Beyond being recognized with 12 nationally televised games after only a single appearance last season when Paul George returned to town, the release of the 2018-19 schedule also revealed in eye-popping fashion that a third of Indiana’s high-profile contests next season will come against the Sixers, including a matinee contest to be aired on ABC.
To put that into perspective, the Pacers haven’t played a regular season game on the network television channel’s afternoon Sunday Showcase since the cringe-worthy back end of the 2013-14 season. A win over the Thunder, at a point in which it seemed like the team dressed in blue and gold was trapped in quicksand and C.J. Watson, in the role of unlikely hero, came off the bench to score a season-high 20 points and thereby provided a temporary respite from the inescapable sinking feeling that had been surrounding the team.
In part, it seems as though the increased, yet heavily focused, spotlight is at least somewhat a product of the Sixers being deemed a must-see attraction. With 27 contests scheduled to be broadcast across ESPN, TNT, and ABC as well as marquee games on Opening Night, Christmas Day, and MLK Day, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid are set to have double the national game coverage of the Pacers.
Regardless of whether Philly is front and center, last season’s three head-to-head meetings made for gripping — albeit niche — television. Not only was the point differential of each within six points with under three minutes to play, the following subplots in which each team seemed to act as the other’s foil added an extra layer of intrigue.
Myles Turner and Joel Embiid preying on each other’s vulnerabilities
In the second of three clashes, Indiana’s starting center picked up two fouls in the first three minutes and 10 seconds of the game and ended up finishing with zero points in only 15 minutes of action because Joel Embiid ruthlessly summoned the shot-blocker’s proclivity for responding to bruising physicality with ticky-tack scratching and clawing.
Because Turner fell victim to getting pushed around inside, he never got into any semblance of offensive rhythm, which meant Embiid was rarely forced to choose between protecting the paint and closing to his man.
When Indiana clinched the head-to-head tiebreaker a little over a month later, however, the feathery mid-range jump shooter bounced back in a big way by inflicting a little pain of his own variety — making nine of 12 shots, including going 5-of-5 inside the paint.
Take a closer look at what happened when Ben Simmons locked and trailed Bojan Bogdanovic off a stagger set by Cory Joseph and Turner, for instance.
With Simmons gracefully crouching around the consecutive picks like a speed skater leaning toward the inside of the track on a turn, Embiid lied in wait as the second-line defender to corral the purposefully conceded curl.
This is textbook defense against an off-ball cutter, but encircling Bogdanovic enabled Turner to shake free to his sweet spot and rapidly shifted the responsibility for simultaneously guarding two players back and forth between J.J. Redick (Turner, Joseph) and Joel Embiid (Bogdanovic, Turner) like a hot potato.
Once Bogdanovic’s path as the curler reached its inevitable dead end, check out how much space Turner had to bury the open jumper over Embiid with Redick making a mad dash toward Joseph.
A comparable problem ensued on this dribble hand-off between Joseph and Turner when Embiid — rather than staying attached to his man drifting behind the 3-point line — covered for Redick’s pokey rearview pursuit while simultaneously shielding Marco Bellinelli and T.J. McConnell from having to stunt toward the ball-handler.
Turner’s shot misfired, but it certainly wasn’t because his release was rushed.
As the game wore on, Embiid’s defensive impact being repetitively pulled in multiple directions eventually gave way to a few of Turner’s infamous rapid bursts of, typically, non-lasting change (see: the 22-year-old shot-blocker leaving his rebounding area to attack the offensive glass and score through contact at the rim).
With regard to next season, if Embiid’s first healthy offseason and Turner’s boxing and yoga regimen mixed with off the dribble training manage to yield fruit, an already juicy match-up has the potential to become increasingly so.
Robert Covington both helping and hindering Victor Oladipo
Across three games, Indiana’s scoring engine went a woeful 11-of-32 from the field on the 87 possessions in which Covington was his primary defender. Granted, Oladipo had a wretched shooting night in the regular season series finale, but it was also evident that the Second Team All-Defense swingman’s length was an active irritant (notwithstanding, Oladipo putting him on ice skates on a timely, late-game three).
For example, with Covington mirroring the first-time All-Star’s chest step-for-step on the perimeter after tracking him through the down screen triggering his zipper cut, Oladipo ended up getting away with extending his arm to clear space before launching a step-back three that stopped short of the rim.
Or, here, even when Covington got momentarily put in park by Turner’s ball screen, his reach along with his concerted effort to recover was enough to bother Oladipo’s pull-up jump shot.
On the other end of the floor, however, Covington’s presence gave Oladipo an opt-out for chasing J.J. Redick through mazes of picks or accounting for the size, cutting, and playmaking of Ben Simmons.
Admittedly, Markelle Fultz returning to form could shift that calculus if Philly opts to bump Dario Saric from the starting lineup, and the Pacers remain reluctant to give Thaddeus Young the same chance to check Simmons as they did against Giannis Antetokounmpo.
As it was, though, the 3-and-D wing shot a blistering 7-of-10 from three when defended by Oladipo, but his streaky marksmanship (oh, hello, semi-final series with Boston) and struggles to create his own shot arguably will continue to make him the least-fatiguing option to facilitate Oladipo’s speed-fueled ability to roam without much fear of being too far out of range to closeout — especially given that transforming point-saving steals into point-creating transition points increased Indiana’s margin for error in general, but particularly against the Sixers.
Turnovers as the key battle
Philly had the league’s highest turnover rate last season while simultaneously leading all Eastern Conference teams in rebounding rate, whereas Indiana sat atop the East in points scored off turnovers per 100 possessions but ranked among the bottom five overall in defensive rebounding percentage.
Put simply, something had to give.
According to Basketball Reference, the Pacers went 26-15 in games where their opponent committed at least 15 turnovers compared to 22-19 when they didn’t.
Winning the turnover battle wasn’t enough to stave off Redick’s 8-of-12 shooting barrage from three-point territory in November; however, in what was Turner’s above-mentioned no-show and Embiid’s first back-to-back of the season, Indiana caused 18 turnovers and won by eight points despite getting crushed in second chance points, 16-2.
In the last of the three contests, the Pacers scored 29 points off 21 turnovers and won by three even though they shot 5-of-24 from three, lost Domantas Sabonis to a sprained left ankle in the third quarter, endured Victor Oladipo and Bojan Bogdanovic going a combined 5-of-32 from the field, and had to resort to playing Al Jefferson minutes during crunch time when Myles Turner picked up his fifth foul with over five minutes left to play.
Even so, as much as the Pacers have the capacity to get under the ball at the point of attack and pester passing lanes like darting hummingbirds in flight, it would be disingenuous not to attribute some of the credit to the sloppiness of the Sixers.
There’s a distinct difference between Oladipo using his inside hand to deflect the ball from Joel Embiid at the elbow before chasing down the loose ball at the precipice of his team’s baseline at the opposite end of the floor, and Philly’s one-two punch failing to value possessions while mishandling passes and lackadaisically losing the ball out of bounds.
All of which begs separate, yet connected, questions of both squads: Can the Pacers match the energy they played with last season now that they are no longer the surprise team of the league, and will maturity breed responsibility as it pertains to the Sixers taking care of the ball?
Diametrically Opposed Rebuilding Styles
Four regular season games is enough to serve as a referendum on whether trusting the process or retooling while staying competitive is the more effective strategy to build a championship contender, right? RIGHT?!?
Nope, but if Round 2 of Pacers-Sixers is as tight (both in terms of being closely contested as well as the colloquial meaning) under brighter lights as it was last season, then the inevitable arguments over the merits of tanking will be more endurable.