Alan Dell

Commentary: Zone defense gets bad rap

When John Harder hears the term “girlie zone” defense, he cringes a little. He doesn’t want anyone to denigrate the game of girls basketball that has been so good to him.

On the other hand, the Hall of Fame coach can’t help but smile because he knows how a zone defense can confuse even the most scholarly hoopsters.

One of the best effects of the “girlie zone” is that it plays into the male psyche of invincibility, which some argue is really its vulnerability.

This is particularly true among most NBA guards and small forwards, who believe they should make every open shot.

That scenario unfolded in the NBA playoffs when the Phoenix Suns went to a 2-3 zone in Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals and made the Los Angeles Lakers look like crumbled Girl Scout cookies in two straight losses.

Suns head coach Alvin Gentry said his team used a “girlie zone” to top Kobe Bryant and friends. It’s uncertain if he originated the term or heard it from someone else, but it seemed to get into the heads of the Lakers.

One thing we learned is that egos come into play when a zone is used.

Maybe Phil Jackson, the Lakers’ cerebral coach with 10 NBA rings, should have contacted Harder. His input might have gotten the Lakers a win in Game 3 or 4 and helped the series wrap up early.

In his 27 years as the Southeast High girls head coach, Harder has earned a Ph.D. in zone attack principles, which is why he has won 617 games, 17 district titles and two state championships.

He owes a lot of gratitude to the girls who played for him and is thankful they rarely let their egos cloud their thinking.

“Teams play us zone nine out of 10 times because we have so many athletic players,” Harder says. “They know we are usually not the best outside shooting team around and feel that is how you beat us. But it’s a myth that the best way to beat a zone is with outside shooting.”

A perfect example last season was his senior, Bianca Hanna, who busted up zones with her dribble penetration that usually ended with her getting a layup or dishing to a teammate for a high percentage shot.

Harder has been to clinics run by Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim, who revived the 2-3 zone into one of college basketball’s most lethal weapons. They both agree there are many falsehoods on the subject.

“The best way to attack the zone is in the creases,” Harder says. “We work consistently on hitting the gaps between the post and the wing. If we have a big girl, we like to post her up and lob the ball to her over the top of the defenders.

“Those are the two best options. The third is outside shooting, and that is what most teams want us to use, but we are not going to accommodate them.”

Manhood plays a big role in a zone defense. Some coaches won’t use it because they believe it’s an admission that you are an inferior team.

Boeheim wants opponents to believe they can bust up his zone with outside shooting and says he can live with teams making some long-range bombs because in the end they are playing into his hands.

Southeast head boys coach Elliott Washington was a point guard at Alabama, where he played with future NBA standouts Robert Horry and Latrell Sprewell and knows first-hand how a lot of those high-caliber players think.

“Most pros believe they can knock down a shot any time they are open, but not everyone in the league is a lights-out shooter,” Washington said. “Give Gentry credit, he is making the Lakers do something they are not comfortable doing. It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure it out, you hit the gaps and dribble and penetrate. But pro guys are not used to playing against zone and not prepared mentally.”

Washington says ego prevents some high school coaches from using a zone because they feel it’s not doing basketball justice and not the manly thing to do.

Diana Taurasi, the former UConn star and two-time WNBA champion with the Phoenix Mercury, doesn’t like the negative connotation surrounding the label Gentry used for his zone defense.

“I don’t see anything girly about it. That’s why I think the U.S. has so many problems internationally because you actually have to play real basketball where the rules can’t help you as far as spacing,” she told a Phoenix Suns website, Bright Side Of The Sun. “When you actually have to think and make the extra pass, basketball gets really hard.”