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Five questions for the Pacers during the seeding games

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And why Indiana will still be worth watching — with or without Victor Oladipo.

Indiana Pacers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Two weeks ago, before it was known that the Pacers would once again need to re-calibrate around the absence of Victor Oladipo, the NBA revealed its schedule to close out the 2019-20 season. Then seen as an opportunity to assess the once high-octane guard’s rehab progress while also gearing up for the playoffs, the eight-game slate, as well as whatever follows next, now feels significantly less informative in terms of gauging the team’s overall ceiling — depending upon whether or not he plays.

That said, though Indiana will be without the benefit of Jeremy Lamb as a temporary stop-gap measure in either event, there is still much that the Pacers can learn about themselves in the present even if their future remains stuck on pause.

As such, here is a list of things to watch for in the seeding games.

How will the Pacers defend Joel Embiid?

When last the Pacers saw Joel Embiid on November 30, he racked up 32 points while going a perfect 15-for-15 at the line. Per usual, within the first five minutes of the game, the balletic big man sent Myles Turner to the bench with two fouls, virtually rendering the top-tier rim protector non-existent for the remainder of the contest. Altogether, Embiid drew seven fouls against Turner (4) and Sabonis (3), including the latter’s sixth with under two minutes to play. This is a problem that needs solving regardless of Victor Oladipo’s playing status, but it becomes all the more critical in the event of his absence, when Sabonis needs to be on hand to quarterback even more of the offense and the option to double from the high-side with speed is no longer there — or, at least, not there to the same extent.

In November, though it was arguably too little to late for the sake of Turner’s rhythm (who, by the way, hasn’t scored in double figures in a game against Embiid since March of 2018), the Pacers eventually experimented with mixing in some white coverages (i.e. fronting the post) as well as face-guarding in an attempt to prevent the three-time All-Star from getting the ball in the first place, let alone parading to the charity stripe.

Coming out with this adjustment from the get-go in the seeding-game opener would give Turner a better chance of staying on the floor, especially if they cross-match Sabonis with Embiid. However, they’ll risk giving up high-low passes unless their wings get sharper at bringing the low-man across the lane to double from the back-side (i.e. red coverage).

Otherwise, Indiana could look at implementing the defensive wrinkle they started work-shopping in early February amid their six-game losing streak: 3-2 zone. Scoring on only 56 of 135 zone possessions, the Sixers were baffled by Miami’s 2-3 coverage this season. The difference though for the Pacers is that their system calls for the bigs to close out to the corners, which has the potential to leave the low-post vulnerable.

Against Brooklyn, for instance, when the Nets had Joe Harris dash from one side of the floor to the other in order to create a numbers advantage, it was Myles Turner who was tasked with scampering out to the three-point line.

If this is the case against Philadelphia, then the opposite post-defender (in this case, Doug McDermott) would be responsible for sliding over and wrestling with Embiid. Not only is that not much of a systematic upgrade over what they’ve already been trying; it also has the potential to be a big ole yikes depending upon the match-up.

To cover for that potential pitfall, once the ball is entered to the post, the Pacers could either call for Justin Holiday to go set a trap or have him jump back and forth between the ball and his man in order to attempt to keep Embiid off balance. Granted, this would likely leave a shooter open; however, given some of Philly’s spacing issues, perhaps that’s an acceptable trade-off if it results in fewer shots and/or touches for their top-scoring option while forcing them to think against multiple types of defense and (hopefully) preventing Myles Turner from being repeatedly turned into paper mache.

Plus, with a tiebreaker on the line in what is apparently a bitter rivalry for defensive coordinator Dan Burke, there’s also potential for intrigue in terms of exactly how much the Pacers will be willing to show of their hand while at a talent disadvantage against a possible first-round opponent.

Will Domantas Sabonis shoot 3s?

Not unlike last summer when the Lithuanian National Team shared footage of Sabonis shooting from deep in an empty gym alongside Jonas Valanciunas, video has once again surfaced of the lefty big man working on his threes. A year ago, the fruits of that “highly informative” labor translated into exactly one three-point attempt at the FIBA World Cup and barely over one per game with the Pacers.

This time, however, maybe father knows best?

“You’ve got to get that mid-range shot consistent and then spread out to the 3-point line,” Sabonis revealed of his dad’s recent advice in a diary posted to “Once you do that, they have to respect you. I know you can drive by people. You have all the other tools. It’s going to change everything for you. It will make it easier for you to pass, too.”

If the winds of change are actually going to start blowing, the game against Washington on August 3 should provide an accurate vane for his willingness to let the ball fly.

Way back in November, long before Oladipo returned from injury, the Wizards were showing exactly how willing they would be to leave Indiana’s offensive fulcrum open in space. With Thomas Robinson dropping deep against Malcolm Brogdon, and Troy Brown Jr. hesitant to stunt over from the slot, imagine how much more room Sabonis would’ve had to line up this shot if he had popped to outside the three-point line.

