(“The Gallery” is an end-of-season series featuring one uniquely titled picture or video installation for every player that best summarizes or encapsulates that player’s season in a single snapshot. These aren’t highlights, they’re seminal moments expressed through the medium of art placards. Enjoy your tour!)
Center, Age 23
Bankers Life Fieldhouse
Trapped in limbo between offensive ability and defensive reality, Muffled lays bare that which contributed to the dampening of Domantas Sabonis’ regular season numbers (14.1 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 9.5 FGA) during the playoffs (8.5 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 7.3 FGA).
As has been the trend across multiple series in this postseason, the Celtics made it a practice to identify shooters they deemed ignorable in order to load up on middle penetration. Undeterred by the threats presented by Cory Joseph and Thaddeus Young, look at where Terry Rozier and Marcus Morris are standing. They aren’t lurking at the edge of the weakside paint with their toes barely spilling over into the lane; they’re effectively providing a second-line of defense for the second-line of defense. Even with Gordon Hayward and Al Horford both emphasizing the ball, Sabonis is staring down a gauntlet of goalies. Consequently, rather than attempting to bulldoze his way to the basket with the shot-clock winding down, the lefty big man is left with little choice but to take the outside shot that the defense wants him to take.
To be fair, making use of off-ball screens might have mitigated some of that traffic; however, as it was, Sabonis too often found himself pushed out to the perimeter. On the series, only 31 percent of his shots came from inside the restricted area, compared to 56 percent during the regular season, and his otherworldly field-goal percentage plummeted as a result (tumbling from 59 percent down to 41 percent). On top of redistributing his shot-profile, Boston’s scheme also limited his per game shot volume, at least with regard to Game 2 (1 point, 0-of-1 from the field).
Granted, some of that was a product of his own doing. With a preference for turning middle from the left block, the Celtics were able to shoo the walking double-double away from the post by taking away his dominant hand and forcing him into awkward finishes. That said, because he was operating further away from the rim (logging just eight total possessions with his back to the basket), his offensive rebounding percentage also took a hit, despite the fact that his team shot a ghastly 35 percent from the field in the 96 minutes that he was on the floor.
As a scorer, in part due to floor spacing and in part due to dexterity issues, he didn’t so much have an effect on the series as much as the series affected him. And yet, as a connector, his fingerprints still managed to be all over the offense. In less than 25 minutes per game, he led the team in assists (4.0) and was second only to Darren Collison in both touches (58.3) and passes (47.0) while bearing most of the burden for generating side-to-side action for a roster short on shot-creators.
All of which begs the question as to how the Pacers plan on finding the extension-eligible center the “bigger role” that he reportedly so desires, when he’s already oftentimes acting as the offense’s fulcrum. Sure, Sabonis would be a more complete player if he was as confident going to his right hand as he is left, but that won’t change the fact that he plays on the same team as a freshly extended starting center with arguably a higher ceiling, even if also a less reliable floor. Once again, all eyes are on the Turner-Sabonis pairing, and, once again, in order for the tandem to be more consistently effective, more needs to be done to provide the duo with the elbow room they need to be comfortable playing side-by-side.
Otherwise, although most of the needed tweaks are outside of Sabonis’ control (i.e. stressing the tagger with roll-and-replace actions, setting higher double ball screens, spacing Turner to the corner, etc.) his opportunity for advancement will be much like his impact on the above-cited possession: Muffled.