Zone will be a useful playoff tool for the Toronto Raptors

Toronto Raptors - Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Toronto Raptors - Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images) /

The Toronto Raptors 3-2 zone is a useful defensive tool that may play an important role come playoff time.

Zone is for cowards! Zone can’t be used in the NBA! Real defense is played by locking up man-to-man! Nick Nurse and the Toronto Raptors don’t care about old adages and are bucking conventional wisdom by being one of the few NBA teams to consistently play zone defense.

It’s not a huge part of the Raptors identity. They don’t necessarily play it every game. However, when the team becomes stagnant or needs to throw opponents off their rhythm for a possession or two, it serves as a legitimate weapon. It’s something to gameplan for. It’s something to go over in practice. It’s a problem.

The sprawling 3-2 (or 1-2-2 whichever you prefer) zone places Pascal Siakam at the top. His quickness and length torments opposing point guards. He forces the opponent to initiate their offense 30-feet from the basket and is the key to the entire defense.

The starting backcourt mans the two flank positions. Their job is to guard from the extended elbow, all the way down to the corner, and back inside the paint. They need to be ready to fly out to shooters, as well as, mix it up with flashing big-men. It’s a perfect role for the scrappy backcourt of Toronto.

The two post positions need to guard both the corner three and the low block. It asks for a lot of physicality from the small forwards and a lot of mobility from centers. The athletes at these spots have to be versatile, capable defenders. Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby, and Serge Ibaka all fit the mold.

Toronto has utilized this unorthodox defense throughout the regular season. As the playoffs start, and individual possessions start to matter more, it gives them another unconventional look to throw at opponents.

Catching teams off guard

One of the cheapest benefits of zone defense is that it typically catches teams sleeping for at least a couple of possessions. NBA offenses play man defense 99-percent of the time. So when a team comes out in something different, sometimes it takes a second to differentiate what is going on.

The Detroit Pistons have no idea what is going on in this play. Thon Maker is the only player who makes a single cut as the rest of the offense lazily swings the ball around the perimeter before taking a contested jumpshot.

Sometimes teams run their man offenses until they realize what’s going on. Sometimes they lack movement like the play above. No matter how the opponent counters, it usually takes them a possession or two to do so.

Teams caught entirely off guard, are often forced to take a timeout. By the time they draw up a set to beat the defense, the Raptors are back in man-to-man.  Knowing when to stay in zone and when to switch back is an interesting game of cat-and-mouse between Nurse and the opposing sideline.

Not only does the zone impact an opponents offense. It can also affect their transition defense. With Pascal, Toronto’s best fastbreak scorer, at the top of the key, the Raptors are naturally set to run the break.

Siakam is often able to leak out in transition. His head start, typically against opposing backcourts, allows for crossmatches and miscommunications you don’t usually see from NBA teams.

Indiana is unsure of who to guard here. By the time Myles Turner figures it out, it’s too late. Pascal has already gained deep post position and earns a relatively easy bucket and foul because of it.

Team specific benefits

Like man, the 3-2 can be designed to take away an opposing team’s particular strengths. Watch Toronto swarm a Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton pick-and-roll, “tagging” the roll-man with a third defender.

This isn’t new. Teams have defended a Giannis, Middleton action with three defenders many times this season. The difference? Milwaukee has game planned several ways to attack a man defense who overplays the strong side. They’ve likely never talked about how to attack a zone which does the same.

The Raptors are also able to attack non-shooters even more aggressively when in the 3-2.

Against the Utah Jazz, Pascal essentially ignored Rubio from beyond the arc. As a result, he was able to clog the paint and disrupt passing lanes.

The Jazz, similar to the Bucks, have gameplanned against teams ignoring Rubio. However, they haven’t prepared for a zone defense which ignores him.

Countering on the fly is far more difficult than sets you’ve worked on through the year. The 3-2 zone allows Toronto to generate problems opponents haven’t seen before.

Hiding defensive problems

Nick Nurse has rarely played two “traditional” bigs together so far this season. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka have only shared the court a total of 44 minutes and have only done so when there aren’t many other options.

It’s hard for the Raptors to compete defensively with two lumbering centers. When Ibaka and Gasol have played together, the Raptors have posted a 113.3 defensive rating, that would rank 28th in the NBA.

One way Nurse has tried to survive defensively, by pairing the two at the bottom of a zone.


Bradley Beal

gets bailed out here by a bad foul call, but the defense was still solid)

In the post of a 3-2, neither Gasol nor Ibaka is asked to defend the perimeter like a typical power forward. Neither player is asked to guard a 1-4 pick-and-roll. To some extent, their liabilities are hidden.

Not having Pascal at the point is detrimental, but OG Anunoby does a fine job out there himself. The Raptors aren’t as quick sprinting out to the corners, but in the grand scheme of things, that’s a relatively small concession.

Playing Gasol and Ibaka will never be the first option. However, despite their limitations, the Raptors have survived the time these two have shared. If the Raptors need to kill a few power forward minutes due to injuries, foul trouble, etc.,  a two big look isn’t the worst option. One way they can survive it is by playing zone.

Knowing its worth

If used correctly, the Toronto Raptors 3-2 zone can have an impact on at least one playoff series. However, it’s important to understand what it is and what it is not.

Zone defense is a nice change of pace. It’s the wildcat offense. It’s a submarine pitcher in the 7th inning. The Raptors won’t rely on it to consistently win games. Its value is as an occasional weapon.

Next. Kyle Lowry is the NBA's most unconventional star. dark

In the playoffs, when every possession matters and series are decided by the smallest of events, that’s important enough.

The Raptors have a trick up their sleeve other teams are missing. They have an advantage where other teams don’t.