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The Pacers aren’t, and shouldn’t try to be, who they were on defense

It’s only one game, but Indiana’s continued porosity against three-man actions suggests they may have to change with their changes.

Detroit Pistons v Indiana Pacers Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

In exploding for 36 points in the fourth quarter of what became a 119-110 loss for the home team, the Blake Griffin-less Pistons spoiled opening night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse by coaxing the Pacers into looking over their respective shoulders. And, really, who could blame them? After so many times of slamming into the brick walls of Detroit’s back-screen pick-and-rolls (also known as Spain pick-and-rolls), it was only natural that they would eventually start checking their six for that which had repeatedly discombobulated their already frail defense:

The only problem was the Pistons came armed with other means of further preying on their vulnerabilities. On this possession, for example, Luke Kennard abruptly flipped Edmond Sumner’s expectations against him by sprinting to the three-point line in a roll-replace action, rather than keeping to the script and snagging Myles Turner’s retreat with a back-screen before popping to the perimeter.

Even on plays when Kennard down-screened for Drummond into pick-and-roll, there was still a palpable sense that the Pacers were anticipating needing to fumble their way through a subsequent back-screen. Look at Myles Turner’s eyes on this possession as he prepares to drop against Derrick Rose. The fact that he’s making the effort to look for that which isn’t there suggests that he isn’t all that confident yet in his teammates to sound the alarm bell about what’s going on behind him.

Still, down two with 3:05 to play in the game, Turner, Sumner, and Brogdon actually managed to defend against the initial roll-replace action in this case, but Rose’s in-and-out dribble baited Sabonis into holding his tag too long as the fourth defender. Unable to recover out to Snell in the weak-side corner, Detroit pushed the lead to five and never looked back.

Perfecting the timing and placement of those tags was a game-long struggle for the Pacers, and one that probably shouldn’t be expected to sort itself out overnight, especially given that Sabonis and McDermott are taking on increased minutes at the four spot that was previously held down by Thaddeus Young for the last two seasons.

In the absence of their former captain’s portable skills as an anticipatory defender capable of both traversing space on the perimeter and jousting at the block, the margin for error is smaller at that end of the floor.

Handicapped by his propensity for slow-motion, lunge-like closeouts, Leaf has to park himself earlier and in better position to bump Maker and disrupt the passing lane to Snell.


The same goes with from where they’re sending the help. In this case, since Sumner is the closest perimeter defender (and possesses explosive speed), he needs to take his chances with Galloway as the shaker in order to fully commit to disrupting Drummond’s momentum on the roll instead of having McDermott come THIS far off of Kennard in the corner.

That said, these things are minor tweaks that will perhaps improve with repetitions and time; however, with regard to the initial point about Spain actions, drop coverage is likely to continue to have its faults. On top of causing chaos for a team with a tradition of priding itself on fighting through screens and guarding their position, those sets open up the very shots that Indiana’s preferred form of defense is intended to prevent by impeding the ability of the big to back-pedal with and stay in front of the ball-handler.

Just ask Kyle O’Quinn:

Truth be told, the Pacers weren’t all that good at defending against these actions last season, either — before they seemingly exchanged defense for offense.

This shot didn’t fall through the net, but Darren Collison got burned badly here for jumping the gun on a switch against Dwane Casey’s old team when Kyle Lowry skipped out on the back-screen element of the play in order to make a beeline in the opposite direction. Meanwhile, by virtue of his over, it was also evident that Tyreke Evans had no clue that Collison intended on trading defensive responsibilities until it was too late.

Back home in Indiana, Bogdanovic was so preoccupied with staying attached to Danny Green while Collison was in rearview pursuit that Ibaka shook loose from mid-range with O’Quinn wedged in traffic.

And before you start assuming that these sorts of mix-ups were unique to possessions featuring the bearded back-up center, check out what happened to Joseph, Young, and Turner in the same game.

Yep, that’s Turner pointing for Joseph to stick with Raptors guard Fred VanVleet on a slip that never happened, Joseph motioning for someone (anyone!) to switch onto VanVleet on the pop, and two someones simultaneously rushing VanVleet while leaving Ibaka completely unoccupied under the basket.

That’s what happens when a team that isn’t used to trading responsibilities is suddenly pressed into needing to execute multiple swaps with pristine precision out of the blue. The only difference between then and now on those plays is at what point they were called. In almost all of the above-cited instances from last season, Indiana was hit with three-man actions (i.e. Spain pick-and-roll, roll-replace, down-screen into pick-and-roll) either on the first defensive possession coming out of a timeout or at the end of a quarter. On Wednesday night, it was like Detroit found a pressure point and bore down.

And, why not? On top of the slew of new faces, Brogdon isn’t as equipped as Joseph to stay attached versus lightning-quick guards through screens, and it’s going to be a process to figure out how to make Sabonis, McDermott, and Leaf work against stretch fours in general, let alone while being tasked with helping as fourth defenders.

Unless another steadier option emerges at the point of attack, those aren’t things that can be readily fixed in the same way that it seems fair to expect that the team’s airtight system might eventually tighten the screws on some of T.J. Warren’s more obvious flubs.

As such, with a lower overall defensive floor, this group — particularly sans Oladipo — will arguably be more pressed to sustainably correct the very same problem that last year’s team was able to routinely kick the can on, especially now that the issue has been fully unmasked.

Looking back then at the initial example, and assuming that every measure will be taken to avoid having Turner switch onto the guard (did you see what happened to him against Drummond’s handles?), the objective should be for Brogdon to temporarily switch onto Drummond before switching again onto Kennard.

At the same time, Sumner has to stay vigilant of a slip and then jump out to the perimeter to defend Rose while Turner plays a one-man zone until Drummond releases on the roll. The biggest key is Brogdon executing the switch-switch from Drummond to Kennard because that’s what would’ve prevented him from having to circle-back on the pop with the late contest.

Of course, there is one potential pitfall. If this is the scheme, and if Kennard cuts opposite after Sumner has already left to switch out onto Rose (as was the case for Collison versus Toronto), then Turner would have to trail the sharpshooter out to the perimeter, thereby creating a mismatch for both he and Brogdon.

Admittedly, this isn’t how the Pacers defended against these actions last season, but they also aren’t who they used to be, and it’s up to them to realize that before the rest of the league does.