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The last Cavs-Pacers game was ugly and instructive

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It’s tempting, but don’t burn the tape!

NBA: Cleveland Cavaliers at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Unable to avenge their crunch-time loss to the Raptors, the Pacers get another shot at late-game vengeance tonight in Cleveland.

The last time these two teams met, Larry Nance Jr. tossed Victor Oladipo to the ground, gathered the rebound off Rodney Hood’s miss with 2.5 seconds to play, and converted the game-winning putback.

The NBA’s last two-minute report confirmed the next day that a foul should’ve been called.

It was an incorrect non-call that the Pacers never should’ve needed to win.

Here’s a look back at some of the gross numbers:

  • Indiana mustered 91 points on 39 percent shooting against Cleveland’s league-worst defensive rating.
  • Leading the Eastern Conference in points off turnovers, the Pacers had zero points off turnovers at halftime.
  • No player on either team scored in double figures until there was 8 minutes, 37 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
  • Ranking among the bottom-five of the league in paint points, the Cavs scored 18 points in the paint in the fourth quarter.
  • Cleveland bested the Pacers in 3-point margin, despite shooting an abysmal 19.4 percent from behind the arc.
  • In the last two minutes, the Pacers missed four free throws and allowed Alec Burks to dribble nearly the full-length of the floor for a lightly contested layup.

It was quite possibly one of the least aesthetically pleasing games played by any two teams this season, and yet it was still instructive on a number of fronts:

Screening the zone

Per Synergy, the Charlotte Hornets are the only team that has been zoned more frequently this season than the Pacers. With more of the league joining the Miami Heat in embracing the newest defensive craze (i.e. New York, Brooklyn, Cleveland, Toronto, etc.), Indiana mixed in some set actions here and there versus the Cavs that went beyond just attacking the gaps or trying to beat their opponent down the floor.

Here, for instance, they created a numbers advantage with a wrinkle to an otherwise basic stagger. Oladipo doesn’t exactly explode off the screens without a trailer, but Cedi Osman is still nonetheless forced to release from Domantas Sabonis to check the high-octane guard receiving the pass.

As soon as that happens, Sabonis flips from being the second screener to the first screener and springs Bojan Bogdanovic free for a corner three, leaving the Turkish-Macedonian wing to defend 2-on-1.

Bogdanovic ends up blasting the sad trombone sound effect with a bad miss in what was an all-around rough shooting night, but that set was nonetheless rock solid in generating open looks.

Here it is again, this time with McDermott knocking down the shot.

They should screen the zone more often.

Point centers, wreaking havoc

They may be a rare breed, but centers capable of dribbling the ball up the floor and getting into the offense are agents of chaos for the Pacers.

This is Larry Nance Jr., initiating the break straight at Sabonis and drawing an extra defender resulting in a miscommunication between Victor Oladipo and Cory Joseph, which led to an uncontested basket cut.

That sort of thing wasn’t an isolated incident, either. Later in the same frame, the 26-year-old reserve big used a reverse dribble to evade Darren Collison with Sabonis trailing and then proceeded to thread a pass to Collin Sexton.

Pascal Siakam triggered similar headaches. Particularly migraine-inducing was when the Raptors used Fred VanVleet as the screener for the Cameroonian slasher, thereby putting Sabonis in the unnatural position to either have to fight over the top as the on-ball defender or regretfully concede an untenable mismatch, like so:

Switching Thad’s elastic defense onto the guard-like centers is the simplest solution (why was Sabonis even matched up with Siakam in transition when Ibaka was on the floor?); however, the downside of putting Sabonis or Turner on the opposing team’s weakest three-point threat is that it pulls the team’s best rebounder and/or defensive anchor away from the rim and comes pre-packaged with risk against speedier fours.

Keep an eye on this.

It’s a trap!

The Pacers needed to take care of business against the lowly Cavs with a highly anticipated match-up against the Raptors looming the next night in Toronto.

They didn’t.

Again, the Pacers play the Cavs on the front end of a back-to-back before traveling to Boston to take on another potential Eastern Conference contender.

They can’t bring that same energy.

For more on the match-up with Cleveland, as well as a discussion on what the post-LeBron Cavs could learn from how Indiana found success as a small-market team post-Paul George, listen here.