At the start of the fourth quarter of Wednesday's game between the Clippers and Milwaukee, these were the lineups on the floor: for the Clippers, it was DeAndre Jordan, Craig Smith, Travis Outlaw, Rasual Butler and Steve Blake; for the Bucks, it was Andrew Bogut, Jerry Stackhouse, John Salmons, Royal Ivey and Brandon Jennings. Notice anything strange about that? Jerry Stackhouse was playing power forward for the Bucks.
Milwaukee had finished the third quarter on an 18-2 run, with Jennings torching the Clippers man-to-man defense for 16 points in the quarter. Kim Hughes opened the fourth in a zone defense, the Clippers neutralized Jennings, and pulled away for the win.
I spoke with the coach about the use of the zone after practice on Friday. He didn't want to give too much away, but I think we can safely say that we'll see more of it against Sacramento Sunday afternoon, especially from that second unit.
Hughes is refreshingly candid (more on that another time), and when I suggested that many people consider the zone a junk defense that is used to hide individual defensive deficiencies, he said "duh" (that's not a direct quote, but I think it captures the essence). He was worried about Smith and Outlaw being able to stay in front of Stackhouse and Salmons - in fact, he didn't think they could do it. He used the zone to try to hide those shortcomings, while pounding Stackhouse with Smith in the post on the other end. It worked. 1:34 into the quarter, Skiles blinked and brought in Ersa Ilyasova to play the four. When Ilyasova picked up his fourth foul 23 seconds later, Skiles brought in Luc Mbah a Moute. 48 seconds after that, he took out Stackhouse. The Clippers lineup had for once forced an opponent to react to what they were doing, and the Bucks were completely out of sorts.
To be certain, the Bucks played right into the Clippers' hands against the zone on Wednesday. They were impatient, and tended to take the first shot they saw, usually a three pointer. Much to Skiles' chagrin, they took seven of them in the quarter, missing all of them. (Of course the outcome of the game would likely have been very different had some of those shots gone in.)
I like the idea of using the zone at times, if only as a change of pace. With only 24 seconds to work with, if the opposing offense has to burn a little time just realizing that you're in a different defense, you've secured a small advantage, if only for that possession. In the end, the reason most NBA teams don't play zone is because the shooters are just too good. There's too much ground to cover in an NBA zone, and if the shooters spread you out, then the penetrators can pick you apart. But there are certain teams against whom it can work (Sacramento is definitely on that list). So we'll see it again in these final 14 games.