(Cream of the Crop is a recurring series that zeroes-in on something super cool that hasn’t been talked about enough. And, yes, we realize there is more than corn in Indiana, but this is Indy Cornrows and you have to let us live.)
It was a quintessential Cory Joseph-moment in what became a quintessential Cory Joseph-game. After swooping-in from the wing like a bat out of you-know-where to provide back-up on the drop-off pass to, and eventual miss from, Hassan Whiteside, he dove on the floor with reckless abandon to tie up the loose rebound with Miami’s starting center.
That sequence, in and of itself, could be referenced over and over again as an accurate representation of Cory Joseph being Cory Joseph, but what happened next was perhaps more on the nose.
Staring across at Hassan Whiteside with his eyes equal only to the neckline of the 7-footer’s jersey, Indiana’s reserve guard managed to jump quicker to the ball than the man towering over him to win the toss for no other reason than he wanted it more.
Points saved, possession taken.
That’s Cory Joseph.
What he does is rarely flashy, but it nonetheless warrants our attention.
The pesky guard is canning spot-up shots at an absurd rate (seriously, he’s drained 60 percent of those puppies, including a few one-legged fadeaways), and his impact numbers exceed everyone else’s on the roster. The Pacers are a mammoth 12.3 points per 100 possessions better in point differential when he’s on the floor compared to when he’s off, and his presence flips the team’s net rating from negative to positive (or, in some cases, more strongly positive) in tandem with nearly every rotation player, sans Myles Turner (a possible byproduct of logging action with and being weighed down by the Turner-Sabonis tandem).
In other words, good things tend to happen when he’s around.
Take that game against the Heat, for example. After Thaddeus Young was assessed a flagrant two foul and automatically ejected for catching Kelly Olynyk with an elbow, Nate McMillan inserted Cory Joseph into the starting lineup following halftime with his team down eight.
The result was an 10-2 run to start the third quarter which had the backup guard’s fingerprints all over it — and not just because he knocked down three jumpers.
He did his homework.
Two nights earlier, Wayne Ellington had exploded for 20 points, including going 6-of-10 from three; so, when the Heat set up in horns formation to generate a three for the 30-year-old and his golden arm, Joseph wasn’t about to fall asleep.
Instead, the scrappy defender chased the sharpshooter through the ghosted ball screen with high hands and then stayed skinny through the flare set by Whiteside. With the play busted, Justise Winslow was left to create something out of nothing and ended up hitting all glass on a forced shot.
One other thing, look who put himself in position to chase down another loose rebound after Myles Turner struggled to keep Whiteside off the offensive glass.
For the game, Ellington only got off two attempts from three-point range when he was defended by Joseph, and both were misses.
Preventing a shot won’t show up in the box score, but possessions like this go to show why it is that the Pacers have the equivalent of the league’s stingiest defense in the 416 minutes that Joseph has been on the floor, holding opponents to well-below a point per possession with a 96.4 defensive rating.
The snail-like pace is also decidedly quicker when he’s in the game, even sometimes because of what he does away from the ball.
Check out this gesture he makes with his hand after he gives up the ball to Darren Collison in transition. See how he is twirling his finger around in the air as he runs down the floor? That’s because he’s calling for an action where he curls around an off-ball screen set by Bogdnaovic to create a diversion, like so:
With Winslow preoccupied with defending against the cut and Turner setting a subsequent — almost superfluous — screen, the Croatian National Team star is free to pop out and shoot from distance.
It’s a miss, and there’s no stat for calculated misdirection even if it had been a make, but that’s an example of the type of high-quality, early shot clock threes (18-15 seconds) that the Pacers need to generate with greater regularity in order to play faster and make better use of their shooters — and it was made possible because of Joseph.
“I try to do the little things each and every night. Stuff that may not show up in the stat sheet,” Joseph told Fox Sports Indiana after another win over the Heat a week later. “But I’m a winner. I try to win.”
The 27-year-old reserve is averaging fewer points in fewer minutes in a contract year than in 2017-18 and some regression in terms of his hot shooting should probably be expected if last season is any indication, and yet, his impact is substantial even if also subtle.
He’s a cult hero without a cult following.