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Zonebusters: Celtics attack Nets’ defense in win

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In Brooklyn two weeks ago, the Celtics were stymied by the Nets’ zone defense. Last night, they had answers.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

When you’re a team without stars, even the kitchen sink is an option. For Brooklyn NetsKenny Atkinson, he’s coached up his team of misfit toys to a 27-24 record and a sixth seed in the East. They’ve been one of the hottest teams in the entire NBA (19-6 over their last twenty-five games) behind the emergence of D’Angelo Russell as a legitimate All-Star candidate, the now injured Spencer Dindwiddie as a possible 6th Man of the Year, and their top-rated defense. Russell was acquired on a salary dump from the Lakers, Dinwiddie was cut by the Pistons, and the Nets have stymied teams with their zone defense.

Per the Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor, Brooklyn has been one of the most active employers in the NBA of zone defense. In January, the Nets sport a 106.9 DefRtg, just a tad behind the 3rd-ranked Celtics at 105.1, in large part due to their zone D.

Just two weeks ago in Brooklyn, they caught the Celtics off guard with a simple 2-3 zone en route to a 109-102 victory. At one point in that game, the Nets lead by 27 points and the Celtics looked like deers in headlights. Last night was a different story. After the game, Brad Stevens spoke about the team’s approach in that loss and how it was different at the Garden.

“I didn’t feel like we attacked it very well from a mentality perspective at Brooklyn. We’ve been zoned a lot this year and that game at Brooklyn was the only game that I didn’t feel good about our attack,” he said. “But I thought we attacked it way better tonight and did a good job finding points in the paint which you want to do against the zone.”

Back in 2001, the league eliminated illegal defense rules, allowing teams to go zone. It’s been sparingly used as a change of pace tactic by most NBA coaches, but the Nets have become the Syracuse of the NBA this season. In their third meeting, the Celtics were ready for it.

The big keys against a zone are ball movement and hitting the seams of the defense in order to draw multiple defenders on a single player. To do that, you’ve got to have your rugged zonebusters. Marcus Morris finished the night with 15 points and 3 assists with most of his buckets in the restricted area. Because of his 6’9 frame and mid-range game, he’s murder around the free throw line because he can hit that fifteen footer, drive hard to the cup, or kick out to shooters.

Another player suited to attack the gaps is Jaylen Brown. He’s been more aggressive of late and seeing cracks in Brooklyn’s defense all night helped him finish with one of his best games of the season.

Like Morris, Brown always looks to score when he’s in and around the paint. During the first half of the year, he had trouble finishing, but over the last fifteen games, he’s averaging 14.5 points on 50% and 46.2% from behind the arc in just 25 minutes per game. When asked about the Nets’ zone defense and how he approached it, Brown said, “just be aggressive. Try to be where they’re not. Try to find the seams. Just attack. Usually when teams are in a zone, it’s a curve ball. So, they’re hiding something. You just got to be aggressive and exploit whatever it is they’re hiding.”

Brown exploited Brooklyn to the tune of 21 points on 9-of-16 shooting. Against the zone, it doesn’t hurt to have shooters, too. The Celtics didn’t exactly light the nets or the Nets on fire, making just 13 of 40 from behind the arc, but they did get unlikely (but increasingly more reliable) contributions from Marcus Smart and Aron Baynes. Stevens jokingly referred to them as the Celtics’ “Splash Brothers” after the duo hit 40% of the 15 threes.

The Celtics play their final game against the Nets on March 30th near season’s end. After being linked for so many years because of #NetsPick, it’s also possible that this could also be a first round playoff preview. After stitches to Smart and Gordon Hayward and a scrape on Morris, it would be a feisty match up in April and if Monday night’s game proved anything, Boston will be ready.