Therefore, assuming the Wizards, sans Bradley Beal and Davis Bertans, continue to prioritize Sabonis as a roller, then he should have ample opportunity to put himself to the test as a shooter.

Can the Pacers stay big against Houston’s micro-ball?

Just prior to the league’s shutdown, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis logged over 30 minutes of action together against the Celtics after playing just 15 in the same match-up back in December. Granted, the Pacers needed Victor Oladipo’s hot shooting to claw back into that game, and they’ve yet to face Boston this season with all four of Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Jayson Tatum, but it was nonetheless a positive sign in terms of actually evaluating the viability of the pairing against smaller lineups.

Now, pending Oladipo’s availability, Indiana’s thin guard rotation could make it tougher to downsize with like-sized defenders, so Nate McMillan might not have much other choice against Houston’s micro-ball than to attempt to generate extra possessions with both of his centers on the floor.

That said, though the Rockets have the worst defensive rebounding rate in the league since the trade deadline, arguably more important than trying to out-muscle their herd of stocky guards with size is wearing them down by moving the ball faster than they can rotate.

In the first meeting between these two teams, Sabonis was uncharacteristically frazzled against Houston’s switches as well as against double-teams. Take a closer look at this possession from midway through the third quarter.

On top of being slow to attack the mismatch, he botched the pass with Austin Rivers zoning up the weak side when it appeared as though P.J. Tucker was coming to double. These weak-side rotations that require zoning-up off-ball shooters are where the Rockets have a tendency to make mistakes, so it’s important that the Pacers don’t let them off the hook by making mistakes of their own.

Also, given Indiana’s potential to surrender threes and layups while defending big versus small, throwing in a few extra split-cuts to assist Sabonis in making the post a vehicle for assisted threes might not be such a bad idea.

Will Myles Turner be more involved?

With fewer screens to go around in a lineup featuring increased scoring power and two centers, Myles Turner has once again been forced to fit into a more limited role. On the season, his usage rate (17.4) is lower even than when he was planted next to a healthy Oladipo in 2017-18 (19.9), and seven Pacers are currently averaging more touches.

But, here’s the thing: According to lineup data at PBP stats, Turner’s usage rate actually has dropped further still over the 184 possessions in which Aaron Holiday, who could be in line for a larger workload, has played with the normal starters in place of Oladipo and Lamb. As can been seen in the chart below, Turner’s diminished role in that particular unit isn’t a product of opportunity knocking for Aaron, but rather leaning more heavily on the reliable, two-man craft of Brogdon and Sabonis.

Consequently, with or without Oladipo, it doesn’t seem likely that Turner’s number will be called more often — unless, of course, he starts finding ways to more actively assert himself within the already existing offense.

To that point, given that he’s shot on a lower percentage of his touches this season (23.6 percent) than he did as a rookie (25.0 percent), putting some of the face-up skills to use that he’s apparently been attempting to fine-tune during quarantine would be a good place to start in order to avoid needing to pass out of contested shots (as, of course, would trusting in the height of his release).

Likewise, finding spots on the court where he can cut when Sabonis is the roll-man would not only put additional pressure on the defense; it would increase his chances at getting more shots. After all, as a floor spacer in an offense built around the playmaking skills of another big, the system isn’t exactly set up for Turner’s role to naturally expand, but he and the team both have it within their power to widen the breadth of what he’s already doing.

Will the Heat play zone against the Pacers?

If the standings stay as they currently are, the potential is there for the Pacers to play Miami nine times over a span of three weeks. Thus far, despite the fact that Indiana has struggled against zone this season, the Heat have yet to play a single possession of 2-3 against the Pacers. This, despite the clear incentives to do so. With regulated lines of defenders making it tougher to run pick-and-roll, playing zone effectively dares the Pacers to be what they aren’t — a high-volume, three-point shooting team with greater dependence on players other than Malcolm Brogdon to attack the gaps.

In that sense, keep an eye on Aaron Holiday, especially if he can avoid matching-up with Tyler Herro off the bench. Overall, other than when T.J. McConnell is pushing the pace to try to thwart the other team from setting up in a zone in the first place, Indiana has a tendency to either idly pass the ball around the perimeter hoping for their opponent to make a mistake or they attempt to overload one side of the floor with a shooter. Down the stretch of their win over the Raptors in December, however, Aaron played a key part in tearing holes in Toronto’s 2-3 with Sabonis screening the outside of the top of the zone.

Casually pulling the trigger from way downtown, the second-year guard also beat the coverage by rising above it instead of attempting to charge through it.

Prior to the shutdown, Aaron had missed 25 of his last 33 attempts from three. If the Pacers are going to be successful at cracking Miami’s or any other team’s zone in the bubble, his ability to break out of that slump after a four-month layover while also finding seams in the coverage will likely be a big contributing factor.