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Miami Heat’s zone defence could be key to stop the Denver Nuggets

Denver Nuggets centre Nikola Jokic looking to pass as Miami Heat guards Gabe Vincent and Kyle Lowry defend against him in Game 3 of the NBA Finals. EPA-EFE

MIAMI – One of the catchiest chants in the National Basketball Association (NBA) is an acknowledgment of one of the game’s most thankless tasks – “De-fence!” Clap. Clap. “De-fence!”.

It rained down this week as the Miami Heat coped with the nearly impossible challenge of slowing two of the league’s most fearsome players – the Denver Nuggets’ Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray – during the NBA Finals.

The most exalted defensive matchups in the NBA are typically one-on-one clashes, as opposing stars come face to face. But that is hard work. Maybe you can stop an explosive scorer like Jokic or Murray for a possession or two. But every time down the floor? For 48 minutes?

For over 50 years, it was man-to-man defence. But now, teams can be more creative. And no team are more creative than the Heat, who play more zone defence – in which defenders guard areas of the court instead of individual players.

On Wednesday in Game 3, that meant having two players trap Denver’s inbounds pass, two more at midcourt and one protecting the basket at the far end – a 2-2-1 zone press – early in the second quarter.

By the time they managed to get the ball upcourt, just 14 seconds remained on the shot clock, and the Heat’s defence had morphed into a halfcourt zone – a 2-3 set, with two players up top at the perimeter and three along the baseline.

Murray, the Nuggets’ point guard, missed a three-point attempt, and the Heat raced away for a game-tying bucket.

Unfortunately for the Heat, they still lost 109-94 to the Nuggets, who took a 2-1 series lead ahead of Game 4 on Friday (Saturday morning, Singapore time) in Miami.

Murray and Jokic both finished with triple-doubles for Denver, which, for one game, at least, were largely unfazed by Miami’s shape-shifting defence.

“We didn’t offer much resistance,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, who added: “But I think the thing that we’ve proven over and over and over is we can win and find different ways to win.”

And one of those ways is with their zone defence.

There is a talent disparity in this series – the Nuggets have more of it thanks to their array of expert shooters and the all-around wizardry of Jokic. So, in an effort to slow the pace of play and compensate for their lack of size, the Heat are occasionally abandoning their man-to-man defence by mixing in some zone.

This is nothing new for them. Miami played zone on a league-high 19.7 per cent of their defensive possessions during the regular season. More importantly, they used it to great effect, limiting opponents to 0.937 points per possession. By comparison, opponents averaged 1.009 points per possession against their man-to-man defence.

Miami are playing slightly less zone defence in the play-offs but it is still a weapon they can use.

“I think it’s effective,” Heat point guard Gabe Vincent said, “because it’s different.”

The zone remains a bit of a novelty in the NBA, which essentially banned it for the first 50-plus years of the league’s existence. Before the advent of the shot clock in 1954, the worry was that too many teams would pack the area around the basket with defenders and slow the game to a crawl.

Critics considered the zone a gimmicky way for teams to camouflage poor individual defenders, especially as the league continued to glorify one-on-one matchups.

Before the 2001-02 season, the NBA eliminated the rule, which meant that teams could play zone – or use any other type of defence that suited them.

The zone, though, remains fairly uncommon for several reasons. NBA rosters are brimming with long-range shooters, and when passes zip from side to side, zone defenders are often too slow to react.

For the Heat, the zone has value. If it was initially born of necessity – as a way for Spoelstra to match up against bigger teams and hide some of his weaker defenders – it has become an asset.

Bam Adebayo, the team’s starting centre, said they drill the zone “to the point where we’re tired of it”.

For Game 4, the Heat are underdogs. But their zone might just be key. NYTIMES