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Attacking zone defenses has helped fuel Celtics resurgence

Boston has banished the ghost of zone defenses past in recent months.

Boston Celtics v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images

The Boston Celtics have improved across the board since the turn of the calendar year. Their defense is sharper, they’re fluid on offense and showing exceptional patience to find the right shot, and the pace of play has seen a notable increase. But there has been another not-so-subtle improvement in Boston’s game plan, one which has solved an 18-month long puzzle: breaking down zone defenses.

What started as a perplexing aberration in the bubble against the Miami Heat quickly developed into an Achilles heel for the Celtics, and every time a team switched to zone defense, fans worldwide sat and cringed. But, under head coach Ime Udoka, the Celtics have figured out what they want to do to exploit such coverages, and now, teams have nowhere to hide.

Take a look at how the Celtics attacked the Heat’s inverted 2-3 zone during the 2020 Eastern Conference Finals. The reason the zone is classed as inverted is that Miami used their wings to guard the perimeter, and hid their guards on either side of their big man.

Regardless of how the Heat set up their zone, the Celtics didn’t seem to have any answers, and the above play is symptomatic of their inability to carve out opportunities. We can see that Gordon Hayward had the right idea, as he flashed towards the nail, and roamed around the strong side wing. But that version of the Celtics was looking for home runs, so when the Jaylen Brown lob opportunity presented itself, it was always going to be their primary option.

The same issues occurred all through last season, bleeding into the opening months of the 2021-22 NBA year, too. As soon as a team went zone, Boston became the naughty kid trying to hide their Crayola after drawing all over the walls: timid.

It was hard to watch at times. Here we had some supremely talented players, and for one reason or another, zone defense destroyed their feng shui. Udoka has helped resolve some of those issues over the last few months, along with countless other ailments.

Now, the Celtics are a robust offensive unit and seem to relish extinguishing zone defenses, simply to prove a point. But, before we look at how the Celtics are finding success against such diverse defenses, it would be prudent to give them some credit for their struggles.

The common narrative surrounding the Celtics' struggle to break down what is perceived as a rudimentary form of defense was that they were a low IQ team, who struggled to operate as a unit. The reason so many consider a zone defense to be easy to break is because of how simple it is supposed to be to attack. Ideally, you’re going to penetrate the zone and then attack the gaps when the defense collapses.

Instead of using clips for this article, I spent the week creating a three-part mini-series on Instagram, where each post has a selected possession with breakdowns added in both text and highlights. The first one, as posted above, focused on how the Celtics used a traditional Horns set to attack the Brooklyn Nets 2-1-2 zone in the game just before the All-Star break.

The reason the above play stood out, was because of how decisive the Celtics were in its execution. They recognized the coverage and quickly flowed into an offensive set that would allow immediate penetration, and draw the middle defender towards the rim. Six months ago, that possession would have ended in countless passes around the perimeter and a rushed late-clock shot attempt.

The notion of using Robert Williams as a decoy was also a welcomed wrinkle in Boston’s set, as even the fans watching from home assumed the play would end in a lob pass.

The above possession is a more conventional way to attack a zone defense. You see it from AAU all the way through to the NBA; the drive and kick. The concept is simple: driving into the heart of the zone, forcing players to cheat off their man or collapse on you, and then hit a shooter on the perimeter.

The play in the above post doesn’t result in a made bucket, but it does illustrate how allowing your players to drive at the defense will quickly generate a quality shot. There’s a moment in the clip where Jayson Tatum draws the attention of four defenders, which is ideal when executing this form of offensive concept.

When driving into the teeth of defense, there may also be times when the shot is easier than the pass, at which point you can double-dip on your offensive strategy, similar to the below Derrick White drive against the Nets defense on Thursday night.

It’s quite ironic to think that the way to attack a rudimentary defense is usually by leaning on a rudimentary offense.

The final part of how the Celtics have adapted their offense to hurt the zone is by attacking middle. This can be via a drive, cut, or screen — the entry isn’t important. What matters is that you have a shooter threatening the defense around the nail, causing them to push up from the low help line and pinch in from the wings.

When the defense reacts in such a manner, you create secondary and tertiary driving opportunities or are afford simple kick-outs to open shooters. Regardless of the path the ball handler chooses, they should always have multiple quality options to choose from, at which point they can use their discretion on how to proceed with the possession.

None of this is groundbreaking stuff, but it’s all integral in navigating through opposing defensive adjustments, and that was something the Celtics struggled with throughout recent seasons. Udoka certainly deserves some of the credit for these improvements, but the players do, too.

The pace at which they’re reacting to defensive alterations, and executing their gameplan without getting shook, is a testament to the growth of the team, both as individuals and a collective.

Impressively, dealing with zone defenses is one of the smaller adjustments the Celtics have made in recent weeks, but it’s undoubtedly one of the most important, as teams' blueprints on how to stifle the offense are now null and void.

Couple that with the defensive growth and buy-in to Udoka’s offensive game plan, and it’s easy to see why people are starting to dream about a deep playoff run.