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Are the Celtics playing a zone press?

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How realistic is the possibility of seeing full-court defense in the 2020 playoffs?

Phoenix Suns v Boston Celtics Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Raise your hand if you had “Brad Stevens uses a 2-2-1 Press” on your 2020 bubble bingo card.

Through the first two scrimmages, Stevens has tinkered with the team’s defense to show different looks, presumably to figure out what his change-of-pace will be for the playoffs. A few possessions of zone have always been the Celtics’ M.O. under Stevens, particularly out of timeouts in late-game situations to throw off whatever the opponent draws up.

Rarely do we see full-court pressure in the NBA. Most ball handlers are too savvy and turnover-averse to be disrupted, and motivating premier athletes to press consistently through an 82-game season isn’t exactly an easy task. Just ask Rick Pitino.

What Stevens has experimented in Orlando, on limited reps, is not the standard pressure-inducing 94-foot blitz we typically think of when we see full-court pressure. The Celtics are using a three-quarter court zone press, a page straight out of Stevens’ college coaching days at Butler and a seldom-used tactic in the NBA.

When most people think of a full-court press, they think of trying to speed a player up. By putting clamps on the ball, the hope is that the ball handler will commit a turnover or throw an ill-advised pass. That can be done through intense ball pressure or sending an extra defender to trap the ball.

A zone press has almost the opposite effect: it’s designed to slow down the offense’s efforts to advance the ball early in the shot clock. With only 24 seconds, forcing a team to wait seven or eight seconds to break the pressure and reorganize their offense leaves them with about 16 seconds in a possession. By that point, many motion-based offenses are out of their rhythm and cannot reverse the ball multiple times before getting off a good shot.

While man-to-man presses require a lot of exerted energy to apply, zone defense are much more energy efficient. Defenders stay in their zone, rotate a few steps based on where the ball goes, and then sprint out to match up with someone once the pressure is broken.

Where I coach, we always say that a pressing team calls the play for us. By extending their pressure, they’re allowing us to try to attack and get a quality look early in the clock. It seems that’s the gamble Stevens is willing to make.

Against the Phoenix Suns on Sunday, the Celtics came out in three-quarter court zone pressure a few times in the first quarter, and on two consecutive possessions they got the Suns to take quick semi-contested corner 3-pointers before the shot clock hit 15:

If the result of the play will be a quick contested 3-point attempt and the C’s don’t have to play long possessions of challenging defense, the strategy has some merit. The statistical revolution in basketball has led to corner treys rising in importance, so most offenses won’t shy away from taking them. From a defensive perspective, it’s a better result than giving up a layup or dunk. Stevens may have found a way to encourage the shots Boston wants their opponents to take.

But in order for the press to be successful, the Celtics need to appropriately scramble back into the play once the ball crosses the half-court line. To twist from zone into man mid-possession requires communication. There’s little predicting where the offensive players will be, so natural mismatches can emerge.

Perhaps the most difficult part is distinguishing between matching up and settling down into a sense of security. Good offenses attack the scramble and don’t allow a defense to ever fully reset. Because Boston cannot leave the rim unoccupied, there are avenues for teams to attack them while they navigate their re-matching.

The negative of pressing is the momentum teams can gain when they break that first pressure and have a lane to the basket. NBA players are all exceptionally gifted with their IQ. Everyone can throw an accurate pass and bigs can quickly catch-and-finish.

The high-reward of forcing quick shots is there, but the high-risk scenarios have also played out in the scrimmages:

Is this a legitimate strategy the Celtics can lean on in the playoffs? Perhaps. Stevens wouldn’t mess with it in the scrimmages if he didn’t think there was some merit to it. This is a change-of-pace defense that the C’s can spot in small doses.

In the Suns scrimmage, Boston used this at the end of the first half. It was Suns’ ball with 36.6 seconds to go, and Phoenix would be pressing for a valued 2-for-1, hoping to get a shot off in the first six seconds of the possession so they’d get the last shot.

Marcus Smart committed the foul with 28 seconds left, but the timing wasn’t enough for Phoenix to get a quality 2-for-1 look out of the scenario. In essence, Stevens’ deployment of this press worked.

To summarize, this is a seldom-used change-of-pace that Stevens can have in his back pocket. With a switchable starting lineup and group of high-IQ players, using a zone press to slow an opponent down does make sense. But this is a gimmick, and it’s not one we’ll see used for long stretches of time. Its success is directly related to the element of surprise in its deployment.

I’d expect to see this again before the 2020 NBA champions are crowned.