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Why long rebounds continue to evade the Pacers

And why no one person, in and of themselves, is to blame.

Indiana Pacers v Miami Heat Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

At first blush, it probably seems odd — or, rather, inexcusable — that a team featuring two starting centers would be languishing among the league’s bottom dwellers in defensive rebounding rate (24th). And yet, consider this possession from Thursday night’s loss to the Denver Nuggets, in which the Pacers surrendered 19 second chance points.

Early in the first quarter, Jamal Murray set a screen for Paul Millsap in the corner to cut to the basket with point center Nikola Jokic dealing from the elbow. Noticing that T.J. Warren had pre-preemptively inched off his man to help on the cut, Jokic threw a no-look dart to Gary Harris in the corner. As Harris rose up for three, Warren flew by on the closeout and prepared himself to leak-out in transition. Except, his teammates didn’t collect the miss. Ricocheting hard off the front of the rim, the ball sailed over top of Domantas Sabonis, bounced once, and arrived conveniently back in the hands of Harris.

Featuring a smidgen of randomness, lack of focus, and a long carom, that sequence perfectly encapsulates Indiana’s main foe when it comes to attacking the glass. Per PBP stats, on possessions featuring missed shots, Indiana’s defensive rebounding rate, by league-rank, is worse with shot distance. In fact, the Pacers don’t just rank dead-last in overall 3-point defensive rebounding rate; they also rank dead-last in corralling opponent misses on shots from the longer distance above the break.

On the surface, this may not seem like it matters that much. After all, the Pacers are 6-4 this season when they surrender at least 14 offensive rebounds, a win-percentage that is only slightly worse than their overall record. Delve deeper, however, and you’ll notice that three of those losses have something very important in common: They came at the hands of three of the league’s top-five teams in terms of record — Milwaukee, Miami, and Denver.

Turns out, with the exception of the Lakers (sans Anthony Davis), and Sixers (sans Joel Embiid), bleeding second chance opportunities isn’t as survivable against teams that are above .500 as it is against the likes of Brooklyn, Charlotte, Washington, and New York.

Let’s take a closer look at what’s been going wrong:

Lucky Bounces

As is laid out here by ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry, missed corners threes tend to exhibit a weak-side bias — at least when it comes to shorter rebounds.

Keeping that in mind, look at where the Pacers were positioned when Harris misfired from the left corner on Thursday night. Turner and Holiday are both standing in the general range of where most of those misses tend to land.

The only problem is, Harris’ shot missed hard off the front of the rim, resulting in a longer, less predictable ricochet.

It was an unlucky glance, to be sure, but the Pacers also could’ve done more to manufacture their own luck. This isn’t like sending wings to the offensive glass. There isn’t a risk of failing to get back on defense, here. Yes, the Pacers may miss out on an easy scoring opportunity, but there’s only two ways to end a defensive possession: forcing a turnover and securing a rebound.

As such, when the shot goes up, Warren needs to concern himself, first, with the latter before attempting to create a numbers advantage — especially since the Pacers, as a team, haven’t been all that good from an efficiency standpoint in transition (25th).

Energy finds the ball

We tend to associate fighting for position as a concept that only occurs between two bigs under and around the basket; but, in reality, those types of skirmishes are subtly waged all over the floor — regardless of if the Pacers choose to actively participate.

Take this possession against the Miami Heat, for example, and spot the difference.

After Duncan Robinson pulled the trigger from three, notice how Justin Holiday immediately spun around and at least attempted to wall off Bam Adebayo from the offensive glass? Now, compare and contrast that to Myles Turner and Jeremy Lamb, who just idly stood there and banked on the miss falling into their laps, instead of carving out space to increase their chances of catching it.

That wasn’t an isolated incident either. In fact, it happened again mere minutes later.

The same was the case, here, when all five Pacers had inside position and Will Barton (Lamb’s check) still managed to sneak in from behind to snare the extra opportunity.

If that looks familiar, it’s because Gary Harris did the exact same thing moments earlier.

As the saying goes, energy finds the ball. Opponents know that the Pacers aren’t apt to box-out the little guys, and they’re leveraging that to their advantage by looping up from the baseline and crashing in from the perimeter.

Where does my help come from?

Oftentimes, long-range shots occur when the defense is scrambling out from the basket, which means there’s fewer players inside to box-out.

Such was the case on an errant corner three from Derrick Jones Jr. in Miami. With Jimmy Butler attacking down the middle of the floor off a hedged screen, Doug McDermott sunk to help on the drive as T.J. Warren — albeit, a step slow — attempted to fill the passing lanes. Once Butler squeezed the pass through to Kelly Olynyk, McDermott and Warren rectified the situation by swapping match-ups and creating an X on their paths to recovery, but Lamb was in no-man’s land and Sabonis wrongly presupposed a weak-side ricochet.

With only one player in position to put a body on Butler, and no one actually putting a body a Butler, he was able to get a hand on the ball and bat it over to Jones, thereby securing yet another offensive rebound.

But, what about when the reverse is true?

The natural inclination against the Bucks is to build a wall in transition, but that comes at an obvious cost when Giannis doesn’t touch the ball.

Here, the ball flew over the heads of four out of five Pacers, in part, because Myles Turner was like a moth to the flame on the initial defend.

Again, a long shot led to a long rebound. And, again, the Pacers could’ve done more to put themselves in range of the ball. As in, before the shot even went up, Brogdon should’ve risked the furthest away pass to Wesley Matthews in order to mark Antetokounmpo. If that had happened, he likely would’ve saved Turner from himself in terms of getting sucked into the lane, which means someone would’ve been available near the top of the key to challenge Brook Lopez to the ball.

It’s those sort of little things that can have a chain-reaction on the glass that the Pacers need to clean up. While not a missed three, you can trace a direct line between the help coverage and Will Barton snagging this close-range board.

Per usual, Lamb could have been more active looking to make contact with his check, but he also wouldn’t have needed to step off of Barton in the first place if Warren had immediately stunted toward Murray as the cutter once the pass occurred.

And, yes, that extra support likely would’ve been needed regardless of if Brogdon was available. With Murray ghosting an off-ball screen prior to coming off the wide pindown, there was going to be a certain degree of lag there no matter who was trailing Murray for the Pacers.

Rebounding is a team effort, and that’s why, in each of these examples, from where and when the help comes can have a significant impact on how, and if, the team is able to control the glass.

Of course, that isn’t to say that individuals, or combinations of individuals, don’t have an effect on how the whole functions. For instance, in the 567 minutes that Sabonis has been off the floor, the Pacers have the equivalent of the worst defensive rebounding rate in the league. That said, as you may have noticed, while some of the issues that exist in his presence are compounded in his absence, his being on the bench doesn’t entirely explain why long rebounds borne of long-range shots have continued to evade them.

For that, they need to focus on staying connected on defense while asking more from their wings in terms of urgency and overall positioning.

That’s extra work, but as giving up 19 second chance points in an 8-point loss to Denver goes to show, their regular rotation might not have the noses for the ball to do it any other way.