If the Mavs’ zone was indeed busted in Game 1, it was Mario Chalmers who busted it. Dallas didn’t seem to have all that much respect for Chalmers’ offensive ability; whether by design or oversight, ‘Rio found himself wide open in the corners, a cue which led Chalmers to drain a pair of back-breaking three-pointers in the second quarter. Both makes were significant in terms of the game’s momentum, but more simply, they were incredibly efficient opportunities granted to a formidable opponent that needs no favors.
To make matters worse, Miami’s success with the corner three went beyond Chalmers. LeBron James, too, found plenty of open space by spotting up in the weak side corner, as did Mike Miller. The result of those three players’ efforts was 5-of-10 shooting on corner threes in Game 1 alone, a completely unacceptable mark for a team that typically does a stellar job of limiting opponents in one of the most efficient zones on the floor.
According to NBA.com’s StatsCube, the Blazers made just eight corner threes in six first-round games against the Mavs on 28 percent shooting. The Lakers made two corner threes in four games on 12 percent shooting. In the Western Conference Finals, the Thunder made just four corner threes in five games on 33 percent shooting. Chalmers may have been encouraged to take control of the offense, but I find it exceedingly hard to believe that Rick Carlisle and Dwane Casey would so willingly concede one of the most efficient shots in the game, particularly given the defensive emphasis given to the corners in the first three rounds of the playoffs.
That’s why this post began in the conditional; though Miami was able to work well against the Mavs’ zone in Game 1, I see no reason why that particular defense is ‘busted’ or solved. It was bested for a single night, as the Heat took advantage of some poor defensive execution.
“We were playing zone and we didn’t buckle down,” DeShawn Stevenson said. “Those are some adjustments that have to come. We’ll look at tape and find that out. We can’t give those guys shots like that because the corner three’s the easiest shot in the NBA.”
“Our zone’s been good all year. They got some shots that we didn’t want them to get, but our zone is good.”
The zone still created a strong defensive front that denied penetration, and still forced the Heat to settle for some tough shots. It also allowed for corner threes and offensive rebounds, but not purely because of the system’s limitations. The zone isn’t a magic solution that can be employed irrelevant of execution; as is the case with any man-to-man or hybrid defense, precise execution is key. The Mavs were on-point in some regards, but they got careless on the periphery of their zone and paid the price. The problems didn’t occur because Dallas ran a zone, but because they didn’t execute it properly.
“They’re good at attacking the paint,” Brendan Haywood said, “and when teams attack the paint and the ball rotates, sometimes the corner three is what you get. Tonight we gave it up to LeBron, Mike Miller — Chalmers hit a couple. Those things happen, but I feel they can be corrected.”
Part of the perceptual problem is the weird stigma of the zone defense that still endures to this day. Every defensive system has its weaknesses, but the zone’s areas of vulnerability are treated as a death sentence. Every offensive board allowed is an indictment. Every made three is a supposed instigator for change. Many expect a shift back to man-to-man D at the first sign of trouble, even when the zone is successfully walling off the paint and swarming opponents who make interior catches. Defensive breakdowns are simply part of the game, and though the zone is often seen as gimmicky or somehow inferior, it’s merely subject to the same costs that come with defensive letdowns of any kind.