When it comes to making defensive adjustments against star-caliber players, the Pacers generally prefer to test the waters. Granted, they’ll actively float between dropping deep and greeting the ball at the level of the screen based upon the type and degree of threat posed by the ball-handler, and they’ll aggressively swarm pick-up points and shift over from the weak-side versus the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James, but a complete break from the system is rare unless it becomes absolutely necessary.
For instance, in late-November, when Trae Young poured in a season-high 49 points on 28 shots against Indiana in the absence of Kevin Huerter and John Collins, it wasn’t until after halftime that the Pacers started force-feeding the long-range bomber a diet of hedges and traps — and, even then, they only did so intermittently. Less than a month later, they kept to the same tact and Young rewarded their prudence with a woeful 9-for-30 shooting outing resulting in a 2-0 regular season series lead. This time, without need of overtime.
Of course, it’s easier to play things by ear against the worst team in the league and when the consequences of doing so don’t directly impact the availability of key players.
That isn’t the case versus Joel Embiid, who when last the Pacers saw him racked up 32 points while going a perfect 15-for-15 at the line. Per usual, within the first five minutes of the game, the balletic big man sent Myles Turner to the bench with two fouls, virtually rendering the top-tier rim protector non-existent for the remainder of the contest. Altogether, Embiid drew seven fouls against Turner (4) and Sabonis (3), including the latter’s sixth with under two minutes to play.
To their credit, after the initial foul fest, the Pacers started showing some white coverage (i.e. fronting the post), but for Turner, the damage was arguably already done. With his rhythm oftentimes disrupted by a combination of foul trouble and cross-matches, Myles hasn’t scored in double-figures versus Philadelphia since March of 2018, and he’s played less than 30 minutes in five of the last eight meetings.
So, yes, the Pacers definitely need more from him in this particular match-up, and he has to find a way to impact the game even when his shot doesn’t fall, but at what point does he need them to proactively game-plan around his weaknesses so that he can at least stay on the floor?
As in, if fronting is going to be the end-game of foul trouble, why not cut out the middle man and just make it the starting point (especially since, thus far, they’ve been too proud to run even a possession of zone)?
Admittedly, tweaks will be needed.
For instance, Sabonis prevented Embiid from getting a touch in the high-post on this possession (a good thing!), but they ended up surrendering an easy basket at the rim due to Lamb’s inability to recover on the drive (not such a good thing!).
Lamb’s defending the strong side corner, here, and his closeouts oftentimes beg to be driven for all the wrong reasons, so, ideally, Warren should be protecting against the potential lob as the furthest player away with Justin Holiday zoning up the weak-side.
They’ll also be vulnerable to high-low passes and open shots from the elbow, depending upon from where they send help. Justin played this perfectly, but they may want to look at mixing-in some red coverages (i.e. bringing the low-man across to provide support on the back-side) when their glue guy is on the bench.
Although Embiid’s costly fumbles the other night against the Heat don’t exactly reflect it, he’s been considerably sharper at handling the ball in the post against double-teams this season. Making quicker, simpler reads, he’s turned the ball over just 16 percent of the time in those situations on league-high volume, compared to 21 percent a year ago. As such, it couldn’t hurt to show him different looks while either discouraging his teammates from getting him the ball in the first place or forcing him into a longer, cross-court pass.
For the low-man’s part (in this case, Warren), sending help from the weak-side can make for some tricky two-nine dances (referencing the 2.9 seconds a player can legally stand in the lane), and it oftentimes requires creating an “X” while recovering out to shooters so as to shorten the distance that must be traveled to scramble to the corner. Warren has a tendency to be a step slow with those types of rotations; however, given some of Philly’s issues with spacing, that still might be an acceptable trade-off if it manages to net keeping Turner’s rim protection in the game.
That said, Embiid is nevertheless a big, strong dude. Try as he might, Goga Bitadze couldn’t prevent the the 7-foot, 250-pound behemoth from regaining post position on this possession, which once again highlights the value of Justin’s high-IQ on defense.
On top of using his body to create a difficult angle on the initial would-be post-entry pass, the six-year veteran laid in wait on the clear out and then emerged from the blind side to steal the actual post entry pass. From making these types of plays away from the ball to checking the other team’s top perimeter threat, Justin may have been Indiana’s penultimate signing last summer, but he certainly wasn’t the least.
If, at long-last, the Pacers are going to consistently bother Embiid’s post touches without getting turned into paper mache, the eldest Holiday brother needs to have a hand in it, around it, and near it as much as possible.
Otherwise, expect plenty of hand-to-hand combat and perhaps even some face-guarding (hey, **taps temple** you can’t pick up a foul scratching and clawing from behind, if you aren’t defending from behind).
Take a look at how many rounds of dosey-doe Sabonis lasted here before his sparring partner finally shot over the top. That’s still a made basket, but at least it was draining. Plus, isn’t a contested jumper preferable in this scenario to more free throws?
That has to be the mindset from the get-go. It isn’t so much about stopping Embiid, as it is about mucking up passing angles for his teammates and preserving fouls.
And yet, it bears pointing out that Embiid has averaged 27 points, 12 rebounds, and 3 assists on 50 percent shooting over his last eight games versus the Pacers. However, on the above-shown handful of possessions where they fronted him back in November, the Sixers (as a team) scored just four points and committed two turnovers with Embiid’s only basket coming outside the paint.
For all of these reasons, if the Pacers once again start out tomorrow night’s game playing the wait-and-see game with Turner defending Embiid straight-up, they arguably will have waited too long.