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Three things the Pacers can learn about themselves during hiatus

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With the Pacers continuing to trudge through the uncertainty of now, we came up with some suggested topics for quarantined introspection.

Atlanta Hawks v Indiana Pacers Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

With Indy’s current stay-at-home order in place until May 15, the Pacers, per report, have started taking small steps toward reopening their practice facility for voluntary, socially distanced workouts, which is to say nothing of when actual practices — let alone games — will resume. Nate McMillan has been upfront about putting the players in a mindset of “prepare to play,” but the NBA-sanctioned workouts, at least for the foreseeable future, are voluntary and it remains to be seen how many players will return to market to take advantage.

According to diaries posted to Pacers.com, access to basketball hoops has varied considerably across the team. Domantas Sabonis, for instance, relayed that he’s been limited to using an outdoor goal at his girlfriend’s mom’s house via bike ride, whereas T.J. Warren admitted that he’s been getting up shots with keys to a private gym.

Either way, until the league in conjunction with health officials and the proper government agencies deems it safe to play 5-on-5 with head coaches present, continuing to breakdown film with a discerning eye will arguably be the the best way for the Pacers to gear up for the potentiality of the playoffs short of partaking in standalone shooting and conditioning drills.

Therefore, without need for loosened shelter-in-place restrictions or risk of contracting the virus, here’s three things the Pacers can learn about themselves while sticking mostly close to home.

The heat needs to be on the Heat to iron out new wrinkles

Take away the brouhaha between T.J. Warren and Jimmy Butler, and one thing stands out from Indiana’s 122-108 loss to the Miami Heat on January 8: The disparity from the 3-point line. Not only in terms of raw scoring output, but also by way of shot prevention. Miami and Indiana both like to run hand-offs and two-screen actions, but only one team was consistently successful at freeing up shooters with swirling, off-ball movement.

Why?

Because, while Duncan Robinson and Tyler Herro were darting over and around picks and pitches for open shots like parkour athletes, Doug McDermott’s wavelength with Sabonis was repeatedly disrupted.

Granted, running dribble hand-offs at Justise Winslow, who has since been traded to the Grizzlies, certainly factored, but Miami also forced the Pacers to play out of pocket by walling off McDermott with switches and then overplaying his right hand.

Now, if Victor Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon both return from this hiatus in tip-top form and can persistently get into the paint, then McDermott would of course still provide utility as a stationary kick-out option; however, it begs mentioning that T.J. Warren’s involvement on offense also suffered this season against Miami.

As in, maybe don’t attempt to play two-man game against Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo?

On the night, Warren scored three points on five shots before being ejected midway through the third quarter, and McDermott went o-fer from deep with three of his four attempts coming by way of tightly contested looks off away screens.

And, here’s the thing: Both of them would’ve benefited from running more two-screen actions (yep, the very thing Miami was shutting down), but with a twist — or, rather, twirl.

In basketball-speak, twirl is a curl cut around a screen, which for the Pacers, typically precedes a stagger wherein the first screener then flips around and flies off the second.

Allow T.J. Warren and Justin Holiday to demonstrate:

For the sake of diversity, the Pacers need to come equipped with more wrinkles baked into this pet play in order to keep the Heat guessing. Going back to the original example, for instance, McDermott could screen for the middle player’s man. That way, they would either create confusion on the switch, or Winslow would have a bunch of ground to cover on the pop instead of just waiting for Justin Holiday to come to him.

Another option they could look at, especially for Warren, would be to have the professional scorer circle around to the corner on the “twirl” portion of the action with the middle player wheeling around to set a ball screen, like so:

In this instance, unlike the aforementioned two-man game possession, which Adebayo neutered by switching onto the ball, Warren would only have to shake the player trailing him, who most likely wouldn’t be Butler with Oladipo back in the fold. Plus, as an added benefit, Warren would get a clean shot in the left corner, where he’s shot above 45 percent this season.

Overall, which counters the Pacers choose to employ isn’t nearly as important as the choice to actually employing counters. Miami has shooters and defenders, but they don’t have a lot of shooters who can also defend. In January, the Pacers failed to take advantage of that reality on either end of the floor, misfiring on 11 of their first 14 attempts from deep while getting outscored by 21 points from the three-point line for the game. Some of that can be attributed to hot-and-cold shooting, but not all of it. If the standings remain as they currently are, and this turns out to be a first-round series, Indiana is going to have to come better equipped to make the Heat pay for their roster’s lack of duality.

The help defense needs help

When the Pacers lost six consecutive games to begin February, something strange happened to their basic defense: It disappeared. This was especially the case with their help coverage, and Malcolm Brogdon was one of the main culprits.

Typically, when an on-ball defender gets beat, the big slides over to trap the box with the weak-side corner defender sinking into the legs of the dump-off option. Here, however, not only does Lamb give up middle penetration (a big no-no), but Brogdon shows no inclination to help at the nail or zone up the shooters when Warren slides over to help the helper.

