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The Pacers’ half-court offense needs work

A little less isolation, a little more action please.

NBA: Preseason-Indiana Pacers at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Playing with a consistently high level of effort hasn’t been an issue for the Pacers during preseason. In Houston, for example, they forced 26 turnovers (including 11 steals) and outscored the Rockets 24-13 in fast break points. Against Memphis, despite struggling to take care of the ball, the reserves almost won the battle of the benches due in large part to their energy and focus in the rebounding department, outrebounding the Grizzlies by 18 while pulling in 15 offensive rebounds leading to 19 second-chance points. Then, most recently, there was the Cavs game when they came out ahead in fast break points, 16-3.

While all of this should allay fears about last season’s “don’t eff with the game” mentality failing to carry over, there’s also reason to question if outworking their opponent will be a sustainable strategy in and of itself once the games start to count and the going-all-out margin perhaps isn’t quite as lopsided.

In particular, although Victor Oladipo has scored a ridiculously efficient 47 points in 53 minutes on 53 percent shooting, Indiana’s overall half-court offense has ranked 28th in exhibition play, per Synergy.

With all due respect to the delightful deliberateness Tyreke Evans has demonstrated manipulating the pick-and-roll with Domantas Sabonis, here’s a look at three things bogging down the flow of the offense when the Pacers aren’t banking easy transition baskets.

Languishing in isolation

The Pacers have isolated on 8.7 percent of their possessions during preseason, up from 6.2 percent last season. For point of reference, only five teams are isolating at a higher rate than Indiana in exhibition play and all of them, save the New York Knicks, are scoring more points per isolation.

Stats via Synergy as of 10/8

In fact, while the frequency by which they’ve isolated has jumped from 18th up to sixth, their iso-ball efficiency — albeit on teeny sample size — has dropped from 0.864 points per possession during the 2017-18 regular season to 0.75 in preseason action, good for 17th in the league.

Stats via Synergy as of 10/8

“Offensively, I thought we could’ve been better,” Nate McMillan said following his team’s win over the Cavaliers on Monday. “A lot of 1-on-1 play in that first-half. We were scoring a little bit, but we only had seven assists.”

In essence, the Pacers have a causality dilemma: Increased iso-ball is stalling the offense, but the offense’s lack of movement may also explain the uptick in going mano-a-mano.

Whether the chicken or the egg, unless and until they start doing more to get better than a below-average rate of return on self-creation (i.e. forcing mismatches on the perimeter so that the ball-handler can retreat dribble to create space and build momentum), they need to keep the on-ball freelancing in check.

Under-utilization of off-ball movement

If you thought you might need two hands to count the number of possessions that Doug McDermott has used (ending in points, assists, or turnovers) running off of a screen...’d be wrong; because it’d only take one and you would still have a finger leftover.

Against the Grizzlies, for instance, not only did he play 11 first-half minutes without attempting a single three, it wasn’t until midway through the third quarter that he was given the opportunity to launch and knock down a shot maneuvering through a stagger.

In the above example, McDermott has a chance to make a read. With his man snagged, he pulled the trigger from deep. However, if Selden had anticipated him coming off the initial pindown, he could’ve cut to the basket or jutted backdoor and faded to the corner.

“I’m not a guy who needs the ball in his hands to be successful,” McDermott said at his introductory press conference. “I think my best strength is moving without the basketball. And that alone, I feel l can put pressure on the defense.”

As such, having him stand and wait behind the 3-point line has been like observing a parkour athlete performing in the plains of the Midwest without an obstacle course.

Consider, again, the highlighted play. Even if Selden had locked and trailed McDermott through the maze of picks and coaxed him into curling down the lane, Jaren Jackson Jr. would’ve had to stay high to help; thereby giving Sabonis space to slip to the rim.

For this reason, whether generating shots for himself or acting as a decoy, his movement shouldn’t be an untapped resource — especially given his early struggles on defense.

Stagnant post-ups

Sabonis and, to a lesser extent, Turner have been quick to hunt mismatches on the block, but the four players standing around them have mostly done exactly that: stood around.

Easy to dig or double-team, the pair of developing skyscrapers have combined to shoot below 40 percent when operating out of the post during the preseason.

Notice, however, the difference on this possession when Cory Joseph went to screen Bogdanovic’s man after making the post-feed. Because Isaiah Hartenstein is preoccupied with switching the screening action, he can’t see the ball and he’s unavailable to help James Harden wrestle with Sabonis, who ends up backing down the smaller defender before stepping-thru and finishing strong with his (gasp) right hand.

Despite the resulting basket, however, Joseph could’ve prevented Melo from being able to linger nearby if he had slipped the screen like a split-cut in the instant the switch happened rather than backpedaling to the top of the key.

Had he done so, either the Lithuanian big man could’ve hit the shifty guard with a quick pass darting to the basket, or there would’ve been fewer bodies for him to contend with in the lane once Joseph cut through and pulled Melo behind him.

Against Cleveland, Sabonis demonstrated another nifty tactic for how to exploit a switch on the block without getting stagnant when he flashed middle and dished a hockey assist in the form of a high-low pass that ultimately culminated in a corner three as soon as he recognized that J.R. Smith was fronting Kyle O’Quinn in the post.

All of which goes to show that the Pacers have the weapons necessary to attack more effectually when confined to the half-court, but they have to actually be deployed.

Otherwise, already playing hard by preseason standards, they might eventually hit a wall in terms of what they can camouflage with effort.