It’s December 11, and the Boston Celtics have deigned to start the fourth quarter with four of their five starters on the bench. Trailing 94-84, the Pacers are doing the same, only six minutes later; their hybrid unit completely erased the 10-point deficit. Playing four reserves alongside Domantas Sabonis, the offense took a familiar turn, morphing from methodical craft to equal-opportunity lyricism. Shooters raced ahead off live-ball rebounds, spraying out from T.J. McConnell’s perpetual motion. Justin Holiday relentlessly jitterbugged over and around a hand-off until he shook himself loose, and his younger brother finished plays as the two-guard, rather than being overextended and stalling out possessions at the point.
Instantly converting stops into free-and-easy rhythm, it was a showcase of what makes that particular group hum in a nutshell, and it’s what tied the score at 102-102 – even after Jaylen Brown, Gordon Hayward, Daniel Theis, and Kemba Walker had reentered the game in shifts.
“I think that second unit has almost been like our Most Valuable Player on a lot of nights,” General Manager Chad Buchanan said while speaking during a pregame interview on Fox Sports Indiana. “They come in there, they inject some energy into the game, and they play together. It’s a nice luxury to have when you have those guys coming off the bench who you know are going to give you a spark almost every night.”
On the season, Indiana’s bench mob — featuring the Holiday brothers joined by McConnell, McDermott, and Sabonis — has outscored opponents by 13.9 points per 100 possessions, the eighth-best mark in the league among the 47 lineups that have logged at least 100 minutes, per NBA.com. That’s nuts, even accounting for the obvious caveat that they’re most often competing against opposing benches. They don’t boast the individual scoring prowess of T.J. Warren or the pick-and-roll artistry of Brogdon-Sabonis, but the point still stands that whenever the rotation has allowed Nate McMillan to call on them, they’ve consistently dominated.
And, here’s the thing: They may have an expiration date.
Once Victor Oladipo returns to the starting lineup, it won’t be so easy to finagle ways for that unit to be on the floor together. Barring need for emergency depth, with Jeremy Lamb sliding back to the bench, a decision is going to have to eventually be made between T.J. McConnell and Aaron Holiday. If the coaching staff intends on always having one or the other of Oladipo or Brogdon on the floor, then there’s an argument to be made that the nod should go to Holiday so that each of the team’s star-caliber guard’s can breathe with the ball in their hands. On the flip side, if they want to maximize the pairing’s minutes together, then it would make sense to lean on McConnell’s steady hand and read of the floor to continue steering things for the bench. After all, Aaron is shooting 43 percent on catch-and-shoot threes, but McConnell ranks **checks notes** third in the entire NBA in assists per 36 minutes.
Still, even when just swapping Aaron out for Lamb, it’s fair to wonder if the Pacers will be able to count on that group to do what they did against Boston in a playoff setting when rotations shrink.
According to starter state data at PBP stats, the league as a whole played 13.9 percent of possessions last season with only one starter on the floor. In the playoffs, that number cratered to 8.2 percent across all teams and all rounds. Granted, both of those figures were higher for the Pacers, who were one of only three teams without a 32-minute per game player during the regular season in 2018-19, but the drop-off was still nonetheless steep — plunging from 19.0 percent to 13.1 percent.
Doug McDermott, for instance, was a casualty of Boston’s switching tactics on one end of the floor and targeted assaults on the other, as he finished the series just 2-of-10 from the field without a made three, nor a single minute of action logged in Game 4.
To be fair, he’s a more active part of the offense now than he was then, and his improved willingness to put the ball on the floor means he won’t be as limited when teams prevent him from cutting backdoor or crowd him coming off screens; however, expecting him to be able to attack 1-on-1 after an opponent chases him over a screen and then switches is likely still a bridge too far.
Signs of that being the case have already started slowly cropping up as of late as opponents have taken to zeroing-in on his movement away from the ball.
Take this possession against the Hawks (of all teams!), for example. Because Kevin Huerter anticipated the off-ball screen from Justin Holiday and called out the switch, DeAndre’ Bembry was able to render the subsequent hand-off from Sabonis for naught by denying the first attempt and then overplaying McDermott’s right hand.
The counterpoint to this of course would be that he now plays with a stronger cast of teammates able to create their own shots, of which he will still provide utility by spacing the floor as a stationary kick-out option or intentional red herring. (To that point, since he ranks fifth in the entire league in points scored off screens, it would be interesting to see the numbers on what he’s shooting on standstill threes compared to those when he moves a certain number of feet immediately before releasing the shot — but, I digress.)
Either way, we know that he’s connected on 43 percent of his attempts from the corners...and that what’s happening, here, is a lot let less likely to happen again:
As was the trend across multiple series last 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 weak-side 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.
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).
Again, a lot has changed since then. For one, Sabonis has shown some improvement from mid-range, connecting on 46 percent of his attempts from in-between the paint and the three-point line compared to 38 percent a year ago.
Also, assuming McConnell is piloting the pick-and-roll in that scenario, McDermott, Lamb, and Holiday would be dotting the perimeter instead of Joseph and Young, which means opponents are going to have to contend with Sabonis as a weak-side passer as well as a roll-man. Admittedly, Lamb is far from being a proficient three-point shooter, but he’s started to find his stroke in January (47.6%). Plus, Sabonis has suddenly become more adept at whipping out these sort of no-look passes over his right shoulder that have a tendency to discombobulate X-out coverages.
It also feels more than a little noteworthy that T.J. McConnell has already assisted on nearly as many corner threes through 28 games (24) as Darren Collison (31) and Cory Joseph (28) did all of last season. Well-acquainted with skip passes and cross-court darts, dividing the floor in half isn’t as confining when the guard running point can still sniff out back alleys to the other side with cutters swirling around him. Admittedly, opponents may not be quite as eager to commit two to the ball against McConnell as the Celtics were versus Evans, but his ability to springboard into pull-up twos should at least keep defenders from ducking under without consequence.
Nagging concerns will continue to linger (i.e. Can Justin hold-up defensively at the four when teams look to punish him in the post? Will Sabonis stay hitting from mid-range in the postseason? What happens when teams target McDermott?), but it never hurts to have a lineup wrinkle in hand that’s destroyed opponents and provides built-in solves for some of the issues that plagued the five-man unit of Joseph-Evans-McDermott-Thad-Sabonis a year ago during the playoffs.
Still, assuming the Pacers ultimately rule in favor of depth over consolidation at the trade deadline, transitioning from survival mode to readjusting and, hopefully, clicking for the stretch-run of the season is going to require staying healthy as well as glancing into the future. It’s a delicate balance which arguably calls for them to play deep into their bench until someone proves they can’t.