Truth be told, NBA teams don’t really run that much zone. Even in the highest-usage scenarios, it’s not typically used on more than a handful of defensive possessions. In most cases, NBA teams are too smart and too talented from outside to make zones viable defensive sets.
This is not the case in NBA 2K14, where online play is dominated by zone defense, leading one sports gaming site to remark on its outright removal from the game.
I’m not going to go that far. There’s no doubt that zone defense has to be reworked in NBA 2K14. It wouldn’t be abused so much in competitive play if that wasn’t the case. However, there are things players can do now to combat it, with the right teams and a little tweak in strategy.
The primary defense I’ve seen online in NBA 2K14 is the 1-3-1:
In it, the point guard takes primary responsibility for the top of the floor, with the center and power forward offering support down the middle of the floor, down to the basket. The shooting guard and small forward offer help on the wings. It’s an easy defense to trap out of, as either the SG or SF can slide up and converge on a wing player while still receiving back-line support.
It’s apparent what the weaknesses in this zone are: the corners. Smart NBA teams will space this zone out and allow the ball-handler at the top of the floor to attack the holes in the zone, forcing the trap before kicking it to the nearest shooter for a wide open 3 or rim run if the back line defender doesn’t close out fast enough.
This defense is useful in NBA 2K14 because spacing and corner 3s are actually some of the game’s biggest weaknesses. What happens then to most players is what happens to the Mavericks here (sped up to get the whole play):
There’s nothing here, and Dallas is forced to use most of the shot clock before a desperation pass by Calderon gets tipped out of bounds. The Blazers are able to trap and switch in ways the defense demands, and aside from one sliver of opening on Calderon’s drift towards the top of the key (before he moves too close to the ball), there’s just nothing here.
However, we did say that this zone is open to drive and kick opportunities, and that’s what the Mavs do here:
Ellis draws two Portland defenders, leaving Robin Lopez to close out on Calderon, who’s a great shooter. The AI doesn’t quite get itself behind the line for the 3, but it’s a good shot. Furthermore, the weakside rebound by Marion gives him an open lane to pass to Dirk for 3 as the defense scrambles back to its assignments.
If you have the wings to do this, you can also post up the smaller of the SG/SF and hope to draw help from the opposite defender:
Lillard can’t leave Ellis and Batum can’t leave Dirk, which leaves a huge gap for Marion to pass to Calderon on the wing where the defense just can’t recover. This isn’t even a play, really, and it should be simple to set up for most players.
What you absolutely cannot do against a zone is run pick and rolls:
Here, Dirk tries to set one for Ellis, and despite a nifty step to open space on his left (combined with a baffling jump by Aldridge to the right), there’s just nowhere to go. The middle of the defense is 3-deep by the time Ellis steps into the paint, and Dirk’s charge into the paint behind him clogs space up more.
Zone defense can also be exploited with early offense:
Here, Matthews overreacts to the hard-charging Calderon, leaving Ellis wide open for 3.
Portland here is in a 3-2 zone, which is similar to a 1-3-1, except with the back line defenders side-by-side instead of stacked:
The weaknesses are similar, except the open 3-point spots are a little further up the floor, as opposed to the corners. Still, attacking the gaps on the wings should produce open lanes for baseline attackers to either shoot or drive.
Of course, while expressing and demonstrating these weaknesses is relatively simple, the game doesn’t make it easy to execute. AI-controlled offensive players have a tendency to bunch up (try to arrange your offense in a 4-out set with 4 shooters and 1 primary big, and initiate your offense from closer to midcourt to help the spacing), and the game doesn’t do a great job with zone offensive plays. They are hard to pick out, and most of the tenets from a zone offense–quick hitting passing and fluid movement–are just things that are incredibly difficult to pull off in-game.
In this way, the problems with zone defense are due to both offensive and defensive AI and control shortcomings. The way players move and react on offense is so unpredictable that it makes the precision necessary to execute against a zone near-impossible. Sure, you can know that you want certain players in certain spots, but without a lot of trial and error (and frustrating, empty possessions), it will be difficult to get them where they need to be to bust the zone.
Still, a lot can be accomplished with just a general knowledge of zones and how to combat them. Generally, good spacing and early offense are good, while slow-moving plays or pick and rolls are bad. Attack the gaps in the zone from up high on the floor, and give your point guard a chance to make good passes to good shooters.
As to teams to use, the Mavericks and Blazers are actually good choices, as are typical mainstays like the Thunder, especially if you use Westbrook-Sefolosha-Butler/Lamb-Durant-Ibaka as your primary lineup. This will usually put Durant on the baseline about 15 feet away from the basket, which, combined with drives from Westbrook, will give a patient player a ton of juicy options after the initial pass to Durant.
It also pays to not panic. Even though early offense is generally a good thing against a zone, do not do so if the offense has already set up. Rushing headlong into a zone with 3 or 4 of your offensive players behind you is going to get the ball trapped and stolen. Instead, wait for everybody to get into the offensive side of the court and occupy defenders, let the defense settle (2K’s players tend to make drastic movements instead of subtle ones, baiting one of these should get an open shot), and attack those gaps between the top 3 defenders, looking to pass when the backline bigs collapse on you. If you hit your open 3s, you’ll win the game.
That about wraps up coverage of NBA 2K14 and NBA Live 14. The NBA season is almost over, and with it ending, we will be taking a few weeks off before tackling some improvements needed for this year’s games, and, eventually, running the 2015 editions of them through the ringer. Keep your eyes on GoodGameBro.com for all your NBA video game coverage!