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Why T.J. Warren’s gravity has to boost the Pacers’ offense

With T.J. Warren being defended like a star, the Pacers need to take advantage of space that wasn’t there before.

Miami Heat v Indiana Pacers - Game One Photo by Ashley Landis-Pool/Getty Images

With a few minutes left to play in the second quarter of Game 1 between the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat, T.J. Warren faced up against Duncan Robinson and took exactly one dribble before being swarmed by multiple defenders, including an ever-hovering Bam Adebayo, who in the role of goalie, had already long been lurking at the edge of the lane in complete disregard for his individual defensive assignment. Seconds later, Warren’s shot hit nothing but glass; and thus, emboldened the Heat’s strategy to pay him extra attention any time he managed to get a preferred match-up.

Too often, though the heightened coverage didn’t so much have an impact on his individual scoring efficiency, as he was still able to screen himself open from deep and attack in transition for 22 points on 18 shots, the 26-year-old forward would turn the corner or pivot into a crowd only for the surrounding offense to default into resets instead of taking quick and immediate action in response to his gravity.

Re-imagine, for instance, the above-shown possession, in which Warren made up his mind to hunt for a shot in the absence of a clear and obvious passing target. If Myles Turner had sealed Tyler Herro under the basket at the exact moment when Adebayo moved to the opposite side of the paint to shadow, the 6-foot-11 shot-blocker could’ve transformed what was a bad miss by Warren into an easy dunk for himself.

Likewise, with several non-shooting threats dotting the perimeter at the end of the half, Miami was able to emphasize the ball while still only giving up a contested corner three because a pass was never made to the middle of the floor to create a numbers advantage.

Kudos to Warren for getting the ball out cleanly against the trap; however, without Sabonis as an escape valve, McConnell ideally needs to slip into space there as a 4-on-3 playmaker as soon as the defense commits — not only because he was the player ignored on the double-drag but also so the Pacers can take advantage of his whip-smart passing instincts.

And yet, to a certain extent, therein lies the problem. In taking the bubble by storm, Warren didn’t just rapidly assume the role of top-scoring option; he also rapidly assumed the defensive coverage of a top-scoring option, which means he now carries greater responsibility against exaggerated game-plans to make plays for others as well as himself, as do his teammates to keep the floor balanced and drive and cut into space.

Only just now beginning to dabble in the mid-post, take a look at this possession from the halfway point of the third quarter, when the Pacers were still only trailing by six. On top of the fact that Brogdon missed him twirling around the initial pick, watch what happens — or, rather, doesn’t happen — once Jae Crowder abandons Justin Holiday to double Indiana’s points factory.

Rather than circling out to the perimeter and using the post like a screen for an open three, or setting a back-screen on Butler for Brogdon to pull the trigger from deep, the extra pressure resulted in a passive kick-out, a swing pass into a big-to-big match-up against Adebayo, and a turnover.

This wasn’t an isolated incident in the second half, either. Here, Edmond Sumner found himself all alone in the weak-side corner, but Warren spun into traffic without scanning the defense, which ultimately precipitated yet another passive reset. He also got the ball stripped and failed to hit Turner on time darting to the rim.

In and of themselves, a few grimy possessions may not seem all that important in determining the outcome of a game; but, here’s the thing: little mistakes add up in the playoffs, especially when points are already hard to come by without Sabonis to crunch mismatches or, for most of Game 1 and perhaps beyond, even a limited version of Oladipo to occupy roaming defenders. That’s why, with Adebayo suffocating every switch, and in turn, marginalizing Myles Turner, the Pacers can’t also make it easy for the Heat to zone up the weak-side with multiple defenders keyed in on their best available scorer.

After manufacturing just eight points over the game’s final six minutes as Warren was held scoreless, Indiana has to do more to source his gravity as a potential well of offense in Game 2 — even at the risk of chancing his playmaking and ultimately funneling shots to drier options. Fair or not, from a player who has already far exceeded expectations in the bubble and given his team the absolute most, even more is now needed with less.