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The Pacers are putting innovation before tradition with zone defense

The Pacers aren’t typically apt to follow the latest fads on defense, so why are they suddenly amenable to changing with the times now?

Milwaukee Bucks v Indiana Pacers Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

With 6:49 to play in the first quarter against the Brooklyn Nets, the Indiana Pacers did something they haven’t done all season. Coming out of a timeout at the first dead-ball under the seven-minute mark, they quickly assembled into two regimented lines and switched from their standard man-to-man defense into a 3-2 zone.

For a team which has long-prided itself on sticking to and succeeding with simple defensive principles (i.e. staying in front of their men, keeping their hands up, and funneling all dribble penetration to the middle of the floor), it was a bold move offering an alternate way out as well as a seat at the table with the ever-expanding in-crowd, but it also felt borderline sacrilegious. This season, per Synergy, 25 teams have run at least 10 possessions of zone, with the Pacers standing firm as one of the league’s last remaining holdouts.

That is, until last week — when it also just so happens they were mired in a losing streak and fresh off a loss to the New Orleans Pelicans (sans Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram) in which they surrendered 124 points and 16 offensive rebounds while being carved up off the dribble and slow to recover out to shooters.

Turns out, getting dusted on the perimeter can be a powerful motivator to give what’s cool a try. After all, the Pacers have already acquiesced to switching screens that don’t involve the center on occasion when playing small, so why not attempt to further cover for some of their deficiencies contesting in rearview pursuit with a crowded paint?

Thus far, their attempts to dabble in the alternate form of defense have been met with mixed results. Against Brooklyn, they ran zone four times, with each defensive possession taking place either after a timeout or against a sideline out of bounds play, but the abrupt changes in coverage didn’t exactly seem to catch the Nets, a team which runs plenty of zone and takes and makes threes at a top-six rate, by surprise.

Instead, almost like clock-work, Joe Harris or Garrett Temple would dash from one side of the floor to the other and put pressure on the bigs forming the back-line of the zone to scamper out to the corners, a tall order when also tasked with busting through a screen.

Milwaukee, however, was a little more disjointed, which resulted in some ugly possessions.

Here, for instance, the Bucks attempted to gain a numbers advantage by running Pat Connaughton off a stagger for a 3-on-2. But instead of fading behind the screen and punishing Oladipo for shooting the gap; the sharpshooter over ran it, effectively resulting in an offensive reset.

Then, when Khris Middleton attempted to salvage the play by flashing middle, three Pacers converged on the ball and forced him to make a pass. By the time everything was all said and done, the league’s fastest team (even without Giannis Antetokounmpo on the floor) was goaded into siphoning off precious seconds of the shot-clock for a challenging post-up.

Plowing through the zone for a contested layup also didn’t end particularly well for the Bucks. Screening the inside of the top of a 3-2 zone is a fine strategy, as it forces the two outside defenders to have to squeeze and can open up the corners, but Eric Bledsoe made no attempt to even survey the surrounding area for potential openings.

Rather, when Malcolm Brogdon was slow stunting toward the ball (ahem...dude has not been moving well on defense, so much so that it seems fair to wonder if that isn’t at least part of the impetus for some of the experimentation that’s been going on of late at that end of the floor), Milwaukee’s starting point guard just automatically put his head down and pressed forward toward the rim, to which Myles Turner effectively said, “Nah, man.”

And, here’s the thing: The Pacers came out in a zone after Milwaukee called for a timeout at the 10:18 mark of the first quarter, and for the next several possessions, they switched back to it anytime there was a dead ball. In turn, the Bucks came up empty on four of their next five shots, as they were forced to identify and respond to a turnstile of different coverages

That said, it wasn’t always quite that disruptive. Playing zone is all about rotations and communication, so preventing this type of a long contest from Sabonis needs to start with Doug McDermott staying attached to Ersan Illysova as the screener and calling for Jeremy Lamb to jump over to Khris Middleton coming off the pindown.

That way, Sabonis wouldn’t be stuck in limbo between leaving Illysova open under the basket and closing out to Sterling Brown, which ultimately resulted in giving up an offensive rebound.

The same can be said, here, when Connaughton drew the attention of both Holiday and Lamb rocketing up to the top of the key off a down screen and Illyasova managed to slip unabated to the basket until McDermott had no choice but to foul.

Also, if they’re going to attempt to drop back into a zone off a missed free throw, then T.J. Warren can’t allow himself to get sucked this far into the lane.

That’s the two sides of playing zone: On the one hand, doing the unexpected can force opponents to think too hard and throw them off their rhythm, but on the other hand executing something so alien can be gimmicky and easily give way to inherent gaps.

Still, for the Pacers, masking certain vulnerabilities might be worth creating others if it means coaxing the Bucks into playing slower or keeps the Celtics from running as much high pick-and-roll with Kemba Walker or shields Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis from getting into inevitable foul trouble against Joel Embiid.

In that event, what may have been thrown out there as a last-resort during an extended losing streak could very well turn out to be an invaluable curve-ball later on. Zone has its limits, but so too has Indiana against lightning-quick point guards and more imposing big men. With other teams being ready and willing to zone up the Pacers, there’s reason to put innovation before tradition in spots. Not only to avoid being left behind in a copy-cat league, but also to camouflage flaws that can otherwise be tough to mask.