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Pacers’ poor defense has McMillan crying foul

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On why the Pacers can’t seem to keep their hands to themselves.

NBA: Preseason-Indiana Pacers at Chicago Bulls Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The new look Indiana Pacers, one of only five teams in the league currently logging over 105 possessions per 48 minutes through three preseason games, are caught in a strange predicament. Establishing the pace at which they want to play requires swarming defense, but maintaining that breakneck speed produces the undesirable externality of them reaching with their hands and arms rather than moving their tired legs and feet.

“Fouling is what’s going on right now,” McMillan said of his team’s defensive miscues following yesterday’s practice. “Way too many out of position plays, where we’re not moving our feet, staying in front of the ball, and we’re getting beat to the basket and we’re reaching.”

There’s no denying that the Pacers are fouling too much. They sent the Chicago Bulls to the free throw line a total of 75 times over two exhibition games, and they rank 29th in the league in opponent free throw rate (ratio of opponent free throws attempted to field goals attempted).

*Free Throw Rate is adjusted for pace. Lower ratio is indicative of better defense.

Worse still is that the Pacers currently rank near the bottom of the league in defensive plays per foul, which means they are reaching and committing shooting fouls more often than they are stealing possessions and deflecting shots.

Ratio is adjusted for pace. Defensive Plays are the summation of a team’s average combined total of steals and blocks. Lower ratios are indicative of teams struggling to play defense without fouling.

“We’ve got to do a better job of working to move our feet and to contest straight up without putting teams to the free throw line,” McMillan admitted Monday. “Way too much reaching in the last couple games.”

Concluding that the Pacers need to cut down on fouls is obvious, determining why exactly it is that they are committing so many in the first place is decidedly more difficult.

Of course, it should be mentioned that, whether due to lack of motivation or self-preservation, the meaningless outcome of any preseason game tends to lend itself to lazy defense. In the case of the Pacers, it also doesn’t help that Paul George and Myles Turner — Indiana’s only rim protector — have yet to appear together in the same game of zero consequence.

Still, Indiana’s screen-and-roll defense has been mostly (and predictably) bad. When the guards aren’t too preoccupied with gambling for steals in order to earn extra possessions, they are too drained or under-motivated to keep the ball in front of them. Meanwhile, the weak-side defenders have been slow to help the helping defensive anchor, resulting in the opposing team’s ball-handler and/or roll-man being hacked, slapped, and grabbed en route to the rim in order to prevent an easy basket.

The hope is that Indiana’s recurrent tendency to foul to makeup for missed rotations can be blamed more on tired legs than a greater sign of what’s to come for the team’s defensive rating.

“Maybe because we are a little fatigued we’re slow getting to our spots and staying in front of the ball, but it’s not a major change or drastic change,” McMillan said of his team’s post-Vogel defensive system. “Defensively, keep the ball in front of you, contest high. We can’t reach or slap down, that’s an automatic call in this league now.”

It is also notable that such calls automatically stop the clock and give opponents the opportunity to get back and set their defense.

“...we can’t establish that tempo if we are trying to run out of the net or we’re allowing teams to get to the free throw line,” McMillan explained regarding the symbiotic relationship between defensive stops and pace.

The Pacers need to fly up and down the court to compensate for their lack of off-ball threats, but sustaining an up-tempo offense, by nature, also necessitates conditioning and mental drive to compete on defense.

It’s a viscous cycle that needs to be resolved sooner rather than later.

“It’s felt like we’ve played three games in the past three or four days,” Thaddeus Young admitted following his team’s 115-108 win over the Chicago Bulls, before giving up 120-plus points to the same team on Saturday.

Until the Pacers can get their legs fully under them, finding a way for several meh defenders to keep their hands to themselves for 48 minutes while pushing the pace is likely to be a struggle.