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The Pacers need to perfect the art of defending with speed

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With small-ball replacing tall-ball, Indiana must undergo a transformation overnight on defense as well as offense.

Without Domantas Sabonis, much of the focus will be on what the Pacers lose in cohesion and potentially gain in pace and ball-handling. But the changes can’t just be limited to the offensive end of the floor, where launching threes with staccato, rapid-fire bursts of drive-and-kick must suddenly serve as a replacement for inside-out craft and side-to-side fluidity; defensive tweaks will also be necessary. After starting the season with too much size to effectively chase opposing stretch fours, Indiana now faces the dilemma of not having enough size — or, rather, rock-solid sturdiness — to play up a position with small-ball.

It was subtle, but the potential defensive issues stemming from the team’s overall lack of perimeter heft already started to show up during the scrimmage schedule. Against Portland, for instance, Carmelo Anthony didn’t shy away from screening for the ball in order to hunt Victor Oladipo on the block. Granted, at the last minute, T.J. Warren made a valiant attempt to rotate over in order to greet the quick spin move at the basket, but Anthony still managed to power over the top while drawing the attention of three defenders.

This matters for several reasons. For one, because Warren doesn’t possess the verticality to dare bigger forwards to go through him, JaKarr Sampson ends up being overly fixated with providing an extra layer of defense at the rim instead of boxing out. At a macro-level, however, this possession also highlights the potential increase for wear-and-tear that could be incurred by Oladipo as a result of playing in smaller lineups.

Think of it this way: In addition to smashing down from the wings in order to help the bigs rebound, the high-octane guard will also now have to withstand bouts of bully ball as a product of switching while also needing to attack the basket on higher volume — not only to mitigate his own off shooting nights but also to restructure how the team generates open looks from deep. On the season, Sabonis (111) ranks second to just T.J. McConnell (127) in assists on made three-pointers. Admittedly, assists can be a noisy stat because accumulating them in bulk is dependent upon touch time as well as playing alongside accurate shooters (i.e. Doug McDermott and Justin Holiday), but the points still stands that the Pacers no longer have the lefty big man’s skills as a ball-mover to lean on in high-leverage situations and instead must rely more on dribble penetration and floor spacing — whether or not they realize it.

All of that adds up to a lot of fatigue for a player who already previously opted out of the restart due to injury concerns and effectively underscores why Indiana would benefit from defending with speed rather than expecting players without low centers of gravity to repeatedly take hits from bigger bodies.

Take a closer look at this possession against the Spurs. In order to avoid stranding Aaron Holiday’s 6-foot frame on an island with Rudy Gay after the initial 1-4 switch, what if the Pacers had called for Myles Turner to rotate as soon as the ball was in the air?

With the scram switch, the Pacers would’ve eliminated the size mismatch in the post and likely been more willing to live with the results of Brogdon embedding his stockier build directly in the path of Jakob Poeltl. That said, executing this sort of scheme is trickier when the player who is attempting to walk into the post is surrounded by a maze of picks.

Here, before DeMar DeRozan screened for Aaron Holiday’s check, he set a back-screen for Marco Belinelli, who then had the option to wheel around a potential stagger as a decoy.

In this case, because the threat exists for Belinelli to fade coming around the staggered screens, the best course of action would arguably be for Brogdon to scram out the mismatch like he would off a clear-out with Aaron then either racing to meet the sharpshooter at the top of the key or bumping Oladipo to the corner depending upon the read. Either way, this likely wouldn’t have happened:

On the surface, promoting Justin Holiday or Edmond Sumner to the starting lineup seems like a simpler solution, but the opportunity to head-hunt Oladipo — even in the absence of Aaron — would still exist with the latter and the former is crucial to spacing the floor for the bench and already sops up residual minutes at power fauxward. Consequently, while it’s probably fair to expect that Justin will close some games against bigger wings, the Pacers are still going to have to adapt defensively in spots to playing ultra-small around Myles Turner.

To that point, in addition to potentially fronting and zoning imposing low-post threats like Joel Embiid with crisp rotations and double-teams, Indiana may also need to implement lightning-quick off-ball switches against Ben Simmons at the four.

Way back in January, with Embiid sidelined and long before Philly decided to bring Al Horford off the bench, the Sixers struggled to get out of their own way with spacing issues — even when Simmons got the mismatch he wanted against Aaron Holiday.

Now, acting on the assumption that the Sixers have gained a better sense of how to make room for the preternatural passer’s vision and speed as a screener with Shake Milton in the starting lineup, Indiana may need to explore using a kick-out switch.

Unfortunately, due to some really poor camera angles where better examples existed, this possession from Philly’s scrimmage against Dallas isn’t completely informative because Horford is once again stashed in the dunker’s spot; however, for the sake of this exercise, imagine the big man is initially standing at the opposite slot when the switch between Seth Curry and Luka Doncic occurs.

As soon as Simmons starts to roll, Myles Turner (in this case, Kristaps Porzingis) would move over from the weak-side to take him, thereby shooing Aaron out of the mismatch to race toward Horford with high hands.

All of which is to say that what the Pacers once used judiciously with liked-size defenders as a means to neutralize an opposing team’s strengths now must be incorporated as a mainstay in order to protect their own weaknesses. Without middle linebackers or long, strong athletes like the Clippers, Indiana can’t just trade defensive assignments on screens that don’t include Myles Turner; they have to atone for the mismatches their switches will naturally create with speed as their richest resource — even if only in the interest of preserving their legs to make shots instead of absorbing body blows.