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What’s behind the increased use of zone defense in the NBA playoffs?



THE LOS ANGELES Lakers entered the fourth quarter of Game 3 of the Western Conference finals trailing the Denver Nuggets by 18 points when Lakers coach Frank Vogel called for a zone defense — a strategic move NBA coaches once considered a last resort, but one that is becoming increasingly common this postseason.

The Lakers used their zone to rack up five steals in less than three minutes, cutting the lead down to as little as three points. And while the Nuggets recovered to win the game, the defensive switch nearly led to the second-biggest comeback of LeBron James‘ lengthy playoff career.

“As a coach, when your team gets down and you’re looking for something to try to give your team a spark, you try to change the game,” Vogel said. “Sometimes it’s a lineup. Sometimes it’s a coverage. Sometimes it’s zone defense, throwing it out there, just to break their rhythm a little bit.

“It doesn’t always work. It did tonight.”

In the ongoing battle between NBA offenses and defenses, offenses have dominated recently. The past two seasons have produced the most efficient offense on record behind ever-growing numbers of 3-point shots.

“I think that the offense changed drastically, and the defense stayed pretty much the same for a while,” Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse said, “and now I think the defense is starting to have to adjust to such a different and drastic style of offensive play.”

The heavy use of zones has been a key adjustment this postseason. And now the zone defense, once disdained, has the potential to reshape this year’s NBA Finals.

AS RECENTLY AS two seasons ago, the NBA zone defense — which has been allowed since 2001-02, when the league removed the “illegal defense” rule preventing its use — had all but gone extinct.

After peaking at 3% usage during the 2009-10 season, zone was used for just 638 plays in 2017-18, 0.2% of all possessions, according to Synergy Sports data. That was the culmination of six seasons of decline after zone defenses were more common in the NBA from 2009 through 2012, highlighted by the Dallas Mavericks‘ zone helping them upset the heavily favored Big Three Miami Heat in the 2011 NBA Finals.

Seven years later, Miami played a key role in bringing the zone back in vogue.

On Dec. 20, 2018, the Heat used a zone defense to slow down reigning MVP James Harden in a nationally televised win over the Houston Rockets. Harden, who was amid a historic run of 32 consecutive games of scoring at least 30 points, went just 7-for-23 from the field against the unorthodox defense.

Though Heat coach Erik Spoelstra dismissed the notion that there was any grand strategy behind turning to a zone a handful of games earlier — “We did it because our man [defense] wasn’t working,” he said — other coaches took notice of how much zone Miami was playing. The Heat used zone on more plays during the 2019-20 regular season, 802, than all 30 NBA teams combined in either 2016-17 or 2017-18. League-wide zone usage was up to 2.2% this season, its highest level since the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season.

While Miami didn’t need to use its zone to beat either the Indiana Pacers or Milwaukee Bucks, it has been a key factor in the Heat’s building a 3-1 series lead in the Eastern Conference finals heading into Friday’s Game 5 against the Boston Celtics (8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN).

Other coaches have taken notice. “One of the best things you can do is learn from real good coaches,” Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder said. “And Erik is a terrific coach, so it calls your attention to it, and then you have to figure out: Is this applicable to our team in some way?”

One big reason coaches have traditionally shunned the zone is that NBA players can shoot right over the top of it, but modern NBA zone defense is no longer so vulnerable to outside shooting.

“Teams have tinkered with zone rules and tinkered around the three-second rule for the middle man, so it’s not your typical college 2-3 or 3-2 zone anymore,” said Detroit Pistons coach Dwane Casey, who was the architect of the Mavs’ 2011 defense.

“The way teams have bastardized the zone so much and tinkered with the zone, it’s really a glorified switch.”

This helps explain why the Heat’s zone was effective against Harden. Modern offensive superstars such as Harden all but demand that man-to-man defenses switch pick-and-rolls to keep up, which puts their defenders in uncomfortable positions — guards defending post-ups and big men defending one-on-one on the perimeter. In a zone, those defenders stay where their coach wants them.

Spoelstra has also changed where those players are by putting two athletic forwards on the perimeter in the Heat’s 2-3 zones, with the team’s smaller guards playing on the wings in the back line. That has made Miami’s zone defense more difficult for Boston to attack.

Snyder borrowed that innovation when Utah implemented a zone defense at midseason.

“Having more length at the top, that player has an opportunity to impact the offense two different ways,” Snyder explained. “From the corner, there’s one pass, essentially, one direction that you can go. From the top, a lot of times there’s two different directions that someone can pass.”

Despite their evolution, zones remain most vulnerable beyond the arc. So, their rise also required the NBA’s shot math to change.

THE DECLINE IN zone defense over the past decade coincided with the NBA’s love affair with the 3-pointer. But now, even with 3-pointers being attempted at record rates, zone is back on the rise.

“It’s such an interesting contradiction,” Washington Wizards coach Scott Brooks said. “We are shooting 3s more than ever, so why would you play a zone?”

