Built to sink or swim from deep, the Heat are 6-18 this season when they shoot below 35 percent on threes; and yet, last Monday, they thumped Indiana by double-digits and led by as many as 23 points despite shooting 13-of-40 (32.5 percent) from long distance. With Miami stymieing the previously outlandish scoring exploits of T.J. Warren with league-average defense, disruptive switches, and occasional traps at one end of the floor while also grabbing every offensive rebound in sight at the other, Indiana’s icier overall field-goal percentage (39.3 percent) by comparison made keeping pace with a colder-than-usual Heat team all the more challenging when also coughing up 17 turnovers.
And, here’s the thing: Miami, as the aforementioned record indicates, has only shot that poorly 24 times this season. When they punch above 35 percent on threes, they’re 38-11, a staggering win-percentage that is better than their overall record. So, what is a team like the Pacers, who in many ways are like the Anti-Heat, barely getting to the line and still scoring over 10 percent of their points from mid-range even while playing small-ball in the bubble, supposed to do in a playoff series when they can’t even beat Miami on an off shooting night?
Up against a team with lots of shooters and defenders but few shooters who can defend or defenders who can shoot, here’s what the Pacers should, and shouldn’t, do to better tackle the Heat’s lack of duality.
Don’t: Repeatedly target one of the league’s most versatile defenders
Part of the reason why the Pacers got off to a slow start during last Monday’s game, falling behind 19-9, was because they weren’t particularly strategic with how they were attacking Miami’s switches. Without Sabonis available to hunt the inside advantage, Indiana’s three-guard lineup is naturally going to be more apt to attack from the outside, but that doesn’t mean they have to box themselves in to attacking small versus big — especially when the big, in the form of Bam Adebayo, is capable of defending positions one through five.
Marred by fits and starts, take a look at this example from midway through the second quarter. Not only did T.J. Warren get cut off by Miami’s shape-shifting defender, the talk-of-the-bubble then screened for Aaron Holiday to run into the exact same brick wall.
Over and over again, the Pacers did this — at times, even stagnating to such an extent that the surrounding defense had time to load up, effectively lending non-zone possessions the desired impact of actual zone possessions with how they were passively, and spasmodically, passing the ball around the perimeter.
Like a bird that persistently careens into a window in search of a clear flight path that isn’t there, Indiana needs to avoid falling for the mirage of a mismatch against Adebayo and either reorient how they are approaching their use of high pick-and-roll (slip!) or pursue other match-ups.
Otherwise, running sets like this, that repeatedly involve the first-time All-Star as a sparring partner without any semblance of rhythm or flow, quite frankly, ain’t it.
Do: Attack without a screen
Though it may bring with it the drawback of marginalizing Myles Turner in the offense, one way to steer clear of Adebayo on the ball is to never bring the nimble Swiss army knife to the ball in the first place.
Here, the Pacers merely cleared out for Brogdon to play 1-on-1 against Duncan Robinson, who finished the season ranked in the 40th percentile of isolation defenders, with Aaron Holiday then cutting for two against a collapsed defense.
When the floor is spread to this degree, with the other four players practically using the sideline as a handrail, Brogdon shouldn’t require a pick to turn the corner and make a play.
Don’t: Go away from preferred match-ups
That said, on-ball screens can of course still be a useful tool for targeting weaker defenders so long as the weaker defender is actually targeted. On this possession, Warren set a pick on Robinson in an attempt to force a switch, but then he just removed himself from the play so that Brogdon could size up... Jimmy Butler — not once, but twice!
Rather than holding the ball and defaulting to choppy reversals without any gains, a better course of action would be to either set up Warren in the mid-post; or, once again, forego the pick entirely, with Brogdon instead squaring off against Robinson.
Without Sabonis, for a team that has been forced to replace inside-out passing and side-to-side movement with increased ball-handling and downhill slaloming, Indiana would benefit from mixing in a wider array of screening combinations aside from those including just the five-man, but only if they recognize where their advantages, both do and don’t, exist.
Do: Make quicker decisions
If there’s a downside to Brogdon’s methodical playmaking, it’s that his surgical approach to prodding the defense can occasionally devolve into slower decisions and excess dribbling.
Given that T.J. Warren has only produced 11 points on 3-of-9 shooting over the 71.1 partial possessions he’s been defended by Jimmy Butler this season, Brogdon needs to make a more concerted effort to get the ball to the team’s current leading scorer, on time and on target, whenever he manages to shake loose. As such, Indiana’s starting point guard can’t wait nearly the equivalent of a five-second count to get in the mood to enter the ball to the post once Warren has position. Ultimately resulting in a turnover, all this does is give Butler extra time to pressure the catch.
