Indiana’s bad start to the second half got worse when Thaddeus Young went to the bench with 8:39 to play in the third quarter after picking up his fourth foul. Prior to that point, though they had opened the frame with two turnovers followed by five missed shots, the Pacers could at least hang their hats on the fact that they had generated a few clean looks in transition. On back-to-back possessions, Myles Turner misfired on a trailer three manufactured from a loose ball recovered by Young, and then Darren Collison came up empty from nearly the exact same spot on the floor off a flip pass from Bojan Bogdanovic. Granted, the Pacers are going to need more from their starting point guard and center in the games that follow, but each of their errant misses in that particular stretch were the type befitting of the proverbial make-or-miss league.
However, from then on after (or, perhaps more specifically, for the next five-and-a-half minutes), what could have accurately been categorized as yet another of the team’s inexplicable dry spells turned into a full-on slog, with the Turner-Sabonis tandem standing waist-deep at the dead center of the muck and mire.
In the third-quarter alone, the Pacers got outscored 16-5 with the pair of 23-and-under centers on the floor and produced just one made field goal on eight tries to go with three turnovers. Oh, and by the way, the make was a goal tend. As has become the custom for these lineups over the last two seasons, at the heart of the issue were the usual suspects: spacing, spacing, and more spacing.
With that in mind, here’s a closer look at what went wrong for the Pacers when a one-point lead at the point in which Thad exited the game rapidly spiraled into a double-digit deficit.
Small advantages turned into disadvantages
Bojan Bogdanovic hitting the empty space to the right of the screen with Aron Baynes already dropped on the opposite side should’ve put the Celtics in scramble mode.
And yet, almost the exact opposite transpired. Baynes deserves credit for maniacally sliding at an angle to cut off the Croatian sharpshooter’s drive, but Indiana’s bigs could’ve done more to put pressure on the defense. Just imagine if Turner had circled around to replace Sabonis at the top of the key at the same time as the Lithuanian big man darted to the rim.
In that event, rather than lurking behind Baynes, Horford would’ve been forced to decide between tagging Sabonis and leaving Turner or sticking with Turner and foregoing the tag.
Meanwhile, the equal but opposite cuts almost surely would’ve generated a more competitive pass than the one that Turner received while standing behind the backboard that ultimately resulted in an offensive reset and then a turnover.
Cross-matches dictated the terms of semi-transition offense
This double ball-screen action raises a lot of questions. Like, why is Sabonis popping just because Baynes is guarding him, and why aren’t they running it higher?
As is, though, because the screens aren’t being set at more of an angle nearer to the 3-point line, Darren Collison’s lack of downhill momentum gives the defense a pass, as does the positioning of Indiana’s bigs. With Myles Turner standing more or less idly at the free throw line, and Sabonis popping inside the arc, Baynes is only minimally being pulled in two separate directions. Consequently, by the time the pass reaches Sabonis, all three Celtics involved in the screening action have more or less recovered to their original assignments.
Sabonis ends up creating an open shot for Collison on the fly by flowing into a dribble hand-off with the Australian behemoth in a drop, but the end product being a mid-range two is likely something that the Celtics will be willing to live with given that the 30-year-old point guard has struggled to get that shot to drop in the playoffs since re-joining the Pacers, shooting just 1-of-6 from the in-between distance in Game 1 on Sunday and 5-of-15 over seven games in 2017-18.
If the Pacers continue to go with this look in Game 2, a simple counter would be to just have Sabonis dive into the space conceded with Turner popping to three so as to increase the stress on Baynes to defend both bigs at once.
Hesitation led to emergency post switches
One of the ways that Boston adjusted for the loss of Marcus Smart’s blanketing 1-on-1 coverage in Game 1 was to chase Bojan Bogdanovic over screens and then trade defensive responsibilities when he cut middle, like so:
While it was an effective means of getting the ball out of the increasingly well-rounded scorer’s hands, switching the second screen (in this case, a hand-off) nets the Pacers a mismatch — if they act fast.
For that to happen, Cory Joseph needs to feed Sabonis at the very instant that he has Jaylen Brown pinned, otherwise the Celtics will use that brief moment of hesitation to scram out the smaller defender.
Of course, in addition to the slightly delayed reaction time on the post entry pass, it didn’t exactly help matters that Turner elected to flash middle at the same moment as Marcus Morris was executing the emergency off-ball switch.
If the league’s leading shot-blocker had stayed put in the corner, Joseph might’ve been able to find an angle for a skip pass as a back-up plan to the post feed. Instead, without Sabonis even being fronted or in position to receive a high-low pass, Turner made it easier for Brown to recover to his new check and then proceeded to park his big body on the opposing low block. Meanwhile, Horford doubled Sabonis from the high side, causing yet another would-be advantage for the Pacers to shrivel up and die on the vine.
All of which is to say that Young picking up his fourth foul that early in the second half forced Nate McMillan’s hand to make a change, but it didn’t necessarily twist his arm into having to make that change, or much less stick with it.
With the strength of their team defense propping up the inefficient offense, the Pacers outscored opponents by 3.1 points per 100 possessions in the 429 minutes that Turner and Sabonis were on the floor together during the regular season, but it had a tendency to be hit or miss based upon coverage.
When OKC had Steven Adams check the more perimeter-oriented Turner, Indiana went to work on the glass and Sabonis devoured every backup big in sight. Not only were they +16 in 10.8 minutes of action, they finished out the furious comeback with Thad seated on the bench. Two nights later, though, with the offense once again showing some signs of all-too-familiar awkwardness in Denver, they posted a points per possession differential of -7.1 in 14 minutes.
Boston has refused to fall into the same trap as the Thunder did in that come-from-behind win; in fact, they’ve reversed engineered a trap of their own by having their burlier big sag off of and match up size-for-size with Sabonis while the more mobile defender checks Turner. And, then, when Baynes goes to the bench, they repeat the cross-matching scheme with Horford and Morris, only with more shooting.
The end result? Indiana has yet to score over a point per possession during the Turner-Sabonis minutes in any of the last three meetings between the two teams, including yesterday’s series opener. At the same time, Indiana’s most used lineup with Bogdanovic at four — when he plays alongside Joseph, Evans, McDermott, and Sabonis —has yet to log a single minute of action in any of those contests.
As such, in the days and hours leading up to Game 2, the Pacers need to decide which it is they have more of a stomach for when Thad goes to the bench: Trusting their center duo to make the necessary adjustments, or making the adjustment themselves by downsizing.