When pushed into a corner, over and over again the Miami Heat this season have responded the same way. They’ve gone to the zone defense.
It’s why a Heat team that endured more games lost to injury than any other team in the regular season also, according to NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, “played more zone than any team in the 19 years of Synergy tracking.”
So with Jimmy Butler sidelined for Tuesday’s Game 2 loss to the New York Knicks, that’s exactly what the Heat did. In addition to scoring points like Game 6 LeBron but, like, for the entire playoffs, Butler is also Miami’s best perimeter defender. He’s a two-way menace who finds joy in making his opponent’s basketball life miserable. Without him, the Heat didn’t have anyone who could consistently guard Jalen Brunson.
In Game 1, Brunson shot 2 for 8 with Butler as his closest defender. Against everyone else: 10 of 17. It wasn’t a surprise, then, when Brunson scored 30 points to help the Knicks even the series. That included 10 points in a fourth quarter that saw the Knicks erase an eight-point deficit and pull away for the win.
Here’s how Miami’s defenders fared when guarding Brunson:
Now, when looking at these stats it’s important to remember that they are tracked by which defender is closest when Brunson takes his shot, not necessarily who was responsible for defending Brunson. This is important to point out because of Miami’s use of the zone defense, which assigns players to defend an area of the court, rather than a specific player.
After the Knicks scored 31 points on 23 possessions against Miami’s man-to-man defense in the first quarter, the Heat switched to a zone for the rest of the game.
And it worked!
Until it didn’t…
The Knicks scored 20 points in the second quarter, 25 in the third, and then erupted for 35 in the fourth.
Before the final quarter, it appeared the Heat had done what they wanted to do in grinding the game to a snail’s pace and keeping Brunson mostly bottled up. But the Knicks were able to ramp up the tempo by swinging the ball side to side and stretching Miami’s zoned-up defenders.
The Knicks also did a great job anticipating where Miami’s zoned up defenders wanted to establish position, then screening them away from the shooter.
Here, the Heat are in a 1-1-3 zone, with two guards lined up like a QB and RB in an I-formation at the top. The backside defender is responsible for switching the ball screen set on the front defender. Caleb Martin isn’t prepared for Isaiah Hartenstein to flip the screen on Gabe Vincent and set it at an angle that forced him to go under. Brunson drills a wide-open 3-pointer to give the Knicks the lead with a little more than four minutes remaining.
The Knicks ended up shooting 40% on 40 3-pointers in this game, with most of their makes coming against Miami’s zone. Yes, the Heat are more practiced than any other outfit in playing zone, but there’s a reason they got away from it when their roster was healthy. Daring a team like the Knicks to make open shots and players like Brunson and Julius Randle to bust the zone is an easy way to go down in this series.
(Important note: Because of the zone, the Heat were also often out of position to box out and got out-rebounded 50-34.)
Getting Butler back in Game 3 will help. It will give the Heat someone to put on Brunson in crunch time and, when the Knicks do score, respond on the other end. But, overall, the Heat need to be better. They can’t allow the Knicks to settle into their game because, if they do, they risk giving home-court advantage back during these two games in Miami.
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra likes to say the playoffs are about “who blinks first.” Well, on Tuesday, the Heat were caught blinking. Adjustments will be made. Let a new staring contest begin.