It took Myles Turner too long to settle-in under the bright lights against the Cavaliers during the playoffs last season. Prior to the fourth and final game of the series, he made just 11 of 34 shots, came up empty from three, and only went to the line twice. There was one possession where he allowed himself to get pushed off the block by Kyle Korver. Another where he double-clutched at the rim while being defended by Kevin Love, and still one more where he settled for an off-balanced driving floater when LeBron James tagged him rolling to the basket.
For much of the first three games he was equal parts timid and hasty, and he can’t be. Not then, and certainly not now when it should be expected that Cleveland’s 5-out lineup will do everything it can to run the shot-blocker with the feathery mid-range jump shot off the floor on one end of the court while forcing him into becoming a playmaker on the other.
The stage is set for Indiana’s starting center to assert himself as a counter to those plans, and here’s what has to happen for him to deliver.
He needs to guard Jeff Green
Unless and until Cleveland subtracts the 6-foot-9 forward’s defensive versatility from the starting lineup in order to put more shooting on the floor, Myles Turner should be matched up with Jeff Green.
This serves a dual-purpose. Green has made nine of his last 16 threes, but he’s shooting just 31.4 percent from behind the arc on the season. So, as was the case when Domantas Sabonis checked Jae Crowder earlier this season, Turner should be able to hang back and avoid getting tangled up in the corner with step-too-slow perimeter defense whenever George Hill, Jose Calderon, or Kyle Korver set off-ball screens for Kevin Love.
LeBron with the ball while a three-point shooter sets a screen for Love is the stuff of nightmares, but it’s at least a little less scary when Thad’s mobility can be employed to go under the baseline side of the screen and meet Love at the rim as opposed to getting the switch with Darren Collison or giving Calderon or Hill breathing room to shoot in the corner when Turner struggles to recover.
Beyond being better equipped to combat pick-and-pop actions involving Love, another added benefit of hiding Turner on Green is that it will allow Indiana’s top rim protector to sag into the paint and better position himself to help in the highly probable event that James hunts for the same menacing 1-3 switches against Collison that left Jeff Teague repeatedly at his mercy last postseason.
Of course, Turner will have to keep his head on a swivel to avoid getting burned by back cuts. Green is 44-of-60 when cutting to the basket this season, averaging 1.47 points per possession. Among those with 60 or more scoring opportunities on that particular play type, only LeBron, Ben Simmons, Anthony Davis, Andrew Wiggins, and Kevin Durant have been better.
Nonetheless, assuming that the 21-year-old shot-blocker can resist the temptation to haphazardly run the athletic forward off the 3-point line on closeouts, the Pacers should be willing to risk potentially giving up a few easy scores to Green off cuts for as long as the Cavs will let them.
He needs to force Kevin Love to make tough decisions
Cleveland is going to have Love show whenever Turner is the screener, so it’s going to be imperative that the 6-foot-11 big man convert field goal attempts more like he did against the Clippers (9-for-15) and less like he has over the last four games (5-of-26).
On the season, Turner is shooting above 55 percent on open 2-point shots, which is the highest mark among the nine centers who have launched at least 90 shots from that range without a defender within 4-6 feet.
These shots from his sweet spot are going to be open, and he needs to snap out of his recent funk and be confident in his demonstrated ability to knock them down.
If he does, Love will either have to scramble with high hands to recover, trust his teammates to rotate, or immediately call for the switch.
In the latter scenario, he could try to call Indiana’s season-long bluff by backpedaling toward the basket and letting Collison or Joseph take a pull-up jump shot between the paint and three-point line, but things got ugly in a hurry the last time he was stranded on an island with Oladipo.
Given that the Pacers have mostly continued to double-down on Oladipo’s explosive acceleration against hedges and traps, getting these types of favorable switches or at the very least reducing how long Love is willing to redirect the ball is going to be key.
He needs to be decisive against switches
This should’ve been an easy basket, Collison is being defended by Love and Calderon is checking Turner.
If Indiana’s starting center had darted without hesitation to the rim, Collison could’ve threaded the needle and Crowder would’ve been forced to commit with Thad lurking in his usual spot along the baseline as a secondary option.
Instead, Turner just sort of hung out in the lane — congesting Collison’s driving lane without taking advantage of the mismatch with Calderon.
The Pacers green-light taking early two-pointers when open. However, with less than five seconds remaining on the shot clock and Love in position to contest, this isn’t an example of Collison taking advantage of what the defense was giving him as much as it is him trying to salvage that which the offense left him.
He needs to execute against 3-on-2s and 2-on-1s
Assuming the Cavs avoid 1-5 switches when Oladipo is the ball-handler and opt instead to rely on their questionable rotations, Turner is going to be responsible for making quick decisions from the middle of the floor.
Here, for instance, because Oladipo avoided dropping his head like a jockey attempting to limit wind resistance when he exploded past J.R. Smith, the 25-year-old has the sight lines to make the left-handed pocket pass to Turner.
With Smith following from behind and Love continuing to crowd Oladipo, Calderon stunts away from Collison to tag Turner.
This presents the 21-year-old center with two solid options: Throw the nearest pass to the league’s most accurate 3-point shooter (minimum three attempts per game), or take a few dribbles toward the basket so Crowder will commit and then proceed to dish the ball to Young on the baseline or Bogdanovic in the corner, depending upon which LeBron leaves open.
But, Turner gets in a hurry.
Rather than forcing LeBron to make a tough decision, he pivots and pushes this high-arcing pass to the weak side corner like a volleyball setter setting up an outsider hitter.
This affords LeBron the opportunity to close and forces Bogdanovic to put the ball on the floor, bailing out the defense and leaving the Pacers to regroup.
Since Kevin Love returned to action after missing seven weeks with a broken left hand, Cleveland’s offense has been incandescent in the 185 minutes that the five-time All-Star has logged at center alongside LeBron James, scoring 133.8 points per 100 possessions.
Without an obvious shooting threat for which Victor Oladipo can help off to conserve energy or create transition opportunities, the Pacers— and their scant experience playing small along with their lack of contingency plans when opponents crowd their scoring engine — need Myles Turner to be confident in what he can do to subvert Cleveland’s refreshed roster.
And, not unlike last season, they need him to do it before Game 4.