Likewise, even with Miami chasing the improved scorer over on off-ball screens and then switching, this stagger still should’ve been able to generate a clean look for Warren, as well as a brief reprieve from the aggressive coverage he was facing against traps. The only problem is he was never fed the ball at any point during the entirety of his route — let alone at the apex of his curl, when he was open.
Struggling to score against Butler is one thing; surrendering opportunities for him to even try to score is quite another.
Don’t: Get duped by back-screen fakery
Before both teams opted to rest the majority of their starters on Friday, the Heat had burned Indiana’s defense with the same play in each of the three prior meetings:
A post-up featuring a decoy back-screen with a slip option, the Pacers scorched themselves; first, by wrongly presupposing that Goran Dragic, the player typically involved as the back-screener, would be receiving a subsequent screen instead of darting to the basket and also attempting to switch without accounting for the backdoor cut.
In order to avoid getting singed yet again in the playoffs, the key will be for T.J. McConnell, or whoever ends up defending Dragic, to recognize the set and play a one-man zone in the paint to break up the pass. Otherwise, at a bare minimum, just don’t come off a shooter and then scurry away once the ball is in the air for the cutter.
Do: Shrink the floor
The main defensive challenge against Miami, the league’s leader in three-point percentage, is deciding what to give up and from where to surrender it. Stay too close to home on their shooters and a big is liable to rattle the rim, but take too many steps away from the perimeter and a ring of fire could very well ignite from deep around the arc. Last Monday, the Heat shot 77 percent inside the restricted area — up from 66 percent during the regular season — in part, because the Pacers were giving up both areas of concern without fully committing to either.
Strategically, Miami oftentimes likes to keep the corner empty with a single shooter stationed high at the wing so as to put extra stress on a lone weak-side defender to help and recover. In this case, however, with Dragic manipulating a double-drag, and Brogdon caught in no man’s land, Adebayo managed to earn free passage down the lane without ever having his roll even slightly slowed — let alone bothered.
Not quite explosive enough to bump the screener and still sprint back out to his original man, Brogdon lacks the closing speed that more naturally allows even a still-recovering Oladipo to plug multiple holes at once. For instance, get a load of this two-man possession versus the Knicks in January and then imagine if the same defensive tactic had been deployed against Miami last Monday.
With Myles Turner emphasizing the ball, the high-octane guard comes all the way over from the opposite side of the floor to bump the roller and still manages to zoom up from the baseline like a racing car to contest the three. That’s the value of a defender who can cover enough ground to essentially be in two places at once, and that’s what the Pacers need to be brave enough to try in order to avoid springing as many leaks.
Granted, sliding off of Duncan Robinson, who ranks top-five in both three-point attempts and three-point percentage, might seem like folly; but, if Warren zones up halfway, with the option for Aaron Holiday to kick-out switch onto Jimmy Butler, then the Pacers could effectively achieve having a finger in every pie without overburdening any of their defenders beyond their already existing skill-sets.
Don’t: Give up long rebounds
Leading the east in transition efficiency, free throw rate, and three-point accuracy, Miami doesn’t need any extra help scoring easy points; and yet, the Pacers, who rank second to last in opponent offensive rebounding rate among teams in the bubble, have surrendered an average margin of 10 second-chance points per contest across the first three games of the match-up. As has been the case all season, at issue isn’t so much what’s going on underneath the rim as what’s happening away from the basket.
According to PBP stats, on possessions featuring missed shots, Indiana ranks 28th in the league in 3-point defensive rebounding percentage, a problem against a team that takes over 40 percent of its shots as threes. With longer shots potentially leading to a higher volume of longer rebounds, Derrick Jones Jr., assuming he is available to play after being stretchered off the court last Friday, can’t be allowed to just sail in from the perimeter with three Pacers standing idly in the paint.
Energy finds the ball, and without Sabonis, who averages nearly twice as many rebounds as anyone else on the team, urgency and hustle have to serve as a replacement for what they’re losing in carved out space and fighting spirit.
Do: Be prepared for zone
Though Miami leads the league in defensive zone possessions, per Synergy, Eric Spoelstra has yet to have his team drop back into a 2-3 against Indiana. If the Pacers start to find a groove against switches, this will change — which means Doug McDermott, Justin Holiday, and whoever else Nate McMillan uses to create a numbers advantage in the corner will have to come ready to fight fire with fire.
To that point, Edmond Sumner, who started over Aaron Holiday against the Heat on Friday, has the defensive chops to hang with Duncan Robinson’s non-stop movement on dribble hand-offs, but whether he can stay on the floor with his 26-percent three-point conversion rate against a coverage that actively encourages high-volume shooting from deep remains to be seen.
In that case, like the Heat, the Pacers will need to reconcile both sides of themselves while also reckoning with both sides of their opponent.