We’d like to welcome Scott Rich as a DBR contributor. In the past, Scott contributed to the Duke Chronicle and we think you’ll agree that he’s a smart and insightful writer.
Coaches at all levels of basketball will tell you there are two primary ways to beat a 2-3 zone: either make it move side-to-side enough to create seams, or make it collapse in order to open up the baseline and corners.
In prior incarnations of the fledgling Duke-Syracuse rivalry, the Blue Devils relied upon stellar three-point shooting to do the former. But given the result of the teams’ prior meeting this season, and the well-documented three-point shooting woes of this year’s Duke team, it was clear entering last night’s game that the Blue Devils would have to find a way to do the latter to break down Jim Boeheim’s vaunted zone defense.
The gameplan was clear early on: get the ball to R.J. Barrett at the high-post and allow him to operate in the paint. This was initially successful, as Barrett scored six of Duke’s first nine points utilizing his stellar ability to score through contact at the rim, and also displayed a soft touch with floaters in the lane. It’s worth noting that one of the biggest side-effects of the absence of Tre Jones for a majority of the first Duke-Syracuse matchup of the season (combined with Cam Reddish’s absence) was that Barrett was forced to initiate the offense from the top of the key and was less able to operate from the middle of the zone.
Having Barrett operate as a “point-forward” from the high-post was likely anticipated by Boeheim, and midway through the first half he made the first of a series of intriguing back-and-forth adjustments between two close friends and hall of fame coaches. Boeheim had the top of his zone sag down heavily against Jones, which had a two-fold effect: it prevented Barrett from getting the ball at the high-post, and also dared Jones to shoot the three.
This was no more evident then during a sequence where Jones brought the ball up the floor, saw there was no one within five feet of him at the top of the key, and seemingly had an internal debate whether or not to shoot. After some hesitation he did, and missed.
It was likely the exact outcome Boeheim was hoping for from that adjustment, and thanks largely to that strategy Syracuse held Duke to 29 points in the first half, including 3-of-15 shooting from beyond the arc (including 1-for-5 from Jones, just a 25% three-point shooter on the year). The Orange held a five-point lead entering the half.
Not to be outdone, Mike Krzyzewski made his own adjustment that went against years of coaching dogma against the 2-3 zone, and was the impetus for Duke’s second half offensive resurgence. Rather than have Barrett operate at the high-post, after the halftime break the Blue Devils had Jones seemingly sneak into that area, and had Barrett make the entry pass from the wing. There, Jones was able to hunt a shot (the mid-range floater) that he was much more comfortable with.
More importantly, this strategy finally made the 2-3 zone collapse, and Jones was able to use his stellar court-vision to start the ball rotating towards open shooters. It’s no coincidence that Alex O’Connell’s three point barrage began soon after this adjustment (17 of his 20 points came in the second half), or that Duke more than doubled its percentage from beyond the arc in the second half (which, not coincidently, coincided with only two perimeter shots from Jones).
Despite the success of this move, it can’t be overstated how unconventional putting a 6-foot-2 guard, rather than a larger forward, at the high post is. Typically, the entry pass into the paint takes advantage of a height differential between the high-post player and the defenders at the top of the zone utilizing a simple lob (typically followed by a fake and bounce pass on later possessions). Then, the point-forward uses his height to see over the zone to decide whether to attack, dump it down-low (if the middle of the zone is drawn up to defend a mid-range jumper), or kick out to the corner for a three.
Instead, Jones made an initial pass to the wing, typically to Barrett (forcing the zone to shift towards him given his recent success shooting from deep), and then Jones cut into the high post with a curl from the opposite side of the floor. Rather than taking the time to read the zone by looking over it, Jones used his PG instincts to make quicker decisions from amongst the trees. After this was successful, the zone had to respect Jones and collapse in on him, which is a death knell for the 2-3.
This Duke team is not constructed to beat a 2-3 zone, at least not in the conventional sense. And with Zion Williamson healthy, there likely would have been a few more easy baskets coming from lobs on the baseline (many of which went begging to Javin DeLaurier or Marques Bolden). But by putting his own, unorthodox spin on a common way to attack the 2-3 zone, Coach K was able to light a spark that spread throughout his entire offense.
If Duke sees Syracuse, or another 2-3 zone later this season, don’t be surprised to see Jones handling the ball at the top of the key less, and inside the zone more.