What happened in London was predictable, even if the extent to which it happened wasn’t. When the Denver Nuggets put on an offensive clinic at the O2 Arena by recording four-consecutive 30-plus point quarters, building a massive 34-point lead, and shooting 46 percent from three, they exposed Indiana’s season-long rocky relationship with defense that had prior to been masked by the team’s five-game love affair with offensive dominance.
At long last, the same has not been true over the last six games.
After surrendering 107.1 points per 100 possessions during their first multi-game win streak of the season (December 30 - January 7), the Pacers have ranked third in defensive efficiency since snapping their three-game losing streak against the Minnesota Timberwolves on January 26.
Indiana’s improved coverage of the three-point line has been one of the biggest difference makers. During their five-game win streak in early January, the Pacers were surrendering nearly four ‘wide open’ three-pointers per game above the league average. Throughout their current win streak, that number has fallen by five attempts, which places them below the current league average.
Perhaps more telling, though, is that their improved close outs are more effectively limiting how many looks opponents are getting from behind the arc. Inspired by Nylon Calculus contributor Nicholas Sciria’s nifty scatterplot graphs cross-comparing opponent field goal percentage at the rim with opponent three-point attempts per 100 possessions, check out how much Indiana’s defense has improved during this multi-game win streak as opposed to the last.
Rather than green-lighting opponents to transform into high-volume shooters from distance, the Pacers are surrendering five fewer attempts per 100 possessions, which jumps them from 29th to 14th league-wide.
Bettered communication is largely responsible for this surge. Take this play against the Houston Rockets, for instance. Instead of lagging behind or getting lost in transition, Paul George alerts Thaddeus Young to stop the ball.
Or, here, when Myles Turner corrals Caris LeVert before calling for Paul George to switch onto Quincy Acy.
Simple as these actions may be, they still represent a vast improvement over the pointing at each other and shrugging the Pacers have done for the majority of this season after an opponent launches a wide open shot.
All of which is to say that defense is what made the last win streak feel hollow and the current one seem sustainable.
Across the pond, the Pacers gave up a 39-point third quarter that sunk their chances of a comeback. On Sunday, they managed to hold the Pistons to 26 points in the second half. In London, the Nuggets made six three-pointers in the first quarter alone. Two of Indiana’s last six opponents have only made six threes for the entire game.
February’s schedule isn’t January’s. The Pacers have the toughest cumulative opponent win percentage (0.537), and they play the most games in the Eastern Conference (13). Weathering the next seven games in eleven nights will likely depend upon which version of Indiana’s defense shows up.