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The Pacers defense is better than you think

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Indiana has worked there way up into the top four of the Eastern Conference standings and it's all because of defense.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Indiana Pacers
Mar 15, 2018; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers center Myles Turner (33) tries to block a shot taken by Toronto Raptors forward Malcolm Miller (13) during the third quarter at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Credit: Brian Spurlock
Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Something crazy happened New Years Day: the Pacers defense went from being in the league’s bottom third to becoming its seventh best.

On December 31 Indiana’s defensive rating (measuring points per 100 possessions) was 107.1. But in the 33 games since that their rating has fallen to 103.9, bringing their overall defensive rating to down 105.6 - or 13th best.

Over that same stretch opponent shots taken has decreased from 88 per game to just 83. The drop can be attributed to Indiana’s success in the turnover department, particularly with deflections leading to steals.

The Pacers are the second best team in NBA in deflections with 16.2 per game, translating to 8.7 per game on the season. What’s even better is that since Jan. 1 they’ve been averaging 17.8 deflections, leading to a league-best 9.7 steals per game.

Dan Burke is Indiana’s defensive guru (at least according to Larry Bird). His defense allows Victor Oladipo to guard their opponents worst offensive player thus giving him the ability to roam around and cut off passing lanes.

If we break down another one of Oladipo’s steals you can see how valuable he is when playing as an off-ball defender.

Here he starts by guarding J.J. Reddick following him around as he cuts to the perimeter.

Look at Oladipo’s eyes in the next shot. They never leave the ball even as Joel Embiid moves to the rim. Oladipo’s spatial awareness is displayed here as he’s perfectly placed in between both Reddick and Dario Saric. Glenn Robinson comes over to help and forces an Embiid pass.

Oladipo is in the perfect position to steal the ball no matter what shooter Embiid passes too. His reaction is so fast he’s able to snag the ball.

This ultimately leads to transition points at the foul line for Darren Collison. Now watch the full play.

Burke has built the defense to tailor Oladipo’s skills. He can take at least part of the credit as to why Oladipo leads the league in steals with 2.3 per game and has had at least one steal in 54 straight games.

That being said, there might be a more obvious reason for their improved defense: a drop in pace. Before Jan. 1 Indiana was averaging 99.6 possessions per 48 minutes which ranked 15th in the league. Since then the Pacers rank dead last in pace averaging 97.7 possessions per 48 minutes.

But pace only explains part of the equation.

A slowed-down game allows Indiana to set up their half-court defense. This defense is great partly thanks to Oladipo but also because of Thaddeus Young and Myles Turner.

Young, like Oladipo, can create deflections when given the chance to be in a set defense. Young is third in the NBA averaging 3.7 deflections per game.

The last factor is Myles Turner who is one of the league’s best rim protectors when in a half-court set. Turner is ultimately a bail-out defender.

Watch this play where Turner helps Bojan Bogdanovic after he gets beat by Harrison Barnes.

The pace has allowed Indiana to give up fewer points per game and allows them to run a better half-court defense, leading to a better defensive rating.

Getting set on defense is more beneficial to the Pacers then running a fast an up-tempo offense that to score a lot.

Since Jan. 1, Indiana’s pace has dropped, their defensive rating has risen and they have a record of 22-12. Before the the new year, they were only 19-18.