When the Mavericks used zone in the 2011 NBA Finals with Casey as their defensive coordinator, they were exposing a Miami weakness. At that point, before adding Shane Battier and unleashing Chris Bosh as a 3-point shooter, the Heat had a shortage of shooting.

Now, every team looks to have as much shooting on the floor as possible. Yet, there’s a paradox to all these 3-pointers: In a counterintuitive twist, they’ve made controlling the area around the basket more important for opposition defenses.

There are two factors at play. First, five-out lineups in which every player on the court can shoot 3s have made it hard for defenses to cover enough ground to load up the paint against players driving from the perimeter and also get out to shooters.

“I think it’s either-or,” said Casey, whose perspective is borne out by the data. “You’re going to do one or the other. It’s hard to do both.”

Second, shots at the rim are simply more valuable. The average attempt in the restricted area was worth 1.27 points this season, as compared to 1.17 points for the average 3-point attempt from the corners and 1.05 points for 3-pointers taken from elsewhere on the court.

Because of that math, job No. 1 for a modern NBA defense is preventing opponents from getting to the rim, even more than preventing 3-pointers.

Among the NBA’s top 10 defenses in 2019-20, just one team (the Philadelphia 76ers) ranked in the top eight in preventing 3-pointers. Conversely, four of the top 10 (including Milwaukee and Toronto) were among the eight teams that allowed the most 3-point attempts.

However, six of this year’s top 10 defenses were in the top eight in preventing shots in the restricted area around the basket, per analysis of data from NBA Advanced Stats, and none in the bottom eight.

It’s here where the zone shines. Per Second Spectrum tracking, teams shot 3s far more frequently against zones (53% of their shot attempts, as compared to 38% of shot attempts against man-to-man defense). But zone defenses dramatically reduced shots in the restricted area, from 26% of attempts against man-to-man to just 16% against zone.

The increased emphasis on protecting the rim, and the zone’s effectiveness in doing so, has led three of the four teams in the conference finals to use zone this round. Only the Denver Nuggets, who are down 3-1 in the West finals, have yet to break it out.

UNLIKE IN COLLEGE basketball, where legendary coaches such as Syracuse‘s Jim Boeheim and retired longtime Temple coach John Chaney built their defenses around exclusive use of 2-3 zones, NBA teams have found it more effective as a counterpunch. Overall, Second Spectrum tracking shows zone defenses giving up slightly more points per possession (1.12) than man-to-man defenses (1.11).

“It’s a different look,” Vogel said. “Most zones in the NBA are not very good; there’s a lot of holes in them and can be easily exploited. It doesn’t always happen, but that’s why most of the league does not play zone for long stretches.”

Still, as Brooks notes, zones have value by taking offenses out of what they typically want to do.

“When you [face] a man-to-man defense, you can run a pattern,” Brooks said. “You know that if they guard it this way, OK this will be open, and, if they guard it this way, [then] this will be open. So you have your check points as a player and as a coach.

“But in a zone, it’s a little bit of organized chaos. You have gray areas. … You have some concepts, but you really have to be free-flowing. You really have to have a really stronger-IQ basketball team to be able to attack it consistently.”

No coach has made better use of zones to mix things up than Nurse, recently voted Coach of the Year. During last year’s NBA Finals against an injury-depleted Golden State Warriors team, Nurse went to a zone defense typically seen in high school — a box-and-one — to thwart Warriors star Stephen Curry. He went back to it again during this year’s Eastern Conference semifinals against Boston to try to slow down Kemba Walker after he tore apart Toronto’s defense early in the series.



Mark Schwarz gets the lowdown on the Raptors’ unorthodox box-and-one defense, which Steph Curry described as “janky.”

“I’ve coached in a lot of playoff games now, a lot of playoff series and a lot of NCAA tournament games,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said after Boston’s Game 7 victory. “I’d say we saw more defenses and more stuff … right when something worked, the next play it didn’t work anymore. That’s a credit to them.”

After outlasting the Raptors, the Celtics have struggled against Miami’s 2-3 zone in the conference finals. They’ve averaged just 1.04 points per possession on the 113 possessions marked by Second Spectrum data as against zone, down from 1.19 points per possession against man-to-man, while shooting 29% from 3-point range. In a series in which the Heat’s three wins have come by a combined 11 points, those possessions loom large.

Between players getting more and more creative with the ball in their hands, an influx of quality shooters at every position on the court, and rules being created and enforced to aid offense, defenses are left in a nearly impossible spot. The goal isn’t to take away everything from an offense, but to keep them from going to what it is they want to do most.

“It’s going to be hard for defense to trump offense like it used to in the late ’90s,” former Philadelphia 76ers coach Brett Brown said earlier this year.

Still, that won’t stop coaches from trying.

“The game has changed,” Brooks said. “I think zone defense is going to be taking place more and there’s going to be more creativity, and someone is going to come up with something that is totally different than the last guy.”


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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home



On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”



Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.


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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment



The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.


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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls



With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

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