Sacramento Kings pick apart Utah Jazz 2-3 defense

Early in the first quarter of Saturday night’s match-up between Sacramento and Utah, the Jazz tried something somewhat unorthodox: a 2-3 zone. This is a difficult defensive set to run in the NBA for two reasons:

  1. NBA teams, for the most part, shoot 3-pointers very well. Teams with good long-range shooting can cause serious problems for a 2-3.
  2. The defensive 3-seconds rule prevents the middle big from standing in the lane indefinitely.

But the Jazz were struggling to slow down Sacramento’s offense, which was humming along on the power of Isaiah Thomas, so presumably to prevent Thomas from continuing to beat them at the rim, Utah implemented a zone. This is what ensued:

As the ball is inbounded, Jason Thompson runs down to the baseline. Instead of running around a pick from Cousins, Thomas skips the ball to Salmons, which draws Randy Foye and Marvin Williams onto the left side of the court. Only one player should have rotated to Salmons, but it’s hard to tell who that should have been. If just Foye rotated to Salmons, perhaps Williams could have cut off Thompson. If just Williams had rotated, Foye could have made Cousins’ pass a little more difficult. But Salmons sees Cousins wide open in the middle of the court, and he dishes to Cousins who threads a beautiful bounce pass in between Utah defenders and behind Al Jefferson to a cutting Thompson for the easy slam.

Obviously, Utah’s ploy didn’t work, and they didn’t try it again. But here’s why this style of defense makes some sense against the Kings: By positioning a big in the middle of the lane, the Jazz effectively limit Sacramento’s pick and roll game from a ball handler’s perspective, and as we mentioned, Isaiah Thomas had been spectacular to this point. Having the somewhat slow-footed Jefferson man the paint near the hoop may have made more sense when trying to stop the P&R ball handler from scoring, instead of having Al try to shift around near the 3-point line to hedge. It’s also worth noting that until this play, the Jazz had played straight man-to-man defense, so this strategy, theoretically, might have taken the Kings by surprise. Unfortunately for Utah, Jason Thompson could not have read the situation better cutting along the baseline, and he was positioned perfectly to make the Jazz pay. Also unfortunately for Utah: DeMarcus Cousins is very, very good at basketball.

The biggest problem with running a 2-3 zone against the Kings is that often when they run a pick and roll, Cousins is the player setting the screen, and he doesn’t need to roll to be effective. While Cousins isn’t a good mid-range shooter (28.6% from 10-15 feet and 29.0% from 16-23 feet, per HoopData.com), he is a good passer when he pops on the P&R instead of rolling. So if Cousins doesn’t roll, the defense is faced with a choice: Hang back and give Cousins the mid-range shot if he wants it (and he does hit it on occasion), or run out and defend him away from the basket.

Presumably the former would be the wisest, given Cousins’ shooting percentages from mid-range. But by playing back, the defender is allowing Cousins a wider variety of passing lanes. In soccer, when a forward gets a breakaway, the goalie must rush toward him at the right moment to make the forward’s target smaller. It’s a similar concept here: If Jefferson rushes out at Cousins, perhaps Cousins isn’t able to get his pass around Jefferson to Thompson, and an easy basket is prevented. Instead, Jefferson hangs back in no-man’s land, neither protecting the basket nor cutting off Cousins’ passing lanes.

The Kings played an inspired game in front of an enthusiastic home crowd, but it was their high level of execution (1.02 PPP overall, 27/16 assists to TO ratio, 51.8% from the field) that fueled this victory. One would hope that unselfish plays like this show a tendency toward future chemistry.

Follow Tom on Twitter: @Tom_NBA.

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