How the Los Angeles Lakers Beat the Miami Heat Zone Defense

In Game 2 of the NBA Finals, the Miami Heat continued their strategy of playing a 2-3 zone: a defensive strategy many casual fans haven’t heard since sloppily frolicking on the court in 8th grade. While the Heat have been successful with their zone during the playoffs, missing their defensive and offensive hub Bam Adebayo has rendered it useless against the Lakers. We can’t completely attribute their struggles to missing Bam though. On the other side of the court, the Lakers have countered the zone to near perfection despite being a poor shooting team. Let’s look at how the Lakers beat the Miami Heat Zone.

The Lakers were potent in transition which has continued in the playoffs. They also zagged by weaponizing their ridiculous size and athleticism to dominate the offensive glass. Even though both of these are great ways to defeat a zone, I won’t be discussing them in this article.

Entry Passes to the Free Throw Line

When building this Lakers roster, the front office focused more on collecting playmakers rather than shooters. While last year’s iteration of that didn’t work, Game 2 was a perfect example of why teams need good passers on the perimeter and in the paint. In this play, Rondo perfectly lobs the ball to LeBron who is easily sealing for position. On the catch, Olynyk has two options: give LeBron space near the rim, or leave Davis near the rim. He chooses the former, and LeBron easily takes advantage.

I’m not sure how Spoelstra would want the Heat to rotate, but I think that Iguodala should probably recover to get in LeBron’s way as the pass is in the air.

Honestly, LeBron might be the perfect player in NBA history to have flashing to the high-post in this situation. In this play, his size, strength, IQ, and passing ability allow him to dismiss the triple team to find Davis under the rim.

When other players are stationed at the free-throw line, the Heat seem okay ignoring him to cover LA’s shooters (but mostly Davis). LeBron sends the ball to Caruso who is given an insulting amount of space. He attacks and misses at the rim.

Rondo Flashing to the High Post

Rajon Rondo is the kind of player that a zone should effectively target: he’s not a reliable shooter, and he’s not a great finisher. Unfortunately for the Heat, Rondo shot a shade under 40% on catch-and-shoot threes during the regular season, and in the playoffs, he’s up to 42.3% on 2.2 attempts a game.

Regardless, one adjustment the Lakers made to avoid Rondo being coerced into shooting more than necessary was having him flash to the free-throw line in their zone offense. Traditionally, this role would be filled by a big man, but Rondo’s passing makes him dangerous.

Like Caruso, the Heat essential leave Rondo alone in this play giving him time and space to softly drop a floater.

His aggressiveness near the rim forces the Heat to respond. I mean, he is still an NBA player, so the Heat have to make sure to at least kind of bother his shot. Here, Rondo patiently waits for Butler to help before slinging a kickout pass to a wide open Caldwell-Pope who has been shooting 44.7% on those attempts this offseason.

Even when Rondo started on the perimeter, his willingness to poke and prod the defense forced the Heat to react. It seems like a poor spacing decision to dribble towards LeBron, but Rondo’s slight penetration gives him the sliver of passing room he needs to find LeBron. With Butler stepping up on Rondo, that leaves Herro and Olynyk to contain LeBron and Davis. Again, LeBron makes the correct decision.

Dribble Penetration

A key tenet of playing zone defense is to prevent as much dribble penetration as possible because zones struggle with closing out on shooters. The Heat did a terrible job of following this rule. Obviously, players like LeBron are extremely difficult to contain, but when Danny Green is leading the charge, you’re in trouble.

Now, I’m cheating a little bit on this next one because it looks like the Heat are in a man defense, but my point still stands. Caruso is athletic, but Iguodala is a much better man defender than he showcases here. Like I said before, Adebayo would be better at deterring shots at the rim and recovering to Davis in the dunker spot, but Olynyk is too slow to do both. Caruso’s penetration opens the door for an easy Davis dunk.

In this play, Rondo shows his value in two ways: passing and dribble penetration. His first pass to Caruso is just ridiculous, and it forces the Heat to collapse after Caurso’s kickout. Once the ball is rotated back to Rondo, he attacks the recovering zone, slows down his pace, and hits Davis with a beautiful wraparound pass.

LeBron is Still LeBron

As I’ve discussed before, LeBron’s cerebral freight train of an attack dissects even the best defenses. While he doesn’t employ any earth-shattering tactics, he’s still the most dangerous player driving to the basket. With fewer than four seconds on the shot clock, LeBron receives the reset pass and attacks Butler for a tough mid range jumper.

Butler needs to play much tougher defense especially with so little time on the clock. It’s a difficult shot, but LeBron is near the top of the list of guys you don’t want getting a head of steam.

In this next play, the Heat give LeBron the most space he’s ever seen on an NBA court.

After his initial pass to KCP, the Heat send both of their top defenders to aid in a triple team. By the time Crowder and Butler recover, Davis sets a subtle screen that gives LeBron a clear view for his anti-Hibbert floater that he has now perfected.

Finally, this play shows the flexibility the Lakers have with Davis and LeBron. Davis takes LeBron’s usual position in the high post while LeBron lingers by the rim. You can see where LeBron’s passing value comes into play as Davis misses a clear layup pass to LeBron. He still makes a good read to KCP who immediately attacks and finds LeBron under the basket.

More than anything, this play solidifies LeBron’s fluidity within the Lakers’ offense. He can attack from the perimeter, create from he high post, and outmuscle bigs near the basket. LeBron has clearly been the offensive leader for how the lakers beat the Miami Heat zone.

The Lakers Beat the Miami Heat Zone

Even if Adebayo returns to bring his active defensive prowess, I don’t know if it’s enough to stifle the Lakers attack. Many of the Heat’s issues rise from allowing too easy of dribble penetration and allowing players to easily establish position in the high post. Especially with Davis and his immense rim gravity loitering by the basket, the backside of the Heat zone can’t step up to provide adequate pressure against attacking Lakers players.

And that’s the final element to how the Lakers beat the Miami Heat zone: Anthony Davis. LeBron is the engine for their offense, but Davis demands so much attention near the rim that he busts the very defense meant to smother him. Granted, if he continues to shoot a blistering 56% on long twos (a percentage that would make Dirk Nowitzki jealous) the Heat have no chance seeing as those are the shots the Clippers schemed for him to take. Based on the first two games, it looks like they might not have a chance anyway.

Cody Houdek is a writer for Premium Hoops. He also assists with videos for the Thinking Basketball YouTube channel. You can find all of his work (articles, videos, and podcasts) here.

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