Instead, he’s standing straight-up and flat-footed, unaware of potential cutters and unprepared to race out to the perimeter on the kick-out pass in a timely fashion.

It’s probably fair to attribute a portion of the blame for this game, in which the Pacers gave up 15 threes to the Pelicans on nearly 40 percent shooting, on the back-to-back blues, but the fact of the matter is that some of these issues with Brogdon’s help defense lingered up until he was ruled out with a quad muscle injury in March.

Here, just two days before he exited the game against the Bucks after playing only 11 minutes, he appeared hesitant to jab-step toward Trey Lyles, perhaps out of fear of not being able to return to guarding position should the ball get swung — even against Dejounte Murray, a low-volume 3-point shooter.

Whether the result of nagging issues from his wide array of bumps and bruises, or merely the effects of fatigue, the Pacers are going to need Brogdon to tighten up the portion of the string he defends on, especially now that he’s declared himself 100 percent healthy.

It may not be realistic for the 27-year-old point guard to suddenly become quicker at the point of attack, but he should be able to shore up his help coverage on slot and wing drives.

No holds barred

Myles Turner’s outright admittance of the awkwardness that existed between himself and Nate McMillan at the start of the season with regard to his change in position has arguably been the most curious Pacers-related topic to emerge over the last two months. While speaking on the Pull Up with C.J. McCollum, Turner candidly laid out what led to him being on two different pages with his coach:

“In the summertime, the organization and (Nate McMillan), they told me to work on my post ups and said we need you to start posting up more, we’re going to start feeding you the ball in the post, yada yada… So I spent an entire summer working on my post moves, working on counters, this and that. Then, I get to the season and it’s like, ‘Yo, we need you to go on the perimeter, we need you to space to the corner, we need you to shoot more threes.’ So, I spent an entire summer working on a completely different package.”

On the one hand, there’s no reason to doubt Turner’s account of why he felt unprepared for his shift in role; however, on the other hand, it’s hard to understand why expectations for his shift in role were so unclear. As soon as the team announced that Domantas Sabonis would be starting, it was evident that either he or Turner would need to space out to three and that Turner was the more obvious choice. Even if the organization wanted him to work on his post moves (which was needed against a switch, regardless of if he was playing the four or the five), why wasn’t the memo on roll-replace and evacuating the dunker’s spot in favor of the corner better communicated prior to training camp?

In any case, Turner’s adjustment to floating back and forth between double-big minutes and solo-five was undeniably slow-going over the first few months of the season and could still use a bit of a push.

For instance, kudos to Myles for watching film and being willing to accept what’s best for the team at great individual sacrifice, but he’s shot on a lower percentage of his touches this season (23.6 percent) than he did as a rookie (25.0 percent). Granted, a portion of that dip may be a product of his improved recognition as a passer over that span of time, but he’s also done his fair share of self-checking and/or second-guessing.

On the rare occasions when he’s guarded by opposing rim protectors, the Pacers need him to let the ball fly without thinking.

And, really, the same mentality should apply against smaller forwards, too. To be fair, putting the ball on the floor has a been a positive step in Turner’s overall development this season, but he’s 6-foot-11 with a high-towering release. Rather than throwing a grenade to T.J. McConnell (of all people!) in the corner, wait for Justin Holiday to clear out and shoot over the top.

Especially since, if the current playoff standings stay as they are, the Pacers will be on the same side of the bracket as the Bucks, who take away the rim better than anyone. In that event, finding ways to get Myles more involved, whether as a spread shooter when occasionally defended by Brook Lopez in a deep drop or as a potential kick-out option or equal but opposite cutter when Giannis Antetokounmpo is roaming, will be critical.

To that point, however, making more of a purposeful effort to put stress on the four-man as a tagger when both bigs are on the floor would be a boon against any opponent.

Take this possession against the Heat, for example. The Pacers are loosely set up in “V” formation or horns, but instead of popping out beyond the arc and forcing Bam to make a choice between bumping Sabonis on the roll and staying at home at the three-point line, Turner exited the action behind his defender and ultimately got bodied into a difficult layup under the basket.

Alternatively, if Aaron Holiday had dribbled off of the opposite side of the would-be double-ball screen, then Turner could’ve slipped the pick and come off a built-in flare from Sabonis to similar effect. In essence, it’s those types of spots, where Turner has the opportunity to get in where he fits in, that both he and the team need to identify with more regularity.

On the season, the Pacers have been outscored by 10.2 points per 100 possessions with Turner and Sabonis on the floor together in games against Milwaukee, Toronto, Boston, Philadelphia, and Miami. Admittedly, plenty of those were played without Oladipo and/or Brogdon, but treading that far below sea level also goes to show that it can’t hurt to exhaust other options — especially those which have barely been explored.