It's been an extended problem for two seasons now, but whenever the starting lineup is separated by substitution the team's production goes in the tank. Through the first four games of the series the Pacers' starters were +22 in 73 minutes. Which means all other units combined had been -22 in 119 minutes. Last night the starters were again dominating, +24 in just under 19 minutes, but Vogel was able to find some bench combinations that worked as well.
The most notable change was a DNP for Sam Young and no minutes for Gerald Green until late in the 4th quarter, when the game was already firmly in hand. This meant more minutes for Paul George, Lance Stephenson and George Hill, definitely a good thing, but also more minutes for D.J. Augustin, as someone needed to spell those three in the backcourt. Augustin ended playing 25 minutes but for all of those minutes, except the last four-and-a-half, he was playing alongside at least one of either Hill, Stephenson or George. Usually it was him and Hill in the backcourt, or him manning the point with both Stephenson and George on the wings. Allowing Augustin to play mostly with the starters instead of trying to manage the second-unit offense by himself was a really creative way of covering for his struggles.
And make no mistake, he's been struggling. Even including last night's performance, he's now shooting 28.6% in the in the playoffs. Even more troubling, the Pacers are scoring at a rate of just 99.4 points per 100 possessions when he's been on the floor and giving up points at the rate of 114.0 points per 100 possessions. That's a Net Rating of -14.3, about 4 points worse than the Charlotte Bobcats' league-worst regular season differential. Size, strength and attentiveness all create challenges for Augustin at the defensive end, but his offensive struggles run deeper than just bad shooting. The offense breaks down because he offers so little in the way of dribble penetration and his decision making swings so soundly towards passivity.
This play from the third quarter is a perfect example. Augustin has the ball on the wing, defended by Kyle Korver. Rather than attack him off the dribble he decides to dump it in to Roy Hibbert in the post, and then clear through on the baseline. There's nothing wrong with those decisions in the abstract, but the problem is that there's only 6 seconds left on the shot clock. Hibbert doesn't have great position and he's going to need to work from there to find a high percentage shot. By cutting baseline Augustin is also dragging an extra defender right to HIbbert in a situation where he's going to be forced to shoot. This situation is screaming for an agressive drive to the middle of the floor, but instead the Pacers end up with a 24 second violation.
The other rotation tweak that Frank Vogel made was going to a surprise big lineup to counter Josh Smith at the small forward position. For a stretch of 4:47 across the end of the first quarter and the beginning of the second, Vogel went with a frontcourt lineup of Hibbert, Tyler Hansbrough and Jeff Pendergraph. This was a direct reaction to the struggles George has had defending Smith in the post, and it worked beautifully.
On paper Pendergraph is not an ideal defensive matchup for Smith, but he was able to completely disrupt the Hawks' offensive rhythm. This wasn't because of his defensive play, it was the fact that his presence on the floor gave the Hawks an obvious point of attack that was too tempting to pass up. Once they saw that he was matched up on Smith, they repeatedly cleared out one side of the floor and went to isolations. The movement, both on and off-the-ball, that had gotten the Hawks off to a fast start completely evaporated and for an extended stretch and their offense mostly reverted to four players standing and watching Smith work. Pendergraph did a great job moving his feet and keeping himself between Smith and the basket, forcing him to pass out of an isolation once and holding him to 2-5 shooting when he did get to the rim.
Both of these rotation changes were really creative solutions to problems that cropped up in Games 3 and 4, and especially impressive given the pieces Vogel has to work with. However, while they might be enough of a band-aid to get the Pacers through to the next round, neither one is a permanent solution. It's easy to see the Pacers trying the Pendergraph small forward lineup against Carmelo Anthony, also trying to goad him into inefficient isolations, but as soon as someone starts attacking that group in the pick-and-roll it's going to get ugly quickly. They haven't done much of it this year, but it might be time to dabble with Stephenson taking some of those back-up point guard minutes and perhaps finding room for Orlando Johnson as well.
In Games 3 and 4 the Hawks were able to punch some holes in the Pacers' defense. Isolating Smith and Horford on the low block consistently provided Atlanta with good shots and they were also able to take care of some inconsistencies in how the Pacers defended the pick-and-roll. The big lineup I mentioned above, along with some fortuitous foul trouble for Smith, helped take care of the Hawks' post play, but defending the pick-and-roll was still a problem.
