Jimmy Butler and Heat zone defense confuse Celtics in miserable 41-point second half


The Miami Heat didn’t exactly hide their zonal defense. They used it more than any team in the NBA, 11.6% of the time, according to Synergy Sports. No other team hit even seven percent, but the Boston Celtics looked absolutely unprepared for the Miami asset because the Heat hardly used it in the playoffs.

In the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Heat didn’t use zonal defense once, according to Synergy. It surely relieved a Boston team coming out of a seven-game war against the Toronto Raptors littered with box-one and triangle-and-two patterns that nearly knocked them out of the playoffs. The Heat might be a heavy zone team, but they’re not that exotic. They’ve largely stuck with the more traditional 2-3 zone, but despite saving it for most of the playoffs, they landed it for 16 possessions in Game 1 and doubled that total to 32 in Game 2. match.

Of those 32 zone possessions, 29 came in the second half. The fit worked wonderfully. Boston scored 60 points in the first half… and 41 in the second. Too many goods have gone like this: lots of aimless overruns on the perimeter in a desperate attempt to create plans that weren’t there. Too often the Celtics have found themselves with the ball at nail level, unsure of what to do with the defenders surrounding them.

The main tenant of an area 2-3 is to protect the paint. The Heat succeeded on this front. Boston scored 32 points in the paint in the first half, but just 14 in the second. Watch what happens when Enes Kanter rolls over to the basket. The top of the area has collapsed into the paint. The five Heat defenders are below the 3 point line. Jae Crowder, one of the two defenders at the top, gets the strip. If he hadn’t, Bam Adebayo was waiting at the edge, with Duncan Robinson to help him.

The theoretical compromise is supposed to be open planes behind the arc. It did not materialize. The Celtics took 14 3 points in the first half and 14 in the second, making just four after hitting six in the first two quarters. Does this seem open to you?

It’s a testament to Miami’s remarkable defensive speed, and no Heat defenseman has taken his job more seriously than Jimmy Butler, who wreaked absolute havoc on the perimeter in the fourth quarter.

On this piece, Butler:

There were a dozen goods like this down the straight line, but none stood out more than the three steals that sealed the game. The first came through the smart aid defense. Daniel Theis threw Jae Crowder out of Walker, and with Adebayo still deep in his place in the zone, Butler stepped in to mark his drive, but when Walker watched as he passed, Butler had the presence of mind to raise his hand, deflect the pass, chase it over the sideline and save it for the quick pause. Two points for Miami.

The next two both came on inbound games. Normally, going from baseline to high arch on the perimeter is safe from an infraction. It is a concession when the preferable action towards the basket fails. But Butler refused to even concede the concession. He broke the pass, and of course, two more points for the Heat.

The final flight was the icing on the cake. Up to five with less than eight seconds left, Butler did not need to break that lob attempt. But he played until the last buzzer and sealed the victory.

Butler covers so much ground from the top of the zone that his typical weaknesses don’t need to apply. This allowed Erik Spoelstra to pack the paint with impunity in the second half of Game 2, and knocked Boston out of the game altogether. With the unbridled commitment of their best player, the Heat nearly disarmed the attacking team. Celtics with one adjustment.

Boston will have counters in the zone in Game 3, but there aren’t any obvious ones if the Heat can successfully shut down shooters without compromising their rim protection. Floats will be available, and more decisive ball movements can also help. But if Miami’s athleticism and creativity continues to manifest itself so dynamically on defense, it will be a short streak. The Celtics weren’t confused by an area 2-3. Every NBA player and coach has seen one. They’ve been confused by a 2-3 zone run, essentially, perfectly, and unlike more traditional lineups that use them, the Heat are led by a defensive superstar in Butler who is essentially pattern-proof. Unless the Celtics have a way to make Butler less engaged and less athletic over the next few days, their offense will continue to struggle.


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