The 2023 NBA Finals features an unlikely matchup between the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference, the Denver Nuggets, and the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat. There are all sorts of storylines, both on and off the court; one of the most interesting, from an Xs and Os perspective, is how the Nuggets will fare against the Heat's famous zone defense.
For the majority of the NBA's history, zone defense wasn't allowed, and even now it's not a primary strategy for most teams. Of course, the Heat are not like most teams, and they played more zone than anyone this season by a wide margin.
In the regular season, they spent 21 percent of their defensive possessions in zone; the Portland Trail Blazers were second at 14.9 percent and no one else was even in double digits. Same story in the playoffs, where the Heat have played zone 15 percent of the time; no other team played it more than 7.3 percent.
While in zone, the Heat allow just 0.906 points per possession, which would be the best overall defense in the postseason. Their length, athleticism and connectivity causes problems, as does simply changing the look they give the defense. This was particularly evident against the Celtics, where their ability to seamlessly slip into a zone regularly disrupted the Celtics' rhythm and played a major role in their upset victory in seven games.
How much and when remains to be seen, but we know the Heat will play a lot of zone in the Finals. The major question is will the Nuggets be able to crack it? If they can, they will likely win the series. If not, and the Heat are able to use it effectively to gum up the Nuggets' high-powered offense, this series could be closer than people expect.
The Nuggets are confident they'll win that tactical battle.
"As you've mentioned, we've seen zone all year long," Nuggets head coach Michael Malone told reporters on Wednesday during Finals media day. "I think we have one of the better zone efficiencies on the offensive end. Right now in the Playoffs, I think our offensive rating is maybe the best for a team that's ever been in the Finals. We're prepared for it."
The evidence suggests they're correct.
In the regular season, they were second in the league in zone offense, scoring 1.156 points per possession, and in the playoffs that mark has jumped to a stunning 1.385 points per possession. It's worth noting, though, that they've only faced 231 total possessions of zone defense all season because they carve it up so easily.
It all starts with Nikola Jokic, obviously. He is the engine of this team and a historically good offensive force. He can score efficiently inside and out, is perhaps the best passing big man of all time and will not get sped up or flustered no matter what the defense throws at him.
The middle of the floor is the soft spot in 2-3 zone the Heat play, and while you can only take so much from regular season match-ups, just look at how easy it is for Jokic to create good looks when he sets up shop there. His vision and understanding of the game make him special, of course, but his size is also key to breaking down the zone. At 7-feet-tall he's unbothered by the smaller Heat defenders and can easily throw over the top of them.
During the playoffs, the Nuggets have taken 31.4 3-pointers per game, which ranks 13th out of 16 teams. But if you give them open ones, they will make them; they are shooting 38.6 percent in the postseason, second only to the Heat. And with Jokic, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Michael Porter Jr. and Jamal Murray all shooting at least 39.8 percent, they have multiple options to hurt you from outside.
Jokic is a natural playmaker, but if you don't collapse to him when he gets the ball in the middle of the floor, he'll gladly look for his own offense. During the playoffs, he's shooting 57.3 percent inside of 16 feet. This play isn't against the Heat, but it illustrates the point.
Jokic, to no surprise, downplayed his ability when asked about facing the zone, claiming he didn't know what would happen and praising the Heat's effort on that side of the ball.
"We saw the zone," Jokic said. "Definitely we didn't see this kind of zone because they are switching zones and they're really, really messing up the game in their favor. We just need to be focused and solid in what we are doing because that's why they are great, that's why they are winning, that's why they're in the Finals. They're messing the game in their way, and they're doing that really good.
"I don't know how it's going to affect me. We see tomorrow. Maybe going to have 10 turnovers, maybe going to have 10 points. We will see."
Jokic is being humble, but we will not see him have 10 turnovers. What we'll see instead is the Nuggets getting open shots on a regular basis if the Heat employ that strategy with him on the floor. His passing and scoring talent is a major reason why, but so too is his calmness and leadership.
"If we do see the zone, a lot of teams when they see the zone will panic instead of just playing the game," Malone said. "Getting the ball into the middle of the zone, using dribble penetration to collapse the zone. If we call a play, they're in zone, just run the play. This is not college. Bam Adebayo cannot stand in the paint. He's got to cleanse himself at some point."
Jokic will ensure the Nuggets stay on track against the zone, and that should ensure the Nuggets win the series.