Winners of 12 of their last 15 games, including signature victories over the Lakers and Celtics, there isn’t much for the Oladipo-less Pacers to complain about. After all, Malcolm Brogdon has answered the point guard question, T.J. Warren has shown he can contribute to winning, Domantas Sabonis has appeared indispensable, Myles Turner has slowly started to string together some more productive performances, and their depth has won games for them. Things are looking up for a team that will eventually return a two-time All-Star to the lineup, and yet, even while winning in bulk, one particular area of concern has emerged: They still need to find their comfort zone against zone defense.
Last Saturday, for instance, the Pacers stormed their way to a definitive 107-85 win over the Charlotte Hornets, but they only managed to muster 39 points on 34 percent shooting over the game’s middle two frames — when it just so happens they faced 19 zone possessions.
Six days prior, the Clippers ran zone 17 times against the Pacers, and they only scored on 3 of those 17 possessions.
With numbers like that (psst...they rank 23rd in offensive efficiency among the 27 teams that have logged possessions against opponents defending areas of the floor rather than individual match-ups), it’s no wonder that the Pacers have been confronted by zone coverage more frequently than all but three teams, per Synergy.
Granted, some of that can be attributed to scheduling. The Clippers, Wizards, and Hornets each have membership in a small club of teams that have run zone at least three percent of the time, and the Pacers have played all three of them at least once. Still, there are inherent incentives to going to the alternate form of defense against the blue and gold, specifically.
Because zone, by it’s very nature, makes it tougher to run pick-and-roll (Indiana’s biggest offensive strength), and it encourages searching for threes (something which the Pacers prefer to do as product of their system rather than as the purpose of it). In effect, instead of getting into the paint and knocking down open shots with the benefit of Domantas Sabonis’ screening excellence, regulated lines of defenders are basically daring them to be what they aren’t — a high-volume three-point shooting team with greater dependence on players other than Malcolm Brogdon to drive out the competition and initiate offense.
Tellingly, the Pacers have only attempted 35 or more threes in three games this season and two of them (surprise, surprise) were against Charlotte (last Saturday) and the Clippers. What’s more? They shot 20-of-70 (28.5%) from deep in those two games.
With that in mind, and given that the potential is there for other teams to start acting on that film, here’s a list of dos and don’ts against various types of zone that extend beyond just playing with pace and trying to beat their opponent down the floor.
Do: Screen the inside of the zone
Just because defenders aren’t attempting to stick with their match-ups doesn’t mean there aren’t benefits to be had from screening zone schemes.
For instance, imagine that LA went to a 2-3 zone here instead of playing opossum and reverting back to man-to-man with Patrick Beverly executing the over. With Sabonis setting a high pick, it would’ve forced Mo Harkless, as the weak side top defender, to have to pinch toward Brogdon, thereby creating a seam for Jeremy Lamb to attack off the kick.
Alternatively, Brogdon could’ve used a hesitation dribble to shake Harkless at the nail and then attacked Zubac off the dribble, as he did in live action against the deep drop.
Better yet, if Lamb had joined Sabonis in screening the top of the zone, they could’ve torn open a runway for Brogdon to jet down the lane without need of extra fanfare.
Any of those options would’ve been preferable to just passively skipping the ball around the perimeter in hope of shaking LA’s actual 2-3 coverage like an etch-a-sketch.
As Paul George’s reach eventually demonstrated on Brogdon’s misfire, the Clippers have way too much length at their disposal for that sort of a “get them moving from side-to-side and pray for a mistake” approach to be consistently viable without at least making use of some skip passes.
To that point, if they weren’t going to screen the top of the zone for Brogdon to penetrate on that particular possession, then why not get the ball to the middle of the floor and play the numbers game with Turner crashing?
Allow Goga Bitadze to demonstrate against Washington’s 1-3-1:
Sure, Justin Holiday didn’t convert the lay-up there, but at least they got some player movement and didn’t settle. When open, Sabonis needs to be their quarterback in those situations — not the central object that the ball merely orbits around.
Do: Be aggressive
In addition to passing acumen, being effective standing in the middle of the zone takes more than just standing in the middle of the zone. Oftentimes, it requires forcing the defense to commit, and that’s where Turner still has a tendency to struggle.
Rather than putting the ball on the deck and moving toward the basket or shifting perimeter defenders toward him, he’ll sometimes appear as though he’s been trapped inside an invisible box until he eventually leaves himself with no other choice but to rise up for two.
Brogdon got himself into a similar pickle versus Philly’s conservatively aggressive defense back in November. With no shortage of long athletes and big defensive impact players on their roster, the Sixers have taken to showing a little bit of 1-3-1 zone coming out of timeouts in an effort to leverage their size into easy fast-break opportunities.
To their credit, by virtue of the fact that T.J. Warren immediately moved to the opposite side of the floor to screen for Lamb and settle into 2-1-2 offense, it’s evident that the Pacers weren’t caught off guard by the shift in scheme. Where things went awry was with the guard-to-guard pass. Philly’s not in a half-court corner trap, and Al Horford, as the ball-side wing, isn’t even stunting toward the ball to get Indiana’s starting point guard to pick up his dribble.
Instead, not unlike Turner in the prior example, Brogdon nailed himself to one spot on the floor and made it easy for Furkan Korkmaz’s wingspan to intercept his reversal before ever getting the chance to exploit the short-corner with Warren.
Don’t: Overload the zone (like this)
One of the most successful set actions that the Pacers ran against zone defense last season involved creating a numbers advantage with a wrinkle to an otherwise basic stagger.
Granted, Oladipo doesn’t exactly explode off the picks here without a defender trailing him, but pay special attention to the fact that Cleveland’s Cedi Osman was still nonetheless forced to release from Sabonis in order to check the high-octane guard receiving the pass.
From there, Sabonis flips from being the second screener to the first screener and frees Bojan Bogdanovic up from the corner, thereby leaving the Turkish-Macedonian wing to defend 2-on-1.
To be fair, as that particular miss demonstrates, the shots generated from this action didn’t always fall, but they were almost always open. That is, until the Pacers played the Clippers, who — in case you haven’t noticed — are very much not the 2018-19 Cavs.
Going up against a top-five defense with a rotating carousel of coverages requires a different level of attention to detail than that of last season’s leakiest squad, which means everyone needs to be on the same page.
For instance, if Aaron is going to overload one side of the floor (i.e. Oladipo), then he needs to do so cutting from the slot opposite of T.J. McConnell with Justin already stationed in the deep corner.
Otherwise, unlike Osman in the prior example, the defender attached to Turner doesn’t have to release from the pick until McDermott rockets to the corner and the player deployed at the top of the zone only has to wait for Aaron to come to him.
In the end, rather than one defender being challenged to defend against two shooters, two defenders challenged two shooters while also preventing dribble penetration.
Because Aaron was never in Lou Williams area of the floor, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year was able to easily call out the set and stick with McConnell. When everything was all said and done, that small tweak ended up being the difference between an open three from McDermott and a contested, face-up two from Turner.
Concurrently, if McDermott is on the floor when this action is being run, go ahead and run the play specifically for him, a 47-percent three-point shooter, instead of Lamb (29.6%).
So, yes, for the most part, the Pacers are consistently getting shots (some even as wide open as Lamb’s) against zone coverage, but whether they are exploiting that same coverage to get the best shots available is very much debatable.
That’s what they need to tackle moving forward, and fortunately for them, their next opportunity might come as early as tomorrow against a Kings team that — like the Clippers, Hornets, and Wizards — doesn’t shy away from mixing in alternate forms of defense.