The big man from Lithuania has it all going against the Indiana Pacers, and he knows it. That much was made evident from the first possession of Game 2, when he made his presence felt in the paint by drawing a quick foul on Ian Mahinmi and then proceeding to let loose a boisterous roar in front of the raucous home crowd at the Air Canada Centre. As it turned out, this early show of emotion was just a precursor for what was to come in the painted territory, where's he's averaging 1.357 points per paint touch, the second-best postseason mark in the league.
"He's been huge, literally," Paul George admitted following his team's Game 2 loss. "We're doing a good job on Kyle (Lowry) and DeMar (DeRozan), but the third guy, (Jonas) Valanciunas, has stepped up."
Indiana's franchise star is giving credit where credit is due. Toronto's man in the middle has been a terror rolling to the rim and is masterful at creating extra possessions, averaging nearly double the number of rebounds in the playoffs that he did during the regular season.
"He's what's causing us the problems right now," George explained. "We've got to figure it out. The playoffs is all about adjustments, and we've got to figure Valanciunas out."
Here are a few solutions for Indiana's "big" problem:
Strengthen the weakside defense:
The Pacers looked as helpless against the screen-and-roll last night as the Raptors looked against Paul George's scoring outburst in the second half of Game 1. With Ian Mahinmi clearly limited by a sprained lower back, the Pacers needed to adjust to the fact that their center's body wasn't going to allow him to both contain Lowry as the driver and recover to Valanciunas as the roller.
There isn't going to be much Monta Ellis can do here to stop Valanciunas from crashing to the rim, but he at least needs to make the effort as the weak side help defender to try to bump him from his spot. Toronto could have ran, and succeeded with, this play on nearly every possession last night because Indiana's help defenders were slow to rotate even when Mahinmi wasn't on the floor.
Here, Paul George could have sneaked in and grabbed the pass intended for Valanciunas, but because he was reluctant to leave his man open behind the arc, he ended up foregoing helping the helper until it was too late. Of course, if the Pacers want to better avoid playing whack-a-mole with Toronto's scoring threats, then their guards need to avoid getting caught behind the ball-handler at all costs.
Make him into a passer:
A similar scenario happened to the Pacers late this season against the Brooklyn Nets. Brook Lopez caught fire in the fourth quarter, connecting on 5-of-7 field goals and attempting six free throws. But instead of adjusting their defense and sending an extra defender, the Pacers gambled on letting Lopez beat them.
Indiana now faces a similar dilemma with Valanciunas.
To send help, or not to send help - that is the question:
Two numbers should make this decision easier for the Pacers: 1) Jonas Valanciunas (1.025) scored more points per post touch than every center in the Eastern Conference this season other than Miami's Hassan Whiteside (1.043), and 2) Unlike Brook Lopez, he created fewer than two points off assists per game.
This is simple. Indiana has to try to make him prove he can pass out of double-teams before they continue to allow him to comfortably get to his spots. ESPN's Zach Lowe touched on this very topic in his weekly column:
Indiana will eventually send help, and test Valanciunas' low-IQ passing; he had just 42 assists all season, and hasn't advanced as much passing out of double-teams as the Raps hoped. Valanciunas' level of involvement on offense is a divisive issue within the organization, but you can almost understand Casey's wavering trust as long as Valanciunas stagnates as a passer.
Still, he should be able to manage the easy one-pass-away kickout, and if the Raptors find him early enough in the shot clock, that dish could trigger peppy swing-swing-swing sequences.
The risk of leaving shooters open looms large. But, at this point, using single coverage may be more of a gamble.
Rebound by committee:
No player is grabbing a higher percentage of his team's missed shots during the 2016 NBA Playoffs than Jonas Valanciunas, (minimum 20 minutes per game played). Toronto's man in the middle has a significant size advantage over every player on Indiana's roster, which means keeping him off the offensive glass and preventing extra possessions needs to be more of a group effort.
Ian Mahinmi cannot be expected to alter Kyle Lowry's shot at the rim and block out Valanciunas. It's simply too much to ask. Instead, Solomon Hill needs to actually make body contact with the Lithuanian big man when he crashes hard toward the rim. If the Pacers aren't going to consistently make an effort to block him out, then they can't get frustrated when he doesn't get whistled for reaching over the top.
Use Myles Turner's shooting against him:
With Ian Mahinmi sidelined for significant minutes through each of the first two games, Indiana's rookie has, by necessity, been the next man up against Toronto's starting center. If this remains the case moving forward, then the Pacers need to take better advantage of Myles Turner's shooting ability on the perimeter.
This was the only shot Turner attempted out of the pick-and-pop in Game 2. Mismatches exist on both ends of the floor. Valanciunas can out-muscle Turner's slighter frame on the block, but Indiana's first-round pick should be able to drain some of his opponent's energy by forcing him to leave the paint to contest shots.
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There is no doubt that Valanciunas has stepped up his play in the postseason, but Indiana's defense has helped prop up the strongman's ladder. He's creating extra possessions with relative ease because the Blue & Gold aren't matching his level of physicality. He's feasted on lob dunks because the Pacers have been more fixated on corralling the ball-handler and hedging toward shooters than they are with taking away the highest percentage screen-and-roll option. He's owning the paint, because Indiana has yet to test his skills as a passer.
"...We've got to do a better job helping, as well." Paul George said post-game. "Valanciunas is a big guy. He does a great job offensively of keeping plays alive and creating extra possessions."
Jonas Valanciunas should be identified as a big problem. But not considered as one without a solution.