Cross-matches bothered the Pacers over their final two regular season games with the Celtics. Sometimes, like when scrambled transition defense led to Al Horford casually stepping into a warm-up shot, the impact was obvious. But, in other ways, it was more subtle. With Aron Baynes, or whichever of the two bigs in play was less mobile or the lesser defender, guarding Thaddeus Young on one end of the floor and being guarded by Myles Turner on the other, Boston got the best of both worlds. They generated early offense, AND they muddled their opponent’s offense by being brave enough to take added steps away from Young.
Intent on channeling their defensive attention elsewhere, the Celtics dropped deep, when he popped; cheated, when he spaced; and threw extra bodies at drivers or cutters, when he wasn’t posting or otherwise near the basket.
They weren’t exactly daring him to shoot, as they continued to make at least mild attempts to closeout; but, they were routinely and purposefully making him the most available option to shoot or make plays.
For example, on Indiana’s final possession of the half last Friday, Marcus Smart switched onto the lefty power forward off the rejected screen and then immediately circled back to double Bojan Bogdanovic, as if to say “nah.”
Even with Gordon Hayward available to stunt in case of emergency, Smart’s priorities on that particular play epitomized those of his team:
(And, now, if the presumptive loss of Smart’s blanketing 1-on-1 coverage eventually prompts the Celtics to steadily send increased help to Bogdanovic, that first line item actually might end up taking even more precedence.)
Assuming this overall approach carries over to the weekend, here’s some suggested counters for how the Pacers can thin out the crowds and free up their leading scorer.
Occupy the occupier
Look at where Daniel Theis is standing on this possession.
He’s isn’t lurking at the edge of the weakside paint with his toes spilled over into the lane, he’s darn near close to being in front of the basket.
By making brash use of the two-nine rule (referencing the 2.9 seconds a player can technically stand in the painted area), Boston’s back-up center is effectively acting like a second-line of defense for the second-line of defense.
And, why not?
The motivation for the shadow scheme is clear. With Horford staying in front of Sabonis on the roll while at the same time funneling Holiday into the path of Theis, all the Celtics are giving up is a potentially late close to Thad in the corner.
To be fair, Young’s shooting has improved. He’s up to 34 percent from three this season, after laboring through a clanky 22 percent conversion rate post All-Star break a year ago. But, he’s still had some wild month-to-month swings, and his progression to a modest mean isn’t enough to convince Jayson Tatum to rotate fully off of Bogdanovic.
Granted, banging in a few of these shots in the same game might encourage the low man to be a little less liberal in the moment with how far he’s wiling to stray from the corner; however, in the event that neither of those things pan out, the Pacers need to come prepared with other ways to weed out traffic.
With that in mind, one such option might be to take a note from Tatum’s reaction to Bogdanovic’s gravity. Given that Boston’s sophomore wasn’t willing to take more than a quick jab step away from the Croatian sharpshooter on the perimeter, perhaps the threat of springing the increasingly well-rounded scorer free from the corner with a faux pindown screen from Young would produce the desired effect of occupying both weakside defenders.
The dummy action isn’t going to net a shot for Bogdanovic, but at least Indiana’s ball-handlers will be less likely to see three defenders as soon as they dribble off the pick.
Weaponize conceded space
Bogdanovic shot 1-of-4 on the 23 possessions he was harassed by Marcus Smart last Friday, and the “four” was almost as concerning as the “one.”
Like a bloodhound, Boston’s heartbeat couldn’t be knocked off the scent. On consecutive possessions, he stayed attached through a down screen flowing into a ball screen, and then moments later he appeared as though he had been rubber cemented to Bogdanovic on a backdoor cut even when everything about the sharpshooter’s body language suggested that he was prepared to fly off a stagger.
And yet, even when considering the noticeable drop-off in lock-and-trail defense from Smart to Tatum and Brown along with the potential that may loom for escalated coverage, less shooting might actually provide the Pacers with some answers.
As counter-intuitive as that may sound, take a look at this action from Indiana’s ninth game of the season and imagine that Victor Oladipo is Darren Collison.
Prior to Oladipo’s season-ending injury, Bojan Bogdanovic was oftentimes used as a ghost-screener for the high-octane guard to create a brief moment of hesitation that would typically lead to either an opening for a drive or a catch-and-shoot three. Since then, with Bogdanovic taking center stage in the offense, the roles have been reversed.
For the sake of shaking his defender, though, it might again be worth it to have the sharpshooter revert to jutting from the corner with the running slip. Against Chicago, after setting the dummy screen for Oladipo, Bogdanovic received an off-ball screen from Myles Turner.
This is key.
Notice the space that Cristiano Felicio is conceding to Turner’s perimeter-oriented game while keeping an eye on Oladipo and reacting to Bogdanovic? Given how deep Baynes has dropped whenever Thad has been the screener, that’s likely to be more exaggerated if the Australian behemoth is checking the lefty power forward.
Better yet, though, consider what would happen if Bogdanovic over-ran the screen and then veered back through a second screen from Young.
Taking into account the faux ball screen, the Pacers would have three chances to snag Smart’s understudy, and, if they succeeded, Bogdanovic would have space to shoot with Baynes sagging into the paint.
In effect, the play would generate a clean jumper for Indiana’s top scoring threat because of Thad’s less than reliable jumper, rather than in spite of it.
Another option is one with which the Pacers are already familiar. That said, they need to use it judiciously. As in, during the minutes when Thad is on the floor, and Baynes isn’t.
Boston’s bruising center obviously isn’t going to ignore Thad on the block, but he also isn’t going to require as much split-focus from the post feeder’s defender, as was the case here for Jayson Tatum when Wesley Matthews had his back to the basket against Kyrie Irving.
As opposed to having the post feeder screen for the nearest perimeter player, Indiana does this nifty thing where the big sneaks up and sets a backscreen for the post feeder.
Tatum glancing back-and-forth between the ball and his man as if a tennis match were unfolding right before his eyes is what opens the door for Sabonis to ambush his blind spot. If Baynes is defending the post 1-on-1, Boston’s sophomore is going to have more latitude to keep his attention trained on Bogdanovic and will be more likely to see the screen coming.
Still, with precise timing, or perhaps a more advantageous match-up, posting with the intent to pass could provide an additional avenue for Young to set the table for Bogdanovic.
Last postseason, the 30-year-old role player extraordinaire put the clamps on Kevin Love and proved pivotal with the way he shielded Myles Turner’s rim protection from being dragged into space. A year later, with Boston gearing up to cause chaos with their rotating carousel of cross-matches, how the Pacers respond to the space orbiting around him could be key to prying open room for their top scorer.
Once again, he’s the glue — just in a very different way.