It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. For the Pacers, that’s a cliche which would better read as, “How you start is rarely how you finish” — at least as it pertains to their preferred playing combinations in crunch-time. In general, we tend to think of closing lineups as consisting of a team’s best-five players, regardless of whether that group is the same as the starters (see: Golden State’s “Death Lineup” with Andre Iguodala). In Indiana’s case, though, not even that descriptor applies. Most typically, the Pacers don’t finish with their starting five, or what many would consider as their best five; they finish with a sliding five which consists of those players who have either played best or who best suit the match-up.
In fact, according to PBP stats, Indiana’s starting lineup (Malcolm Brogdon, Jeremy Lamb, T.J. Warren, Myles Turner, and Domantas Sabonis) has played less than 20 percent of the team’s total possessions as a unit in games that have been within five points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter and overtime. Granted, some of that is a product of injuries. Brogdon alone has missed seven such “clutch” games with the team going 4-3 in his absence compared to 9-5 when he’s been available, but Nate McMillan also doesn’t shy away from making adjustments or simply rolling with what’s working, either.
For example, take a look at this breakdown of each starter’s percentage of total on/off possessions in crunch-time with the understanding that there wasn’t always overlap in availability.
Unsurprisingly, T.J. Warren (who hasn’t missed a game this season) leads the pack in possessions played with the game on the line. Also highlighted by the data? The fact that a choice routinely gets made on Jeremy Lamb as well as between Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis, who sometimes tag-team offense for defense.
Both of those trends bore out over last week’s series of close games. Against Philadelphia, with Lamb shooting 2-of-8 from the field, McMillan toggled between the Holiday brothers before ultimately deciding to finish with Justin’s length as a counter for the potential mismatches which were being created by Ben Simmons screening for Josh Richardson.
From there on out, after Richardson bailed out his team’s inexplicably bad spacing with a deep three, the Sixers were held scoreless over the final 2:02 of the game, missing four shots and committing three turnovers.
In Minnesota, when the Timberwolves opted to close with Robert Covington at the four, McMillan went small. For about 50 seconds, Myles Turner got a chance to play solo five.
That is, until he failed to get back in transition amid what was already a rough shooting night (3-for-8).
After that, Sabonis reentered at center and he and Brogdon proceeded to pick apart Minnesota’s two-versus-two pick-and-roll coverage, with the latter scoring 10 points over the game’s final 4:18 to pull out the win while being flanked by wings.
Then, on the road against the Nuggets, they shape-shifted once again. First, tying things up at 95-95 with Brogdon and Sabonis surrounded by Warren and the slashing-and-splashing chemistry of T.J. McConnell and Doug McDermott. And then, playing big with Turner in place of McConnell once Mason Plumlee subbed in for Monte Morris.
Turns out, with Denver overloading to Sabonis as the roll-man, McMillan’s trust in McDermott, who scored 18 points in the fourth quarter, was well-placed — particularly given that Lamb was coming up empty against nearly the same scheme.
“He (Nate) rode with the hot group,” McDermott told FSI’s Jeremiah Johnson. “We had a great thing going. We got stops down the stretch and we were sharing the ball...a coach that has confidence in you, it’s easy to play basketball that way.”
In the end, the Pacers swept four close games with the starters only being out there at the end in the second meeting with the Timberwolves, when both teams went tit-for-tat with costly turnovers until Brogdon drilled a casual, wrong-footed floater in the soft spot of Minnesota’s drop coverage.
“I’m comfortable with Malcolm handling the ball whether he’s initiating offense or running it,” Nate McMillan told reporters after Brogdon once again made huge plays down the stretch. “Once we’re under a minute, normally we’re involving Malcolm and Domas (Sabonis) in some type of two-man game. Those two have been the guys who have done good things for us this season. We’re going to put the ball in his hands and let him make decisions for us.”
That said, it isn’t as if riding the hot hand hasn’t come back to bite them on occasion — especially in games without Brogdon. Take, for instance, what happened in Miami. With Sabonis playing his worst game of the season (8 points, 4-of-11 shooting), McMillan opted to play the final possession with Turner at solo five alongside Aaron Holiday, Jeremy Lamb, Doug McDermott, and T.J. Warren.
In theory, it made sense. Turner had outplayed Sabonis. Aaron is more capable of scoring without the ball than McConnell, and McDermott had knocked down two threes earlier in the quarter.
But, here’s the thing: Prior to that night, that group had logged exactly three minutes of action together, and it showed. With scant late-game experience, and in the absence of Brogdon-Sabonis pick-and-roll as a security blanket, McMillan called for a simple ghost screening action between McDermott and Holiday. The only problem is, Aaron got turned just as McDermott slipped free, providing ample opportunity for Miami to switch.
Worse yet, the only reason a score was necessary on that possession was because they had surrendered third-chance points (yep, you read that right) on the other end just prior — which was somewhat predictable with Sabonis on the bench.
That’s the downside of trying to close out games with individuals who are playing well but may not fit particularly well together.
The counterpoints to that of course would be: 1) Brogdon was out, and 2) so was Oladipo. After all, the former scored 22 clutch points over the last week alone, and the latter shot an other-worldly 63.2 percent during winning time last season.
Still, the degree to which they adapt to their opponent in those situations rather than attempting to make a go of forcing their opponent to bend to them seems notable.
On the season, Turner and Sabonis have been on the floor together for less than 60 percent of the team’s clutch-time possessions. For example, they didn’t go big late against Denver until Denver went big. When Danillo Gallinari showcased his range through three quarters in Oklahoma City, the Pacers shifted Warren to the four and eventually benched a foul happy Sabonis in favor of Turner. Against Boston’s smaller front line, the pair of centers subbed in and out for each other seven times over the last two minutes, with Turner logging less than a minute of action in the final frame as the Holidays came up big off the bench.
To be fair, all of those games resulted in wins, which shines a bright spotlight on Indiana’s depth and makeshift versatility. However, in the playoffs, when possessions are valued more highly and rotations shrink with specialized game-plans, it seems as though it will also be necessary to feel confident imposing your will with two of your best, highest-paid players on the floor regardless of what your opponent is doing — especially given the team’s lack of rock solid depth at power fauxward.
And yet, when it comes to racking up wins, Nate McMillan deserves a bunch of credit for pressing the right buttons at the right moment in terms of player combinations.
The Pacers don’t have a closing lineup; they have closers.
And, for now at least, that’s enough.