On Wednesday, Avi Freeman of Eight Points Nine Seconds, broke down some of Hibbert's problems in the pick-and-roll. He's certainly right that the Hawks' have exploited his lack of quickness, especially in Games 3 and 4, but I think the drastic over-hedging by West, Hansbrough and Pendergraph has been a bigger concern. The Pacers' big men have one primary responsibility, which is to stay between the ball-handler on the basket. Whether they get blown by because they're retreating on their heels or because they've jumped out too far, if they can't do that job the Hawks are going to get good scoring opportunities. Again Horford, Teague and Harris are all respectable mid-range shooters, but if a jumpshot from the elbow is the end result of a pick-and-roll I think the Pacers' have to feel good.
In Game 5 they again struggled with the pick-and-roll in the first quarter. Teague flew past Hibbert on more than one occasion and West hedged too hard on several other occasions, allowing the ball-handler to split the defenders. But in the third quarter when the Pacers really took control of the game they put together a solid string of stops led by some great pick-and-roll defense. In the first six minutes of the quarter Teague took, and missed, three difficult shots out of the pick-and-roll. In all three plays his primary defender did a great job getting through the screen and the big man defender put up a solid, on-balance wall, cutting off angles to the basket.
Those three plays were key to knocking the Hawks' offense off-kilter and stealing their rhythm. From there the stops continued to stack up and the margin widened. In the end the Pacers held the Hawks to 90.2 points per 100 possessions, by far their best defensive performance on the playoffs.
The Pacers' inability to consistently score points in Atlanta was the most troubling piece of their collapse in Games 3 and 4. Last night the Pacers got back to the creative movement they'd used in the first two games to run up the score.
Swapping Johan Petro for Korver in the starting lineup, matching up George and Smith at small forward, was the move that really disrupted the Pacers' offense. This is just a swap of two below-average defenders, but moved that area of weakness to a place the Pacers weren't looking to attack because they were so focused on getting George's offense going. To begin Game 5, the Pacers came out determined to take advantage of Petro.
On the first offensive possession of the game Hibbert set a screen for West across the lane forcing a switch. West was then isolated on Petro and was easily able to blow by him for the layup.
A few minutes later the Pacers got Petro involved in defending a side pick-and-roll between George and Hibbert. George calmly moved the ball down to the baseline, pulling Petro out of position for the pass back to Hibbert and an easy dunk.
However the Hawks arrange their starting lineup, there will be a defensive weak link. Instead of pushing their way right into the teeth of the defense, the Pacers looked for and found the soft spot.
Over the past two games the Pacers offense was also noticeably devoid of movement. They fell into a trap of isolations, post-ups and high pick-and-rolls with no underlying action or backup plan. The more they pressed, the more defensive pressure they found, leaving a slew of turnovers and forced shots in their wake. But last night we again saw some of the creativity that defined their offense in the first two games of the series.
Although Lance Stephenson missed the layup, the double hand-off they ran at the end of the 1st half was a perfect example of this.
Although the offensive games West and George had last night will get most of the attention, the Pacers' also received some really important contributions from Hill. In the first two games of this series he was quietly brilliant, shooting 63.6% from the field, knocking down 7-11 three-pointers and contributing a total of 40 points. In Atlanta, he shot 21.7%, went 0-9 on three-pointers and contributed a total of 15 points. His line last night was huge, 15 points and 10 assists, shooting 50% from the field. In particular he was great in the 3rd quarter, leading the Pacers' charge with 11 points and 4 assists.
Even when things were working great for Hill early in this series, he was mostly picking his spots and allowing the offense to come to him. But last night, as the Pacers pulled away, he repeatedly and aggressively forced the action, creating offensive opportunities for him and his teammates. Most of his damage came in the pick-and-roll, where he was uncharacteristically assertive. Any time an opening was presented he eagerly put his head down and headed for the basket.
But he wasn't blindly attacking, when the opportunity presented itself to make the pass and get a teammate an easy bucket he was more than happy to oblige.
Despite their year-long struggle for consistency, the Pacers actually have a ton of offensive talent, even on the bench. The problem is that they haven't always been able to get the pieces to fit, and hold them together when they do. Aggressiveness has been one binding agent. Movement, both of the player and the ball, is another. When Hill is able to attack off the pick-and-roll like that, with his teammates are moving as well, it allows opportunities for everyone else's talents to shine - Hibbert getting deep position against a rotating defense, open space for West, cutting lanes for Stephenson and George, the list goes on and on. All the ingredients are there, as we saw last night. The trick is making it the same way twice.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com and mySynergySports.com