The Brooklyn Nets found themselves on the wrong side of a 43-point opening quarter against a lethal Houston Rockets offense Monday night. The Nets are the second-worst defensive team in the NBA and Houston exploited them.
Something had to give. And that something was a 3-2 extended zone that Kenny Atkinson schemed in the middle of a timeout.
“When they scored 43, it was: ‘We’ve got to do something, guys.’ … They still scored a lot of points. It helped slow them down. It made them pause and think a little,” Kenny Atkinson told the media post-game.
He hoped it would help, and it did. The Nets contained Houston to just 23 points in the second quarter and brought them back within seven points after trailing by 19.
It was a 3-2 extended zone, which looks more like a 1-2-2 zone with a player covering the top of the key, two players zoning the wing-extended areas and two of the bigger guys watching the baseline and responsible for the corners.
The weak side man in the 3-2 or 1-2-2 zone must keep one foot in the paint to help rebound and one foot out just in case the ball gets swung back to the man in his zone. Weak side down low is crucial in help defense and securing the rebound.
This might work particularly well for the Nets, who play undersized and struggle covering the pick-and -roll. Pick-and-rolls become tougher for teams to defend because there isn’t much man-to-man coverage. You’re picking a man that is really supposed to stay in his zone, anyway.
The perimeter opens up at times and there’s usually at least one player open when players are rotating, but it forces teams to make good, quick decisions which usually leads to either: 1. Forcing the first open shot or 2. A turnover.
Atkinson explained it’s something the Nets never practiced before. Maybe they ought to.
“Maybe in a game like this, you discover something. Maybe it’s a strategy we can use going forward. But for not having practiced it much, it was interesting,” the Nets coach admitted.
His players thought it was a smart and gutsy move.
“They started out hot. We had to do something to mess them up, they didn’t miss probably the first nine or 10 shots. That was a great call by coach to switch it up. It worked to our benefit. … I can definitely see us going back to it if a team gets hot ,” said Isaiah Whitehead.
“Definitely,” Joe Harris said. “It’s our first time ever really doing it. We don’t even practice it a whole lot. We did a good job with our ability to scramble around and be aggressive. We were able to pick it up pretty well on the fly.”
Again, the 3-2 extended (1-2-2) also helps teams that play small-ball, if communication and awareness are present at all times. Players need to know when to shift and where they need to be. This helps with small-ball lineups because it forces everybody to clench down inside the paint and gang rebound, while players like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie can thrive with their long arms in the passing lanes.
It might not be worth playing for too long, but it’s worth trying in spurts to give the opposition a different look.
Moreover, the Nets play at the fastest pace in the NBA. It shows on the offensive side of the ball, particularly where they thrive. They’re second in the NBA for points per game behind only the Golden State Warriors. What this does for Brooklyn’s defense might be a game-changer.
Some coaches may call zone defenses a “lazy” style of play, but that’s just being close-minded.
By playing zone, there is less pressure on the man covering the ball. It helps when players are fatigued from running up and down the floor in transition and in the halfcourt motion offense. There is more help when somebody is beat in a one-on-one situation or pick-and-roll because somebody should shift and help. So, sure, “lazy” might not be the word but it’s good for teams that can’t afford to exhaust all energy on the defensive side.
It does slow the pace because it forces teams to swing the ball around the perimeter, rather than allowing easy buckets in the lane. Oftentimes against any type of zone, offenses will place their tallest player in the middle of the paint to try and bring defenders in – whether it be perimeter defenders or the lower two guys. It’s the weak side low man’s responsibility to pick up the big sitting in the middle.
Even if a big – or whoever – gets a look from mid-range, the Nets will take it. They’d rather give up the two points instead of the three. Modern basketball.
Of course, there are the negatives. Teams will abuse defensive zones if communication is lacking and shifts are slow. The ball always moves faster than the player, so even if one player is out of position, then the entire scheme is thrown off and the offense should find an easy bucket. This also makes the corner three a vulnerable spot because it’s typically the bigs that are responsible for getting out there and/or covering the baseline.
As mentioned, though, this should work for a Nets team that plays with a smaller and quicker frontcourt.
Brooklyn’s entire offensive scheme is team-oriented basketball. One string leads to another and that’s how guys get open on the perimeter. There is very little one-on-one ball, but rather a collective effort.
That’s how they need to be on defense and that’s why a zone can work for them at times. On Monday, the Nets played it much higher than you would see at a college or even high school level. The first man in line played high enough to cover the ball handler at the 3-point line. The other two played high, but didn’t cheat in the passing lanes too often. This usually runs the shot clock low because teams are trying to find the open man - and the proper shot.
It can make you extremely vulnerable at times, but the Nets can make it work. Like Atkinson mentioned, when you’re letting up 114 points per game through 19 games, you might as well try something different.
And that’s exactly what they did. They changed the scheme for most of the second quarter and got themselves back in the game. Houston adjusted accordingly late in the half, but that’s when you either adjust back into a man-to-man or continue with a zone D.
The ever-so-humble Atkinson admitted that he’s seen it before, but wasn’t sure how it would work.
“I’ve always thought about it, never had the guts as a new coach, ‘Man, I’d love to play a zone. No one does. Why can’t I?’ I know Don Nelson did it, Rick Carlisle does it, those guys who have some credibility in this league. A guy like me [doesn’t] … We threw it out at a timeout. We got a stop. If they would’ve scored we probably never would’ve played it again. We got a stop and we kept playing it.”
Don’t be surprised if you see the Brooklyn Nets playing zone defenses in spurts when they need it. Success, even if limited, will breed repetition.
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