clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Nate McMillan Talks Zone Defense

It's no secret any more: John Hollinger's numbers love the Blazers.  A weak opening schedule, large margin of victories and a slow-down style that encourages efficient play have combined to shoot the Blazers up to 3rd place on Hollinger's power rankings.

Like last year, the Blazers again find themselves in the upper echelon of teams from an offensive efficiency standpoint this season.  The surprise this year?  The Blazers are currently ranked #2 in defensive efficiency, a nice accomplishment for a team that lost its best perimeter defender, Nicolas Batum, to long-term injury and fiddled with an unconventional three guard lineup for much of the early season.

There are a number of reasons for the team's early defensive success: the continued development of Greg Oden, the improvement of Rudy Fernandez, the giveaway of Sergio Rodriguez and, of course, the extremely weak early season schedule.

One other reason that hasn't gotten a lot of play, though, is the team's use of zone and matchup zone defenses.  This isn't something new -- Nate McMillan has had both in his system for years -- but the zone looks appear to be working quite well this season.  The first half in Atlanta stands out in particular.  That night, the zone was used for long stretches of the second quarter, helping hold the Hawks, one of the league's elite offensive units, to just 20 second quarter points and 43 first half points. 

 After practice today I spoke briefly with coach Nate McMillan about his zone defenses. During our conversation he makes reference to a "straight zone" (players defend set areas rather than specific bodies) and "match-up zones."  Here's a nice, simple definition of a match-up zone courtesy of Coaches

Match-up zone is a "combination" defense, combining elements of man-to-man defense (on ball), and zone defense (away from the ball). This is a zone defense that acts a lot like a good man-to-man defense. The on-ball defender closes-out and plays tight like in a man-to-man. The zone away from the ball resembles man-to-man "help-side" defense.

Here's a transcript of our conversation.

Blazersedge: You've been playing some match-up zone recently on defense. What prompted you to go in that direction this year?

That's a part of the package. We have a zone package that we play. It's not just one zone. We've got really four zones. We've got a "2", "2 Black", "3" and "3 Black".  

The "Blacks" are matchups and the "2s" and "3s" are straight zones.

Depending on what a team has out on the floor as far as players, whether they have shooters, we are able to cover the perimeter [with our 3]. If they have bigs as well as shooters we go to our 2, which can cover the perimeter as well as the paint.

Blazersedge: What triggers the switch into the zone?  If your opponent comes out shooting cold or is it a personnel thing?

It could be a lineup, it could be that they are hot and we are trying to disrupt them, get them out of a rhythm.

Last night we tried to go to it because Chicago started to get a rhythm offensively. We wanted to change their attack and get them standing and not moving.  I think they were able to score once or twice off of it.

We use it for a number of different reasons. It's just part of our defensive package. We go to it when they go to certain lineups or if we're trying to break a rhythm.

Blazersedge: Is it true that we are more likely to see the zone if you're going smaller with the 3 guard lineup?

Possibly. Possibly.  Because they do have maybe an advantage somewhere and we can keep our paint tight and stay away from teams trying to post up one of our small guards.

Blazersedge: What brings you out of the zone?  They shoot over the top of it or... ?

It depends. It depends. Sometimes they are shooting over the top of it but we're keeping them on the perimeter. It all depends on the game and their lineup and how they are scoring. If they are scoring over the top of the zone with a hand in their face, we sometimes stay in it.

Blazersedge: There's a lot made about how difficult it is to rebound defensively when you're in the zone defense, because the bigs have to go actively find a body to box out.  Is that a reality in the NBA or is that a misnomer?

Yeah, you look at all of that.

In the NBA, you can't play your traditional zone because you can't keep a middle man because of the illegal defense. It's some zone-like rules but it's not your traditional zone. 

Blazersedge: In general, would you say your players prefer to play zone or man-to-man?

It's just part of our package. We've explained why we use it [to the players]. We use it different times and against different teams and we try to take advantage or disrupt or catch a team, surprise a team with falling back into a zone. 

Blazersedge: Do you try to run out off the zone or are you looking to slow tempo?

You try to run out on both man and zone. It's the same. Sometimes the zone is even more difficult for teams to match up with their player (in transition) because their guy might be on the other side of the court.

About halfway through, you probably noticed Nate McMillan make passing reference to the NBA's defensive 3-second rule and how it prevents a "middle man" from running a "traditional" zone by camping out in the key. Yet another thing for a young big man like Greg Oden to worry about.

-- Ben Golliver | ( | Twitter