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NBA Finals 2020

One Play: LeBron James and Anthony Davis are cheat codes to the Miami Heat's zone

Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2019-20 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.

Today, LeBron James and Anthony Davis take the spotlight.

Context: It was only a matter of time.

After playing little-to-no zone defence in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, the Miami Heat played more zone than man-to-man defence in Game 2. Some of that was out of necessity with Goran Dragic and Bam Adebayo being sidelined with injuries, but the Heat played more zone defence than any team in the league during the regular season and had a lot of success with it against the Boston Celtics in the Eastern Conference Finals. They were bound to break it out at some point against the Los Angeles Lakers.

In theory, the Heat's zone should give the Lakers a lot of trouble. In reality, it's hard to play zone against a team led by LeBron James and Anthony Davis.

We'll get into all of that soon. First, let's take a closer look at one particular possession from Game 2 in which James and Davis picked the Heat's zone apart.

The play: James sets Davis up for a dunk.

Breakdown: Let's just get to the meat of the possession.

With 15 seconds remaining on the shot clock, Rajon Rondo receives the ball from Alex Caruso just inside the 3-point line. Rondo and Caruso are on opposite wings, Kyle Kuzma and James are in opposite corners and Davis is in the dunker spot closest to Kuzma.

The Heat are playing their normal 2-3 zone, in which they have their two-best wing defenders (Andre Iguodala and Jimmy Butler) at the top of the zone, their two guards (Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro) on the baseline and their centre (Kelly Olynyk) protecting the rim.

When Rondo receives the ball from Caruso, Iguodala closes out on him. Butler, meanwhile, leaves Caruso to prevent Rondo from driving to the basket. Everyone else on the Heat matches up with whoever is closest to them.

What happens behind Iguodala and Butler is the beginning of the end for the Heat.

With Olynyk shading towards Davis, James makes a cut from the corner to the basket, looking for an alley-oop from Rondo. The Heat react in time to prevent him from getting an alley-oop, but it draws Herro into the paint and Olynyk away from Davis for a split-second.

That gives Herro even more ground to cover when Rondo, who is now being pressured by Iguodala and Butler, gives the ball back to Caruso.

Even though Herro's zone in the zone is the corner, the Heat have their guards tag the person on the wing on ball reversals to give whoever is on top of the zone time to recover. They're then expected to drop back to keep the 2-3 zone intact.

The problem is Caruso hot potatoes the ball to James on the baseline before Butler can recover. That forces Olynyk to rotate over to James to prevent a breakdown.

Now the Heat have two defenders on James and one defender covering Davis and Kuzma on the opposite side of the court.

That defender? Nunn, a rookie who isn't exactly known for his defence.

To be fair to Nunn, he's stuck between a rock and a hard place. Stick with Davis, and he risks James skipping a pass to Kuzma in the corner for a wide open 3. Close out on Kuzma, and, well...

It doesn't help that Iguodala was stuck in no man's land, although he didn't exactly have an easy decision to make either.

Why it matters: Some numbers to chew on.

According to Couper Moorhead of Heat.com, the Lakers averaged 1.50 points per possession against the Heat when they were in man-to-man defence in Game 2. When they were in zone, that number dropped to 1.22 points per possession.

Better? Yes. Still a ridiculous rate? Also yes.

For perspective, the Dallas Mavericks had the best halfcourt offence in the league this season. Their offensive rating? 1.01 points per possession, per Cleaning The Glass. Anything over 1.10 points per possession is absurd. Anything over 1.20 points per possession is entering video game territory.

The combination resulted in the Lakers scoring at a rate of 1.35 points per 100 possessions in Game 2, making for the third-most efficient Finals performance in the play-by-play era, per NBA.com's John Schuhmann. The Heat had their most efficient game of the playoffs, but they couldn't string enough stops together for the end result to ever be in doubt.

Where the zone was effective: Miami was able to keep the Lakers out of the restricted area, get them to take a ton of 3s and keep them off the foul line. From that perspective, the zone worked. Where it wasn't effective: Los Angeles still scored a ton in the paint (just not necessarily in the restricted area), made enough 3s to keep the Heat honest and dominated the offensive glass, the latter of which contributed to 21 second chance points.

The offensive rebounds in particular were a killer. There were a number of times where the Heat got the Lakers to take the shot they wanted, only for someone to swoop in for an offensive rebound and putback.

It's easy to say that the Heat just need to be more disciplined, but one of the weaknesses of a zone is that it leaves teams vulnerable to offensive rebounds.

You can see why on possessions like this:

Olynyk does his job in boxing out Dwight Howard, but it leaves Nunn and Iguodala battling for position with Davis. Nine times out of 10, that's not going to end well for them.

What will be interesting to see in Game 3 is whether or not the Heat lean on their zone defence as much as they did in Game 2. As I mentioned at the top, they went from playing little-to-no zone defence in Game 1 to playing zone almost exclusively in Game 2. Some of that had to do with the Heat being short-handed - again, not having Adebayo and Dragic makes it much harder for them to match up with the Lakers man-to-man - but it might be their best shot at getting back into this series if Adebayo and Dragic can return.

Even so, playing zone against James and Davis isn't exactly foolproof.

James filled a number of different roles against the Heat's zone in Game 2, alternating between attacking them from the wing, the middle and the baseline. He didn't pick the Heat apart with his 3-point shooting. Rather, he picked them apart with his passing and cutting.

James made a couple of jaw-dropping passes in Game 2, this being one of them:

As for Davis, he punished the Heat on the offensive glass and out of the post. He finished with more offensive rebounds (8) than everyone on the Heat combined (6) and once again used his size to impose his will around the basket. He's simply too strong for Butler and Jae Crowder and too quick for Olynyk and Meyers Leonard.

There's no doubt that having Adebayo back would help - he's a far better rebounder and rim protector than Olynyk and Leonard - but expecting him to solve all of the issues the Heat dealt with in Game 2, especially with him dealing with an injury, is ... a lot. It's not as though the answer is as simple as them going back to playing man-to-man if Adebayo returns either. Game 1 was a prime example of how difficult they are to defend in those situations, as it paves the way for James and Davis to hunt mismatches.

Such is life when you play against a team led by two super duper stars. Whatever weakness you may have, they're going to figure it out.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

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