During Friday’s preseason game against the Dallas Mavericks, the Orlando Magic implemented a 3-2 zone defense for a five-minute stretch during the second quarter.
In today’s NBA, playing zone defense for an extended period of time can yield disastrous results. Whether it be the strong outside shooters, heady playmakers (like Dallas’ Luka Dončić) or elite athletes, there are numerous ways to expose the gaps in a zone defense.
That said, a large reason why zone defenses occasionally appear is its ability to disrupt an opposing team’s offensive flow. And after being outscored 33-15 in the first quarter, that is exactly what the Magic needed to creep back into the game.
With about 10:56 remaining in the second period, this was how the Magic were defending the Mavericks:
Orlando’s Bol Bol, who is 7-foot-2 with a 7-foot-8 wingspan, was placed at the top of the key (a perfect “rover” player), guards Cole Anthony and R.J. Hampton were placed on the wings and Caleb Houstan and Mo Bamba were posted on the low blocks.
Also, an easy way to differentiate a 3-2 zone and a 1-2-2 zone is by looking at how much on-ball pressure the opposing team’s lead ball handler has. In this case, since Bol, Anthony and Hampton are below the three-point line, this is a 3-2 zone defense.
Against this defense, traditionally speaking, the first look on offense will be to the player hovering around the free throw line.
On the Mavericks’ first offensive possession, Spencer Dinwiddie tried to thread the needle to Maxi Kleber, but Bol’s length forced a low bounce pass, resulting in a turnover and a fast break opportunity for the Magic.
On the other hand, Dallas’ following offensive possession was a tremendous example of displaying patience and exploiting a mismatch in the post.
The ball screen from Dallas’ Josh Green forces Bamba to engage with Dinwiddie, leaving Houstan isolated against Dallas’ Christian Wood. But since Dinwiddie does not have the angle to make a pass to Wood, he swings the ball to the top of the arc and Dallas’ Tim Hardaway Jr. lofts the ball inside for an easy score.
This is why zone defense can be so difficult to execute. From the time the ball left Dinwiddie’s hands to Wood converting his layup, only two seconds came off the clock.
Of course this was only a preseason game, but in order to get consistent stops in a zone defense, rotations and communication have to be crispier than Jalen Rose’s hairline.
Speaking of rotations, Dallas’ ensuing possession encapsulated how difficult it can be defending a “five-out” offense in a zone defense.
It begins when Hardaway Jr. collapses the defense with his dribble penetration, and what follows is a domino effect of sprinting closeouts, ultimately leaving Kleber wide open in the corner for three.
Granted, the Magic could not set up their zone perfectly because of how quickly Dallas pushed the ball down the floor, but the basketball touched every player’s hands on the perimeter in a matter of four seconds: even the best zone defenses are going to struggle defending that.
That said, one of the benefits of having size/length at the top of a zone defense is how it impedes dribble penetration.
Referring back to how elite athletes can expose gaps in a zone, watch Bol slide in the way of Green as he explodes into the lane, altering his path to the basket, only for him to be denied at the rim by Bamba.
Lastly, another example of how simple it can be to break down a zone defense: all the Mavericks do on this possession is set a ball screen for Dinwiddie, and as soon as Houstan stunts at the ball, Dinwiddie kicks it to Dorian Finney-Smith for a corner three.
The preseason is a great time to experiment with funky lineups, creative offensive sets and uncommon defenses. Whether the Magic decide to use zone defense on nightly basis remains to be seen, but given the exceptional defensive personnel on Orlando’s roster, I would not be surprised if we saw more of this in the future.