Basketball is a game of adjustments: how can you adapt to what’s happening on the court at any given time?
For the Oklahoma City Thunder, there are certainly some adjustments they can make in their series with the Miami Heat, like having Kevin Durant guard someone other than LeBron James to avoid getting into foul trouble.
However, there's one adjustment that OKC should really consider making: implementing a 2-3 zone defense.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Thunder need to scrap their entire defensive game plan and go zone for 48 minutes, but making the change for short periods of time certainly would be advantageous.
One of the biggest advantages would involve the amount of time Kevin Durant spends on the court. For the last two games, Durant has consistently been called for fouls when LeBron James drives to the hoop. You don’t have to be a genius to see that James is bigger and stronger, meaning one of the only ways Durant could stop him is to foul.
Let’s say Oklahoma City plays a 2-3 zone instead of man. Kevin Durant would, in all likelihood, occupy one of the corner spots down low. Yes, there’s still a chance someone like James would drive on him, but four other defenders would collapse on him, making any attempt at shooting a 1-on-5.
This would lead to another advantage, hindering Miami’s ability to drive. Which is, you know, the basis of their entire offense.
Look at the shot chart for Game 3. As a team, Miami tallied 28 made field goals. Of those 28, 17 came in the paint. Of those 17, 14 came within three feet of the basket.
It doesn’t take an expert to figure out Miami’s offensive strategy: have James or Dwyane Wade take whoever is guarding them to the basket and figure out how to do something. In Game 3, the two combined for 22 points within three feet, and that’s not taking into consideration free throws the two drew, passes that led to shots and second-chance points on rebounds.
Switching to a zone certainly wouldn’t stop them from scoring in the paint, but it isn’t crazy to believe it could slow Miami down considerably. Last year during the finals, one of the things that really killed Miami was when the Dallas Mavericks would employ a 2-3 zone for short stretches of time. Miami would look confused, like Dallas put up a barricade that the Heat just couldn’t get passed.
Of course, Oklahoma doesn’t have anyone like Tyson Chandler down low to alter everything that Miami attempts, although Serge Ibaka comes close. Conversely, Dallas didn’t have guys like Russell Westbrook or Thabo Sefolosha to wreak havoc on the perimeter.
Making this switch means that Miami would have to spot up shooters on the perimeter, which leads to another reason switching to a zone would be a good idea: Miami isn’t a very good three-point shooting team.
In the finals alone, Miami, as a team, are shooting 18-of-46 from behind the arc—around 39 percent. That number includes Shane Battier, who has gone a scintillating 11-of-15—around 73 percent.
Take Battier out of the equation, and the rest of the Miami Heat are shooting 7-of-31 downtown, which comes out to 22.5 percent. No, that isn’t a misprint; Miami (sans Battier) is shooting under 25 percent as a team from three in this series. For the entire postseason, Miami is shooting 33 percent from deep.
Should OKC use a zone defense?
Finally, going to a zone would allow OKC coach Scott Brooks much more flexibility in his rotations. Instead of sacrificing offense for defense by playing two of the Kendrick Perkins/Serge Ibaka/Nick Collison trio, he would only need one on the floor at a time.
This would allow Brooks to constantly pick four players out of the Durant/Westbrook/Sefolosha/James Harden/Derek Fisher group, which would improve the team’s ability to wear down Miami.
Is switching to a 2-3 zone defense something that the Oklahoma City Thunder absolutely have to do? Of course not; they could absolutely win the title while sticking with a man-to-man defense.
However, since the defense has been successful against Miami before, due to its capability to hinder the Heat’s ability to drive to the basket, it certainly couldn’t hurt.
Follow Bill DiFilippo on Twitter @bflip33.