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Switching defenses are throwing the Pacers for a loop

On the lingering problem that the Pacers have yet to consistently solve.

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Original image via Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

As a fierce defensive team fueled more by togetherness than star power, Indiana’s balanced offense relies heavily on creating space with contact to forge pathways for drivers and pry open windows of space for the ball to find the open man when confined to the half-court.

So, what happens when switching defenses reverse that advantage by vaporizing the screens that provide a barrier against mano a mano stagnation?

Last Wednesday, Milwaukee tested a switch-everything lineup featuring the lumbering mobility of Ersan Ilysova and Brook Lopez that stymied Indiana’s starters in the fourth quarter, holding them to a measly seven points on 27 percent shooting to go with two turnovers over the final five and a half minutes of the game.

Like a self-portrait rendered by a caricature artist, it was an exaggerated example of the team’s season-long struggle to put up points when their opponent trades defensive responsibilities.

They scored 104.2 points per 100 possessions over two contests with Houston, the equivalent of a 27th-ranked offense. In games versus Philadelphia, their offensive rating has been worse than even the league’s most constipated team (hi, Bulls).

Thinking out loud is their stress signal.

Checkout this possession against the Sixers, who typically switch on pick-and-rolls that don’t involve Joel Embiid. With Ben Simmons checking Myles Turner and Jimmy Butler glued to Bojan Bogdanovic, spot the time remaining on the shot clock when Darren Collison finished surveying the landscape for a favorable match-up and finally motioned for Thaddeus Young to drag the five-man into space with the pick-and-pop, which resulted in a turnover.

Not only did the wheels turn slowly with Turner and Bogdanovic marginalized in the offense by the mere threat of Simmons or Butler switching onto the ball, Collison never even got a one-on-one with Jonah Bolden thanks to T.J. McConnell.

Myles Turner’s reaction at the end is all of us.

Figuring out ways to score against switches without gnashing of teeth needs to be a top priority heading into the stretch-run of the season, so here’s a list of do’s and don’ts.

Do: Catch on the go

This problem was cropping up before Oladipo’s season-ending injury.

Rather than waiting at the three-point line like prey, nimble bigs like Houston’s Clint Capela had started taking predatory steps toward the high-octane guard when he would begin to backpedal in order to force him left into the path of the help defender and dissuade him from springing into what would be a much deeper dribbling three.

A possible thwart to the blueprint the Rockets drew up for the rest of the league would have been to have the now two-time All-Star attack the mismatch with a full head of steam off the catch rather than the bounce.

The same goes for Collison and Bogdanovic, both of whom are less adept at creating their own shot and struggled in isolation against the Bucks, particularly when running into crowds:

As such, consider this re-imagination of the above-referenced possession wherein Bogdanovic would fire the ball to Turner and then cut middle in front of Lopez before getting the ball right back in a sort of rapid fire give-and-go.

With Ilyasova shifted from the nail by the quick reversal and Lopez trailing from behind as opposed to walling off the kick-out as Antetokounmpo slides over to trap the box, the Croatian sharpshooter would have more space to collapse the defense off the hitback and make a less encumbered read in the paint.

If the Pacers are going to attack one-on-one from the perimeter (which, as will later be discussed, should be a big IF), forward momentum needs to become second-nature for the Oladipo-less Pacers as soon as the switch occurs.

Don’t: Bail out mismatches

Throwing Thaddeus Young a ticking time bomb with the shot-clock expiring shouldn’t be the end product of an opponent switching the Collison-Turner pick-and-pop.

And yet...

Delayed reaction time is to blame. Turner had just drained a three with Lopez in a deep drop on the prior possession, so Collison clearly expected to double-dip with another throwback pass before he recognized the switch. Still, even with Khris Middleton using that brief window to scram Eric Bledsoe out of the bad match-up, Collison has to do a better job getting Turner the ball when he has his man pinned.

Instead, in a clear win for the defense, Indiana’s risk-averse point guard attacked Lopez off the dribble with nowhere to go before dishing the ball to Young for a contested long two over the sprawling limbs of Milwaukee’s lanky stat-sheet stuffer.

Don’t: Congest post-ups

After throwing a post-entry pass to Thad against Giannis (which, why?), Wesley Matthews has three options against a switching defense: clear out to the weak-side corner, wait for his man to go double and tee up the three off the kick-out, or slip the split-cut screen.

This is no man’s land.

The primary purpose of engaging in off-ball screening action as the post feeder during a post-up is to occupy the digger. By standing at the elbow with Lopez prepared to call out the switch, Indiana’s newest acquisition gives Middleton carte blanche to jab at Young without losing sight of his man.

Since Thad doesn’t have a clear advantage with his back to the basket against the Greek Freak, the Pacers arguably would’ve been better served with Matthews catching the defense off guard and darting to the rim, like so:

Again, motion is their friend.

Do: Find corner shooters against red coverage

Domantas Sabonis had no trouble slinging passes to the corner against Houston’s red coverage (when a smaller defender fronts the low-post while the lowest weak-side defender comes over to double); Doug McDermott just had trouble making shots:

Given that Darren Collison, Doug McDermott, and Bojan Bogdanovic are all shooting over 45 percent on corner threes this season, trust the process to yield results — well, assuming McDermott’s 3-point field goal percentage at home (28.9 percent) starts to mirrors his conversion rate on the road (48.6 percent).

Do: Screen your own man

Yep, you read that right. Even against a switching defense, the Pacers can still snag defenders with screens...if they set them against their own check.

For example, take a look at this wing down screen set by Turner for Oladipo against the Rockets. Capela can’t switch onto the high-octane guard as the cutter because he’s being screened at the same time as Melo is expecting to take over the Swiss big man’s responsibility for guarding Turner.

The ensuing confusion netted Oladipo the type of head start that the Pacers should look to replicate with their swath of off-ball threats in his absence.

Don’t: Get baited into iso-ball

The Pacers rank 26th in the league in points per possession on isolations and 24th in isolation frequency. To further put things into perspective, Oladipo remains the team’s leader in isolation efficiency. On top of being unavailable, his points per isolation possession plummeted from 1.028 in 2017-18 to 0.779 in 36 games this season.

Without a high-level shot-creator intermingled amongst their well-stocked collection of spot-up marksmen, they need to avoid falling into the one-on-one trap.

One way to do that is to continue running their same sets — only differently.

Rather than passing to the big at the elbow and flowing into a dribble hand-off out of horns formation like they so often do when teams play them straight-up, advance the ball to the wing and let Sabonis dive into the mismatch against the opposing team’s guard.

Or, how about tweaking their stagger action? When Indiana’s two sharpshooters are on the floor together, McDermott tends to curl around Bogdanovic as the first screener before Bogdanovic turns around and flies off of Sabonis as the second screener.

Against switching defenses, McDermott could simply screen his own check and let Bogdanovic wheel around him for the open three:

All of which is to say that the Pacers need to find a method by which to infuse connectivity and flow into their offense without screens, or they’ll risk being divided and conquered by opponents who purpose to take them away.