Ranking fourth in the league and scoring 108.2 points per 100 possessions, Indiana’s offense has been humming. When compared to last season, they’re taking and making more threes. They’re playing faster, both in terms of the number of possessions as well as the speed within those possessions, and they’re pounding the ball less in favor of sharing it more.
It’s been a sight for sore eyes.
So much so, that one particular issue has been hiding in plain sight: Opponents are scoring 52.5 points in the paint per 100 possessions against the Pacers when Domantas Sabonis is on the floor, which is the second-worst mark of any starting center. Overall, prior to last night’s game against the Sixers, Indiana has allowed more points in the paint per 100 possessions than any team in the league.
Getting Myles Turner reacquainted with and reconditioned to playing 5-on-5 will help. Impressively, the 21-year-old was one of only four players last season to hold opponents to less than 50 percent shooting at the rim on at least eight field goal attempts defended from that range per contest.
Take this possession against the Cleveland Cavaliers, for instance. Derrick Rose ends up making an easy right hand layup after using a crossover dribble to momentarily throw Sabonis once he had blown past Darren Collison with the ball screen set by Tristan Thompson. If that was Turner instead of Sabonis, it’s possible that the drive-first guard’s shot either would’ve been reconsidered, altered, or blocked.
Even so, despite his tendency to get into foul trouble, Sabonis’ physicality makes him better equipped to stay balanced as a low-post defender, and he isn’t allowing opponents to shoot above 55 percent from within six feet which is comparable to Turner (53%) last season.
All of which suggests that cracking down on paint points might extend beyond just having the two 22-and-under big men swap places in the rotation.
Some of it has been bad match-ups. Whenever Cleveland used the threat of Kevin Love picking and popping to set screens on Bojan Bogdanovic, Indiana might as well have put out a welcome mat at the threshold of the lane for LeBron James.
Using Kyle Korver as the screener created similar problems, as was the case here when Bogdanovic was non-committal about whether to make the ill-advised decision to switch with Cory Joseph.
Still, since Thaddeus Young can’t be in two places at once, the Pacers were left with scant other options in the absence of Glenn Robinson III. Here, Victor Oladipo briefly switched defensive assignments with Bogdanovic, but LeBron quickly ducked into the paint and used his strength to seal off the smaller guard.
Jeff Green took similar advantage when Oladipo fell asleep off-ball later in the second frame, as did Ben Simmons on Friday night.
Worse, though, was when these quick, hard first steps resulted in uncontested scores on back cuts.
Notice that only one of these possessions included an action which directly involved Sabonis, nor would they have Myles Turner in the same role. As such, upgrading the rim protection, in and of itself, may not be able to mask these sort of defensive miscues.
On the season, the Pacers are 4-2 when they allow opponents to score 50-plus points in the paint, a win percentage which is actually better than their overall record.
However, to be clear, the four wins came against four of the league’s five worst defenses whereas the losses were incurred against teams ranking 17th and second.
So, how long can the potency of the team’s refreshingly more free-flowing and egalitarian offense keep a secret?
At least it will be entertaining to find out.