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Doc Rivers and the Zone Defense: Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Chris Forsberg asked Doc Rivers yesterday whether or not, with all the injuries the Celtics have sustained, he might start implementing a zone to reduce fatigue and keep players out of foul trouble. And Doc launched a well-reasoned response from which the zone may never recover:

“I can’t stand zone,” said Rivers. “But we’re going to work on it. We’re going to work on it every day.” Rivers eventually rattled off a long list of reasons why he prefers to stay away from using a zone defense. “Because it’s not man, and you’re not on a guy, you’re not on a body. I hate it because when you shoot there’s nobody on bodies and the offensive rebounds,” said Rivers. “And I always think, mentally, I think guys think that zone is a concession, number one, and they don’t guard the guy like they would in a [man-to-man defense].”

Part of Doc’s animosity toward the zone defense might come from the fact that the A) the zone is considered to be “for wussies,” and B) the Celtics’ enemies have regularly accused them of playing a zone over the past four years when they actually don’t. But they do play as zone-like a man-to-man as there is in the league.

The C’s habitually play defense that would have been illegal ten years ago, before zone defense prohibition was finally repealed forever. They bring weak-side defenders over to stop the drive, they sag way off bad shooters at the top of the circle, and otherwise attend to or ignore their individual assignments as they please. They’re as capable of executing a zone as any team in the league, because they communicate so well and rotate so intelligently.

Now, while this style of defense has been branded “zone” by haters worldwide, it is no such thing. Let’s hear from one such hater before last year’s Finals:

“I don’t know if it’ll be a tough transition, but it’ll definitely be different,” said Lakers co-captain Derek Fisher. “If you really breakdown the Celtics defense, it’s basically a zone defense.”

Here’s what Fisher was trying to say there:

But it’s not true. Derek Fisher just uses these words as a defense mechanism to explain why the Celtics sag 20 feet off of him. “Hey, looks like Rondo is completely ignoring me,” Fisher says as he stands outside the three-point arc by himself. “That’s probably just because they’re running a zone defense. Definitely not because I’m no longer a huge scoring threat.”

It’s not a zone, Derek. It’s not a “floating zone” or a “match-up zone,” though both of those are closer to the truth. The Celtics defenders don’t set up in any kind of zone – they set up guarding their men WHEREVER THEY ARE ON THE COURT until the offense makes a decisive move toward the basket, at which point the C’s defenders react and help out accordingly.

Here’s a great example from three years ago, presented by a sad person who loves Kobe Bryant and submits this video as evidence that Kobe is better than Michael Jordan. The video, underscoring the tragedy of the abuse against Kobe with a score that sounds like it was lifted from “Schindler’s List,” shows Celtics defenders matching up with individual defensive assignments, but sagging off some of them and converging on the lane when Kobe committed to a drive. It’s long so only watch some of it.

You’ll notice that, at the start of all these clips, the Celtics defenders are regularly found in totally different positions on the court. That’s not a zone. It’s following your man at a reasonable distance, leaving long cross-court passes available because you have time to recover on them, and being aware of the possibility of an attack on the rim from wherever you are on the floor. If the Celtics played a zone, Kevin Garnett wouldn’t jump out to the perimeter as he does so often, and the Celtics would be A LOT worse at defending the three (5th best in the league), because the zone encourages long jumpers.

That’s what we’d see if the Celtics DID actually start regularly trotting out a zone: opponents would exploit the gaps in the perimeter defense to get great looks at long twos and threes, but it would keep the Celtics big men out of foul trouble. For terrible shooting teams like the Clippers and Bucks (both of whom the Celtics will play twice in the next month), the zone wouldn’t come at a huge cost. But it will look different from what you normally see.

  • Baylor Fan

    It is very similar to a weak side zone. Man up on the ball side and play next to the lane on the weak side, staying between your man and the basket. The Lakers play a similar defense when they feel the need to slow a team down. As you point out, Rondo and Garnett are simply quick enough to sag off their man and still recover on the first pass to make it look like a regular zone.

    • Batman

      Grrr i hate Baylor

  • Banner18

    Why help the enemy figure out our defense on a Celtic board? It's working, it's confusing everyone except the Bulls, so let the other teams misinterpret the C defense any way they want. Why not break down all our out of bounds plays for them too?
    Now if you want to break down and diagram all the options for the triangle-that would be useful!
    Post it on a Laker board and maybe they would even help.

    • JP-

      I wouldn't be too worried about it, this blog isn't the only place where a defense can be broken down, pretty sure every NBA team has someone who can do that. The Celtics don't play zone, but going to a zone would hurt their defense, because they are an elite defense right now.

    • What More Can I Say?

      Why you say it's not confusing the Bulls? Because of TT?

      • NHBluesMan


    • Zee

      Reading about a defensive strategy as opposed to watching film and tape? :) Trust me, teams know our defensive strategy, the same way the writer does who wrote this article – watching games. The problem is executing against what you know. 😉

  • skeeds

    Usually you can't identify a 3-2 zone, (with 3 perimeter defenders), until you see how the defender follows his matchup when he moves, otherwise it's just man to man with loose spacing.
    In accordance to that, many teams in the worlds and the euroleague play defensive sets where the team is set up as a zone, and switches to half zone, a 2-3 zone or full man to man depending on the first pass. I've seen teams implementing this to devastating effect, but the C's don't need this, I think. Their man to man defence as it's been mentioned, carries enough elements from zone defence to work perfectly.

  • CG12

    That lengthy Kobe apology was amazing. It also showed precisely zero examples of zone defense. The Cs don't play zone. Or they formerly did not to play zone, if Doc's comments are taken at face value.

    • http://bestgoldopportunities.com scott

      agreed. whoever that guy narrating was knew basketball terms but not basketball.

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