The Miami Heat love their zone defense. They used it 11.5 percent of the time in the regular season, more than twice as much as all but three NBA teams, and it practically became their base defense against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference finals. If one thing became clear across repeated usage against the Los Angeles Lakers, though, it's that the zone doesn't work against Anthony Davis.
The Heat figured out as much in the regular season, when Davis destroyed their zone in a November matchup. The 2-3 zone is designed to protect the paint, but in the process, it creates an enormous hole in the middle of the defense. Davis rained fire from that hole in the first matchup, and the Heat largely abandoned it for the second meeting and Game 1 of the Finals:
Bam Adebayo's Game 1 injury ended up forcing Miami's hand. With no other options defensively, it turned back to the zone in the hopes that it would force the Lakers to shoot too many 3-pointers. It worked ... to an extent. The Lakers attempted an NBA Finals-record 47 3s, which was also their season high. But it made life far too easy for Davis, who started Game 2 going 14 of 15 from the field. All he had to do was sneak behind the zone and he was almost guaranteed easy points:
Offensive rebounding was a major problem as well. Davis killed the Heat on putbacks, especially in the third quarter:
Short of having a defender like Adebayo and devoting him exclusively to that singular task, there isn't exactly a good way to deal with Davis. He's not only the NBA's best big man, but one of its most versatile. Zones are shaky on paper against Davis as it is. Show him that defense for an entire game and he'll destroy it. Sure enough, the Lakers scored 124 points in the win. Davis had 32 on 75 percent shooting. Changes were needed.
The zone problems began early. Short of flawless five-man rotations and off-ball swiping, it lacks a first line of defense. Getting the ball to Davis, especially in that gaping hole in the middle of the floor, is just too easy. Davis can't score if he can't get the ball, so the focus of Miami's defense in Game 3 was to keep it out of his hands, and to force it out once he got it.
The plan largely worked. Davis touched the ball only 50 times in Game 3, per NBA.com tracking data, down from his postseason average of 61.5 entering Sunday. Foul trouble obviously explains part of that gap. Davis played only 33 minutes. But the real secret was in where those touches came. Davis averaged 15.5 touches in the paint in his first 17 playoff games. He got only five in Game 3. The Heat did a good job of keeping the ball out of Davis' hands. They did a great job of keeping him away from the basket.
It started, unlike the zone, with an aggressive first line of defense. Davis' defender, most often Jae Crowder, fronted Davis in the post aggressively:
The concept is simple. Normally, defenders play between their man and the basket in order to avoid surrendering easy points. Fronting offers easy points ... if the offensive team can get that player the ball. It's a high-risk, high-reward gambit. Ideally, it turns the offense away from giving that player the ball, but even when it tries, the passes need to be so precise that they come with meaningful risk:
There are other counters on the table, but all of them require precision the Lakers didn't have in Game 3. The Lakers could swing the ball around to the other side of the court and give Davis a chance to seal Crowder from there, but those are dangerous passes against a team as long and athletic as the Heat. Even when the Lakers managed to get Davis the ball against post-fronts, the help defense was there so quickly that expected easy points just weren't there:
Plays like this get into Davis' head. He feels the help and turns into a passer even when that help doesn't come:
That was a bedrock of Miami's Game 3 defense. The Heat sent so many different looks at Davis that he had to assume some variety of double was coming. Jimmy Butler was the worst offender. He made a habit of sneaking in to double Davis when his back was turned. It yielded very positive results:
But it also shook Davis. On this play, he gets rid of the ball the moment he hears Butler's footsteps. It's a completely unforced turnover that Butler's prior defense ultimately enabled:
It was a top-down commitment to keeping Davis away from the rim, and it even extended to when other Lakers shot. Davis had eight offensive rebounds in Game 2. On several occasions, the Heat devoted multiple defenders to boxing him out in Game 3:
Even when he pulled those rebounds down, the Heat never gave up on the play. The most vulnerable moment for any tall player is when he brings the ball down. For that split second, his height becomes a disadvantage, as smaller defenders are closer to the ball. Unsurprisingly, Butler took advantage with his lightning-quick hands and impeccable situational awareness:
As hard as the Heat worked to keep the ball away from Davis close to the basket, they were remarkably lax about leaving him open far away from him. No matter who had the ball in Game 3, their plan was to pack the paint:
Doing so worked toward the same goal. Even if Davis got the ball, he wasn't going to drive into a sea of black jerseys. It essentially served as a preemptive box-out as well. But ultimately, it's a testament to Davis' versatility. Defenses can't stop everything he does. The Heat made a conscious choice: Jump shots are fine, dunks are not.
It's a reasonable mathematical choice. Davis shot 33 percent from behind the arc during the regular season, and only 34.9 percent on mid-range jumpers. But that choice has buried three Western Conference defenses. Davis is just under 40 percent on playoff 3-pointers, and has hovered around Kevin Durant-ian mid-range numbers (currently, he's sitting at 51.5 percent). The Heat are banking on regression to those regular-season numbers. That regression hasn't come yet. It might not come at all. But if it doesn't? The Heat weren't winning this series anyway.
So they surrendered jump shots in Game 3. Many of them went in. Davis shot 66.6 percent from the field, after all. When the defense sticks with Rajon Rondo on this pick-and-pop, it's an open invitation to shoot:
But playing the pick-and-roll that way plays into the larger plan of ball prevention. Davis is alone in the paint on this one, but it doesn't matter. With two Heat defenders trailing him and one in front, there's no way for Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to get Davis the ball:
This was the Miami plan in a nutshell: Keep a man (or three) between Davis and the ball at all times. Make it hard for him to get the ball in advantageous situations. He may make the shots he gets, but he won't get nearly as many as he'd like without serious adjustments. He scored only 15 points in Game 3, his second-lowest total this postseason.
Adjustments will come in Game 4, but they'll come on both ends. The Heat were able to play such an extreme style because their intent was never to win the series in a single game. Miami just needed to buy time. The longer it can survive, the greater chance it has for Adebayo to return, and once he's back in the fold, the Heat can play almost any defensive style against Davis knowing that, if necessary, they have a Second-Team All-Defense trump card waiting to be played.
That may come in Game 4. It may not. But the Heat got everything they needed out of their junk defense. They bought themselves two extra nights to rehabilitate their real defense, and if the Heat can get it back in time for Game 4, Davis will have an entirely new kind of trouble the rest of the way.