With teams playing every other day with one back-to-back, there’s barely time to process the prior night of non-stop basketball before the next onslaught of games tips off the following afternoon. Outside of major highlights, like T.J. Warren’s three-game transformation into the Michael Jordan of the bubble, all-you-can-eat has replaced savoring every bite, which can lead to small details falling through the cracks of the NBA’s daily content overload.
What follows is an attempt to magnify some individualized possessions where coolness, general trends, or possible need for repair exists. Here’s five things you may have missed during the first half of Indiana’s seeding schedule.
Justin Holiday, shooting the gap
In part because of the hyperactivity of whistles in games not featuring the Pacers, offensive efficiency has exploded in the bubble with increased free throw attempts. That said, T.J. McConnell gliding to the rim for uncontested layups three times in 44 seconds is also a thing that is happening, so when a player does something extraordinary on defense it begs being pointed out.
I’ve watched this over and over and I have no idea how Justin Holiday recovered. Granted, he was never snagged by the screen-the-screener action on the baseline; but Terrence Ross stayed vigilant of the 3-and-D wing’s path, cutting to the corner instead of the wing, and Justin still managed to meet the microwave shooter on the release.
Also, checkout the time and score when that moment happened. The Pacers were up by 18 points with 2:31 to play in the third quarter of a game that felt over within the first six minutes; and yet, there was Justin, still working to contest every shot.
Such a special role player.
Speaking of defense, though a foul was called on the floor before Devin Booker was able to finish at the basket, Phoenix caught the Pacers sleeping in the corner twice with this horns-face cut play.
In and of themselves, one made basket and a personal foul may not seem all that important in determining the outcome of a game; but, here’s the thing: little mistakes add up against better opponents and Miami, who Indiana has a chance to play as many as nine times over the next few weeks, also runs this play and has also burned the Pacers running this play — sometimes even skipping the horns portion.
Outside of normal offense, what makes that face cut tough to defend is that the opposite forward, typically whoever the rim protector is guarding, exits from the elbow and dives into space as soon as Butler starts to move, which pulls Turner away from the basket. The other issue is that the initial set-up, with Dragic dribbling toward Butler on sideline, looks almost identical to pistol (when two guards come together at the sideline for some type of two-man action), making it easy to assume that Butler is about to receive the ball on a hand-off before he abruptly turns tail and makes a beeline for the hoop.
That’s why, especially in high-leverage situations, it’s all the more important to stay engaged off-ball.
Even before the double-big bench unit surrendered a 21-0 run against the Phoenix Suns on Thursday, the Pacers were minus-15 in the 16 minutes that T.J. McConnell, Justin Holiday, Doug McDermott, and JaKarr Sampson had been on the floor together since the restart. On top of giving up 70 percent shooting at the rim when any four of those five, including Goga Bitadze, have been tethered together, the absence of Sabonis as a passing and screening hub has no doubt contributed to why those groupings have looked out of sync on offense, with Holiday and McDermott combining to start 3-of-25 from deep across all lineups.
No one should expect Sampson to replicate the two-man chemistry that exists between McDermott and Sabonis with fluid re-screens and ESP-level reads, but look how far out of pocket they had to play, here, even with Justin preceding the hand-off with a pindown.
If that’s going to continue to be the case (and it probably is), JaKarr has to make actual contact on these initial flat away screens so that McDermott can maintain his normal footwork coming across the top of the key and generate some separation to compensate for the chunk of offense Indiana is losing without seamless dribble hand-offs.
Assuming T.J. Warren’s conversion rate from deep continues to regress somewhat from god-like levels, McDermott is going to need to start knocking down shots, which means he also needs to get shots closer to those he is accustomed to taking — especially since the Sixers already proved capable of sniffing out the hammer set the Pacers adopted during the scrimmages.
To that point, if Nate McMillan wants to occasionally match size with size against bigger benches to give Justin a break from wrestling for defensive position in the post (because, let’s face it, that’s tiring and might be contributing to his mini-slump from three), then they’re going to have to alter some of the reads they’re making out of set plays in order to loosen up the offense.
Here, Phoenix was able to completely neutralize their patented screen-the-screener wrinkle out of floppy by switching off of JaKarr as a non-shooter on the double-side.
And yet, just imagine if Sampson had set that screen just a little further out from the basket. As soon as Saric jumped out to Oladipo, the high-motor power forward-turned-nominal center could have slipped to the rim for an easy dunk...like, TJ Leaf did here:
As strange as it may seem to study and apply Leaf-film, these are the sort of tweaks the Pacers need to embody in other members of the roster in order to get the second unit back up and humming — or, at least running more serviceably.
T.J. Warren as the screener
In addition to making all the shots through his first three games and suddenly stepping into pull-up threes, Warren has been repurposed by the Pacers in several other new ways while taking on increased usage from Victor Oladipo. Not only has the talk of the bubble used nearly twice as many possessions as the pick-and-roll ball-handler per game as he did prior to the restart (hence the traps he saw against Phoenix), he’s also come off Iverson cuts, dabbled in the mid-post, and even operated as the screener a few times for Malcolm Brogdon and Aaron Holiday in two-man game.
To be fair, Orlando’s defense is sort of a mess in that picture due to a miscommunication zoning up the weak-side; however, given that teams are likely to follow Phoenix’s lead in terms of showing Warren extra bodies, being able to use the score-first forward as a screener has the potential to open up the floor for others while also providing an avenue for him to dart to the rim without necessarily shoehorning him into being a playmaker. After all, the more the Pacers rely on Warren, the more they also need to protect his weaknesses against increased defensive attention — especially when his tough shots aren’t falling.
Myles Turner setting higher screens
It was but a brief moment at the end of the half, but look at where Myles Turner was positioned when he set this screen for Malcolm Brogdon.
Rather than standing all over the 3-point line; he forced Deandre Ayton to come out of the paint and thereby lengthened Brogdon’s runway to build up momentum headed downhill. Admittedly, this has the potential to get dicey against traps, given that Turner would also have more ground to cover in order to slip into space or step into a three, but setting higher screens should still be a key point of emphasis against lankier teams that have the length to close off space against Indiana’s three-guard lineup away from the ball.