On Wednesday night, the Miami Heat will embark on the final leg of their long journey to complete one of the most improbable title runs in recent NBA history. They will face off against the Los Angeles Lakers in Game 1 of the NBA Finals after beating the Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks, and Boston Celtics to get there.
The Celtics presented the biggest challenge to Miami over the course of this playoffs, going up big multiple times before ultimately losing the series in six games. One of the big reasons the Heat were able to take down a more talented Boston squad was their ability to execute a zone defense. They're a good man-to-man team, but proved in the Eastern Conference Finals they were also a great zone team. That begs the natural question: how often can the Heat get away with playing zone against the Lakers?
Miami likes to use zone defense because it hides the weaknesses in its defensive lineups. In the Heat's starting five, Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Jae Crowder are all plus defenders. But Goran Dragic and Duncan Robinson are not. Not when faced with a one-on-one situation, anyway. But by playing a 2-3 zone, Miami can hide Dragic Robinson and Tyler Herro when he comes in on the back line. It limits their responsibilities and significantly lessens the amount of time those defenders spend scrambling around in a pick-and-roll.
This is especially important to note because LeBron James absolutely loves to use the pick-and-roll to force switches, then attack the weakest link in the opposing lineup. No matter who they trot out, the Heat will have at least one average-at-best man-to-man defender out there at all times, and LeBron will be doing his damnedest to make that defender work.
Zone would prevent any ideal one-on-one situations for LeBron, which is a big first step in winning games against him. There are two ways to beat the zone, and they often work in tandem with one another -- pass the ball quickly and frequently while driving to the rim. Unfortunately for Miami, LeBron is very good at both of those things, and Anthony Davis is great in the paint and has emerged as a good passer. It goes to reason that those two alone will be able to penetrate the zone often enough to render that strategy relatively ineffective.
But they still have to make those shots, and a zone defense doesn't make it easy to score in the paint, especially the way Miami collapses when someone does get to the rim. The other way to make teams pay for playing a 2-3 zone is hitting 3-pointers from the corner. This is probably what Miami would like to make Los Angeles do most often. For all the good things the Lakers can do, they aren't a great shooting team. Miami is, though, and if Los Angeles is willing to turn any of these Finals games into a 3-point shootout, the Heat will absolutely take their chances. Thus, it's on the Lakers to make them pay from the corners, where they'll have open shots.
Can they do that? The numbers suggest they're capable. Kyle Kuzma, who shot 31 percent from three during the regular season, shoots 54 percent from the corners. Danny Green can hit the corner three at a 39 percent clip, while Kentavious Caldwell-Pope comes in at 38 percent. Those are the three players who will be left alone most often in those corners when LeBron and AD are on the floor. Those three have been average at best from deep on any other part of the court, though.
LeBron's passing will be amazing, as always. But his teammates have to make their shots. Miami can play zone defense and hope the Lakers don't hit their 3-pointers as a fairly viable strategy. But as soon as those start falling, it'll become easier for L.A. to score in the paint, and then it's all downhill from there. That'll ultimately be what it comes down to.
The Heat can survive in man-to-man defense, but they thrive in zone when Butler, Crowder, Adebayo, and occasionally Andre Iguodala can wreak havoc with their length and basketball IQ. To win the series, they'll need to pull off a delicate balancing act -- one that hinges on how often the Lakers will settle for, and then make, their corner threes.