At first glance, the numbers look ugly. In 28 minutes of clutch play this season (defined as less than five minutes remaining in the game, with neither side ahead by more than five points) the Pacers are shooting just 34.6 percent, the 7th worst mark in the league.
Offense in close games has been constant point of concern over the past few years. This is a function of the team's construction and identity -- with a roster built around diverse, interlocking talents the question has always been who's taking, or creating, the key shot in a close game. Paul George is now unequivocally the answer to the question of who, but the Pacers still don't seem to have sorted out the where and how pieces of that question with any satisfying consistency. Watching George knock down five three-pointers in the closing minutes of a tight game in Portland was a beautiful experience, but also a nagging reminder that the Pacers' late game offense still sometimes seems to rely on individual brilliance more than creative and artful execution.
The Pacers offense has struggled, and continues to struggle, with consistently producing quality looks out of their offensive sets. Things have improved immensely since the beginning of last season but in a must-score situation I'm still what's their best bet for manufacturing an ideal scoring opportunity.
At least that's the way I perceive the Pacers crunch time offense and I don't think I'm alone. So I was rather surprised to find that, despite shooting just 34.6 percent in clutch minutes, the Pacers are scoring at an average rate of 123.0 points per 100 possessions in those minutes? That's the 4th best mark in the league and a full 21.5 points per 100 possessions better than what their offense averages on the season as a whole. It's a strange challenge, trying to reconcile those two numbers - horrible shooting and absurdly efficient offense - but the answers can be found at the free throw line and on the offensive glass.
In clutch situations this season the Pacers have a free throw rate of 0.750, essentially taking three free throws for every four attempts from the field. They're also collecting 38.2% of their own misses (both of those marks rank 5th in the league). Their pace is also about two possessions faster in these situations than their average for the entire season. By crashing the glass and crashing their way to the free throw line the Pacers seem to have found a new model for crunch-time success.
When it comes to structures for clutch offense most teams intentionally place themselves somewhere on the spectrum between hero-ball and creating open shots through hyper-precise execution of their most creative sets. But the Pacers have stretched that spectrum into a third dimension -- using a mashup of the other two extremes to create chaos and then subsequently feasting on that chaos. Often discussions of crunch time approaches are focused on ideal implementations, ignoring what happens when plans are knocked askew. The Pacers plan B is putting other teams' plan A's to shame.
28 minutes is an extremely small sample size and only two teams in the league have played fewer high-leverage minutes this season. Prudence requires not overreacting to these early season patterns but it's difficult not to feel both excited and troubled by them. Gritting and grinding their way to efficiency at the end of games is vastly preferable to the fumbling and stumbling that has characterized results in the past. Taking advantage of opportunities, bulling their way to the line and relentlessly pursuing those crucial rebounds, these are things that feel controllable with a consistent level of effort, placing them outside the reach of normal swings of variance.
But it would feel a lot more comforting if the composed and intentional pieces of their late game offense were working more smoothly. George has become a big time shot-maker, but a lot could be gained at the team level by learning how to leverage both the the implied threat and the actuality of that clutch shot-making ability into distortions of the defense and easier shots for everyone.
Despite their dominant performance thus far, the Pacers still have to prove to the league, and themselves, that they are the type of team that can ride this train all the way to the last station. Offense, and specifically late-game offense, will continue to be their limiting factor until they demonstrate that it's not. Points are points and efficiency is efficiency. In a black and white world they're getting the job done, but as we slide into the shades of gray in between, it would feel much more satisfying if their solid offensive performance in close games was the product of intentional design and not effort-driven compensation.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com