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How the Spurs attack a zone defense

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The Nets abandoned man-to-man D for a large portion of Thursday’s game. Here’s a look at San Antonio's response.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

In the middle of the first quarter of the Spurs’ victory over the Nets on Thursday night, the Nets switched to their 2-3 zone defense for a play. The Spurs didn’t appear caught off guard - they did the right things, popping into open spots and attacking the seams - but got nowhere. Derrick White settled for a pull up jumper just inside the 3 point line as the shot clock expired and missed.

LaMarcus Aldridge grabbed the offensive board, but missed his turnaround jumper as well. Derrick committed a loose ball foul going for the rebound, and that was that. The Nets went back to man-to-man defense for the rest of the quarter. Here’s the play.

This is what good zone defense usually looks like. It’s not smothering or overwhelming. It just gums up the works. Getting good shots against a zone is often comparatively easy, but they aren’t the same shots players are used to taking nor are they taken in the same rhythm. Even for the best basketball players in the world, those things matter.

When the Nets went back to their zone defense to start the 2nd quarter, it had the same effect, knocking the Spurs’ offense off the beat. This time, Davis Bertans missed a semi-contested 14 footer, and though Dante Cunningham almost grabbed the rebound, D’Angelo Russell came away with it instead.

A few minutes later, the Nets attempted to pop back into it on the fly, but a defensive miscue led to an easy dunk for Pau Gasol.

Coming out of their next timeout, though, the Nets switched into their zone defense for good, employing it off their own makes and after dead ball situations, but reverting to man-to-man off misses and live ball turnovers. They used it on 11 possessions over the final 7 minutes of the 1st half and gave up just 2 made buckets and a pair of free throws.

Overall in the first half, the Spurs shot 3/13 against the zone, with 1 offensive rebound, 2 turnovers, and 2 made free throws for just 8 points. It was a small miracle they were able to take a 1 point lead into the break. The Spurs struggled in large part because they were out of their comfort zone, and the points they scored were due to defensive breakdowns or individual brilliance from Derrick or LaMarcus.

Attacking the zone must have been the focus during halftime, because the team came out prepared to pick it apart. There’s more than one way to beat a zone defense, and the Spurs showed several.

They spaced appropriately, taking positions along the arc between the defenders, and attacked the seams.

They overloaded zones, sending more players into an area than the defenders could handle.

They also attacked from inside, with LaMarcus sealing and posting up as usual, but also stealing deep position for easy buckets and putbacks.

But most impressively, they manipulated the coverage to generate mismatches.

DeMar DeRozan’s purpose here is to draw the attention of Jarrett Allen, the only Net on the floor with a chance at defending LaMarcus on the block. That leaves Joe Harris with the unenviable task and forces Allen to help when LaMarcus makes a quick move into the middle. The help exposes one of the zone’s biggest weakness, leaving DeMar all alone under the basket for the tip in.

After their poor performance against the zone in the 1st half, the Spurs torched it in the 2nd, to the tune of 45 points on 27 possessions. They shot 10/14 from inside the arc, 6/10 from outside, and 7/9 from the free throw line on those possessions, with only 1 turnover.

The Nets’ zone defense is a great change of pace tool, and it threw the Spurs off their game in the 1st half. But the Spurs adjusted, and in the process, showed why playing zone in the NBA is so difficult. It’s unlikely the Nets will be able to continue playing zone for such extended periods of time without suffering a similar fate.

On the other side, the Spurs’ 2nd half performance against the zone was excellent and should be a helpful experience for the team. Should they run into another team willing to throw out a zone to muck things up, the Spurs will likely tear it to shreds.