Breaking down the Phoenix Suns' zone defense

PHOENIX — After being thoroughly dominated by the Los Angeles Lakers in Games 1 and 2 of the Western Conference Finals, the Phoenix Suns were scrambling for answers. So badly that Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said he was open for suggestions, even from the media.

LA was dominating the paint and scoring at will to the tune of a ridiculous 132.3 points per 100 possessions through the first two games, and the Suns fell behind 32-29 after the first quarter Sunday night. So Suns head coach Alvin Gentry swallowed his pride and turned to a 2-3 zone defense.

The zone forced the Lakers into an uncharacteristic 32 three-point attempts and the Suns were finally able to stall the Lakers’ offense just enough to ride a 42-point performance from Amare Stoudemire to victory lane.

“We have to try every way we can to find a situation where we can win, and whatever that takes that’s what it is,” Gentry said after Monday’s practice. “And if we have to play our girly zone, as somebody said, than we’ll play our girly zone.”

Girly or not, the zone did its job. It forced the ball out of the hands of Kobe Bryant and left the Lakers on the perimeter.

“The zone invited us to settle from the outside and we never really got the ball to move where we wanted to go,” said Pau Gasol. “It’s a mistake that tends to happen when you’re facing zones.”

After taking a closer look at the zone courtesy of Synergy Sports Technology, it was easy to see that because of the nature of the 2-3, the Suns would have two to three defenders in or around the paint at all times, which is huge against the larger Lakers.

The idea of the zone is that when the ball is above the free-throw line extended (where the line would extend if it were drawn to the sidelines) one of the two guards up top is responsible for defending the man with the ball.

So naturally, whenever the Lakers have the ball above the free-throw line extended, there are three Suns near the painted area. This essentially gives the Lakers’ guards/small forward a 3-2 advantage.

The Lakers saw that advantage and settled for threes, thinking it’s the right play. But the Suns wanted to keep the ball from getting inside, so essentially LA was playing right into the hands of Gentry’s defense.

Below is a great example of how the zone allowed the Suns to pick their poison so to speak. Jordan Farmar just passed it off, so Odom has it at the top of the key. Lou Amundson is more worried about Ron Artest in the corner so he leaves Shannon Brown, who is Leandro Barbosa’s man anyway because of where he is on the court.

The Suns are so packed in the paint that Odom has no other option than to throw it to the open Brown. Hitting Brown wasn’t a bad play, but he should have penetrated the gap or hit a flashing Gasol, but instead he jacked up a three, which is exactly what the Suns wanted.

The Suns had exactly who they wanted shooting the ball. The trio of Lamar Odom, Ron Artest and Shannon Brown combined for 16 thee-point attempts (three makes). Forcing three players who shot under 35 percent from three during the regular season to shoot 16 treys is quite a step up from allowing an average of 56 points in the paint, as the Suns did through the first two games, which led Jackson to question the intelligence of his players.

“There’s a reason why some guys are open and those guys that were open that took some of those shots have to figure out why they’re open,” he said, “because they’re not closing out on them so they have to be resistant and take the better shots.”

Added Jared Dudley: “Make other people shoot the ball. Any time Kobe’s not shooting the ball or Gasol’s not shooting the ball it’s a bonus for us.”

According to ESPN Stats and Information, the Lakers shot only 31.0 percent in 42 plays against the zone defense, as opposed to 56.6 percent in 63 plays against man defense, which had a lot to do with who was taking the shots and from where.

So if you invite the Lakers to shoot the three, what do you do with Kobe? He’s obviously not one of the guys you want to leave, so when he was on the wing the defender responsible for the area below the free-throw line extended would leave his area momentarily to come help while the guard was on his way over. At times the Suns even doubled, forcing the Lakers to move without the ball or knock down threes.

Here is an example of the Suns doubling Kobe on the wing.

There are clearly three defenders guarding four guys, which invites a cut to the strong side or a spot up. But the Lakers lacked movement, which killed them offensively. Nobody cut and Kobe eventually jacked a deep three with the shot clock winding down.

“The triangle obviously is an overload offense. So you basically take a zone into an overload, which is natural anyway,” said Phil Jackson. “But the idea of the movement that comes out of the overload is important for us. Our movement was poor, it was inconsistent. Our passing was very poor.”

Even when the Lakers did attack the zone they turned it over. They turned the ball over once in every five plays against the zone, as opposed to once in every 10 against man.

The No. 1 way to beat a zone is to get the ball to the high post or into the middle. At this point, everything breaks down. The wings can cut to the hoop or spot up, and the two guards on the top of the zone are taken out of the picture completely.

“The zone’s got a lot of soft spots and you’ve got to make sure that you find them and that you look for them and are aware of them,” Gasol said.

Here you can Odom is open at one of those soft spots — the high post. If he catches the ball there either Channing Frye or Lou Amundson has to play him. The Lakers waited a little too long to get it to him, but Frye still had to come play him.

As you can see below Pau Gasol in a great situation where he sealed off the smaller Amundson down low.

Odom made a bad pass and threw it out of bounds, but this is the exact formula of how to beat a zone — move the ball, move yourself, get it to the middle and cut to the basket. Odom has options to either hit Gasol, put it on the floor to score or drive and hit a cutting Artest.

Below is yet another time when the Lakers got the ball to the middle and something other than a three came of it.

You can see there are basically four Suns on one side of the floor, which led Odom to move to the weak side. When he shifts over, as you can see below, the Lakers have to make Grant Hill guard two guys.

Odom reads the defense and attacks the gap. He missed the layup but Kobe ended up corralling the rebound. Again, this play alone proves that the key to beating a 2-3 zone starts with getting the ball to the middle.

But the Lakers failed to get it to the high post in Game 3, and the Suns used their quickness advantage to cut down penetration and move with the ball as a unit.

The Lakers on the other hand were so focused on their 3-2 advantage on the perimeter that they swung it around a few times and hoisted a three. This is what Jackson meant when he said guys need to know why they’re open. Not just because they aren’t good shooters, but because that’s what the Suns want.

The Suns’ zone was far and away the biggest reason that they won Game 3. It took the Lakers out of rhythm and neutralized their size advantage.

But Gasol put it best: “It’s not that complicated. It’s not that hard to figure out. … It takes a short practice to figure out.”

Unfortunately for the Suns the Lakers have had time for more than just a short practice, and the Zen Master undoubtedly understands how his team needs to beat the zone.

“Phil didn’t win 297 playoff games because we can play a zone and all of the sudden it has him confused,” Gentry said. “We know that they will make an adjustment and what we have to do is be ready to mix up our defense. We know that.”

In chess terms, the Suns just put the Lakers in check, and now it is up to LA to protect its king and adjust. The question is, how will the Suns react to that adjustment?

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