On Saturday, the Pacers opened the game against the Phoenix Suns with a defense so unique that it was almost inscrutable. On one side of the floor, Aaron Holiday and Myles Turner switched a guard-to-guard screening action between Chris Paul and Devin Booker while, at the same time, Victor Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon appeared to be in a zone.
Using context clues from the fourth-quarter, when Doug McDermott and Justin Holiday were shadowing Phoenix’s dynamic back-court duo with Malcolm Brogdon, Domantas Sabonis, and JaKarr Sampson set up in a triangle, it can probably be assumed that the first-quarter oddity was also some form of triangle-and-two... with, uh...switching mixed in?
In any case, though neither possession ended particularly well; first, with Jae Crowder and Mikael Bridges both cutting behind the zone; and then, with Bridges replacing into open space, those are the types of curveballs that Nate Bjorkgren pledged to throw during his introductory press conference when he talked about making frequent changes on defense and coaching without fear. In the end, between giving the Suns the exact switches they wanted (i.e. Booker-McDermott) and miscommunicating on Spain pick-and-rolls, toying with yet another coverage arguably turned into a display of tyranny of choice, with Phoenix either paralyzing the Pacers from committing to a decision in the first place or immediately instilling feelings of regret with whatever choice was made, as the men dressed in purple and orange scored 35 points on 61 percent shooting in the final frame.
Granted, some of that is the price of experimenting with things during the regular season so, as Bjorkgren said, “when it comes (time for the) playoffs, you’re not doing something for the very first time that you have never done before.” Of course, in a scenario where the Pacers would need to deploy a triangle-and-two in the playoffs (say, maybe, against Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown? Or, perhaps flummoxing Kyrie Irving?), it seems highly doubtful that McDermott and Sampson (of all defenders!) would be on the floor to draw from whatever minimal experience was gained against Phoenix. On the flip side, however, the steady blend of box-and-one and triangle-and-two paid off against the Warriors, who were held below 100 points with Steph Curry going 7-of-17 from the field. As such, if the Pacers are intent on forging ahead with research and development on the defensive end as the season progresses, then it might be worth it to apply some of that same big tinkering energy toward finding a better solve for defending the post mismatches, though Golden State never hunted them, setting James Wiseman up only a few times against Myles Turner.
Overall, per Synergy, teams are scoring 1.344 points per possession on post-ups including passes against Indiana — the worst mark in the league, albeit on early-season volume (65 possessions). Despite starting two centers, much of the problem stems from the fact that the Pacers, in fielding a roster loaded mostly with bigs and combo guards, are oftentimes too slight to effectively guard mismatches straight-up while also at times being too bulky to recover out on kick-outs after doubling.
Here, for instance, with Brogdon stuck on an island with DeAndre Ayton, Turner and Sabonis are both attempting to keep the big man off balance, jumping back and forth between the ball and their checks. The only problem is, they also both end up biting on his gather at the same time, leaving two shooters open on the perimeter. To be fair, Aaron ultimately swapped recovery paths and contested the shot, but one extra swing pass in either direction would’ve left the Pacers vulnerable to relying on a center to help-and-fly.
Turns out, that’s exactly what happened later in the same half, when Sabonis was late springing out to Mikal Bridges on the slide-away three after providing support to Oladipo on the kick-out.
This was also an issue that showed up against the Knicks, even when Sabonis and/or Turner weren’t on the high-side. Here, Sabonis doubles Julius Randle from the baseline, but a cut assist from Reggie Bullock reshapes the defense, pealing Oladipo away from perimeter.
On the night, in a game which the Pacers lost by four points, Randle assisted on four threes out of double-teams. And yet, while it was somewhat questionable why the Pacers weren’t forcing the suddenly supercharged bruiser to beat them 1-on-1, at least on possessions when Sabonis was his primary defender, there’s also plenty of evidence that underscores why sending additional reinforcements to Aaron, Justin, and Brogdon is necessary, courtesy of Chris Paul, Jayson Tatum, and Zion Williamson.
So, what’s the answer if giving up heft is just as dangerous as chasing with lumbering size on the perimeter? For a team bold enough to sprinkle in dashes of box-and-one and triangle-and-two, perhaps the solution is a combination of both man and zone — only switching between the two coverages mid-play.
For example, look back at the earlier embedded possession against Phoenix and imagine what would’ve happened if Sabonis had dropped middle instead of doing the hokey-pokey between the ball and his man. For one, Booker would’ve been forced to play 1-on-1 versus 2-3 zone. Consequently, instead of sinking toward the ball, Oladipo would’ve been able to stay home on Chris Paul, as opposed to ultimately forcing Sabonis to defend in rotation.
Moreover, if Paul drifts to the corner, then Brogdon steps out to contest with Sabonis already behind him as a second line of defense.
The same applies, here, to Tatum. Rather than staying attached to Tristan Thompson, Turner would switch to zone on the post mismatch, dropping middle, with Sabonis adhering to Thompson on the dive and Warren playing half-way between Jaylen Brown and Daniel Theis.
In the event that Tatum throws a dart to the opposite corner, Sabonis would have plenty of time on the cross-court pass to scurry to Theis with Turner then checking Thompson and Warren zoning up the wing.
Again, the idea is to wall off the post mismatch, while also stocking the top-line with speedier wings to defend the nearest pass. That said, need another reason why the Pacers should consider setting up in 2-3 zone, which they already run, in these situations? Look at how Turner and Sabonis are negotiating with each other, mid-play, as to which one of them should rotate over to support Justin against Harrison Barnes.
If the agreed upon scheme is for Turner to drop middle, then there would be no need for back-and-forth discussion as Oladipo would fill the elbow against Holmes with Sabonis preventing the pass to Bagley, rather than rushing the ball at an awkward angle.
That’s why, for a team that is arguably too big where mobility is needed and too slim where heft would serve, the Pacers may not be able to double the post like the Raptors did last season with the length and speed of Pascal Siakam and OG Anunoby on league-high volume, but they can continue emulating Nick Nurse’s use of janky defenses.
After all, there’s no need to choose between playing man or zone when the answer could very well prove to be both.