 13 attempts from the free throw line).

Green settles

Passing around the perimeter with zero penetration lead to settling and mid-range jump shots that didn't test the defense.

Turner nervous miss
Bradley air ball

Because you don't see it a lot in the NBA, zone defense can catch you off guard.  You know that feeling you get when you're playing musical chairs and the song has been playing for what seems to be an eternity and you know the music is going to stop any second now, but you don't know whether to get ready to sit or move on to the next chair?  That's what playing against a zone can feel like.  Sullinger said:

More than anything else, it threw off their timing.

"It was just a change of pace," said Sullinger who finished with his second double-double of the season with 14 points and 11 rebounds. "The way we play, we play with speed, back-cuts, all that good stuff and it just changed the pace and we'll work on it some more."

There were a number of air balls and bricks against OKC's 2-3.  You always want to be attacking a zone and when you get an open shot, that brief moment of indecision can throw you way off.

And even when Boston did attack, the Thunder's length was a problem.

green missed floater
Pressey missed floater

With 7'+ wingspans on the back line of their zone, even when Boston did find ways to penetrate, they were relegated to 10' foot floaters prayers.

Not many teams can boast as athletic and long a team as Oklahoma City.  In the Eastern Conference, only the Pistons come to mind.  As rare as you see zone defense within a particular game, it's just as rare to see it used on a team-by-team basis.  And ultimately, the zone didn't beat Boston last night.  Stevens even mentioned that he was happy with the shots that came out of his offense at the time, but it's something that the team needs to work on going forward.  The Celtics don't visit Oklahoma City until March 18th.