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How the Pacers are twinning with the Raptors

And the birth and evolution of the Indiana Raptors.

Phoenix Suns v Indiana Pacers Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

With careers that have long been intertwined, from winning the 2011 G League title together in Iowa to reuniting with the Raptors to capture the 2019 NBA Championship, it’s almost been eight years since Nick Nurse and Nate Bjorkgren last found themselves on opposite benches as head coaches, going head-to-head in the 2013 G League Finals. On Sunday, the pair will once again be facing off, this time in the NBA, with Nate Bjorkgren’s Pacers serving as an apt reflection of the Raptors team he left behind. In fact, the uncanny on-court resemblance that the two squads share brings into question exactly where Nurse’s playbook ends and Bjorkgren’s begins, perhaps starting the process of melding together as one during the long hours the former partners in tinkering once spent planning for the future while cooped up in a basement.

“I started coaching with him 14 year ago and, I’ve told this story a number of times,” Bjorkgren explained during his media rounds after being introduced. “But after that first (G League) season together we spent 8AM to 8PM, 12-hour days, we had a basement, we had white boards all over the walls and we spent every waking second on how we wanted to coach professional basketball.”

With that in mind, here’s a look at all the ways the Pacers are twinning with the Raptors, and maybe, just maybe, bringing glimmers of those early vision boards to life.

When the Pacers deploy junk defenses

During the 2019 NBA Finals, Nick Nurse famously opted to use a box-and-one against Steph Curry to limit his touches and make it tough on him to score, while instead funneling shots to much lesser shooting threats like DeMarcus Cousins, Quinn Cook, and Andre Iguodala.

Last season, even after Kawhi Leonard’s departure, Nurse kept on with his bold defensive tactics, trotting out the same coverage against Kemba Walker in the Eastern Conference Semifinals while also erasing big deficits against the Pacers and Mavericks with full-court presses and confounding Damian Lillard into a 2-of-12 regular-season shooting performance with a blend of box-and-one and triangle-and-two. Well, suffice it to say, Bjorkgren liked what he saw from those results, because the Pacers have been equally unafraid to deploy many of the same middle school-esque coverages.

From running a box-and-one against Jayson Tatum.

To throwing triangle-and-two at Chris Paul and Devin Booker.

And, more recently, bringing everything full circle with aggressive double teaming against Steph Curry, who was held to 7-of-17 shooting, while also being shadowed in a box-and-one, a la Fred VanVleet.

Granted, it hasn’t always seemed like everyone is on the same page with these coverages, particularly against Phoenix, when the Suns were cutting behind the players set up in the triangle with ease, or versus the Clippers, when the gimmick got busted by the necessity of playing McDermott as the lower point of the triangle as well as simple passes to the middle of the floor, but there’s no denying the Pacers’ status as Raptors look-alikes as they continue to experiment with whirling from one defense to the next.

When Domantas Sabonis fakes hand-offs in the clutch

Picture this: With a few seconds remaining in regulation, a burly Lithuanian center plays opossum as a passing hub, keeping the ball to himself and steamrolling to the rim.

If you think that sentence was about Sabonis, you’re right. But it also applies to his brother in arms with the Lithuanian National Team, Jonas Valanciunas. Remember, before Nate Bjorkgren was playing Nick Nurse to Nick Nurse, he was part of Toronto’s advanced scouting department under Dwayne Casey while Nurse was still an assistant, perhaps making mental note of when old friend C.J. Miles inbounded the ball to Valanciunas at the wing to fake a hand-off and drive to the basket with his strong hand.

Looks too familiar to merely be a coincidence, right?

Especially since it’s now happened not once, but twice.

When any three Pacers line up side-by-side

This is Indiana’s go-to alignment on sideline and baseline out of bounds plays. With one player inbounding the ball and another in the opposite corner, three Pacers stand side-by-side on the free throw line, ready to cut and weave around each other like threads on a loom, with two main options.

First, operating somewhat like an elevator screen, two stationary screeners leave just enough room for the third player to squirt through to the opposite side. Only instead of stepping together and closing the doors for a perimeter shot, the screeners spray out in different directions while the cutter zips straight to the rim.

Allow Norman Powell to demonstrate:

Now, watch Oladipo:

If that gets defended with a big sagging into the lane, then the player threading the needle will either hold or screen on the cut-through while the outside screener flips around and flies to the corner.

Again, let’s check in on Norman Powell:

Turns out, Justin Holiday can follow that same choreography.

When Myles Turner shoots like Serge Ibaka

Hey, psst. Guess what? It doesn’t happen often, but the Pacers also run that course on basket-weaving for Myles Turner in the same vein as Serge Ibaka, only with the first cut immediately chased by a second.

Because support is needed on the back side of all that movement, there’s generally plenty of space for the big to step out to three.

Arts and crafts is fun, isn’t it? Or, at least it will be once Turner lifts his conversion rate from deep (30 percent). Still, in drawing from his Raptors roots, Bjorkgren has a play in his back pocket for the league’s leading shot-blocker to look and act the part of a 6-foot-11 shooting guard against sagging bigs.

When the Pacers run 1-4 flat

Another out-of-bounds favorite is setting up in 1-4 flat — which, with one player inbounding the ball and four players spaced out side-by-side along the baseline, is exactly what it sounds like. What develops next, however, is constantly changing.

On some occasions, the inbounder juts out to the corner, using the two closest screeners like a stagger off the pass entry, like Fred VanVleet.

In other instances, though, the Pacers repurpose the same set-up to follow the steps of Matt Thomas, particularly against zone. Take this possession against the Bulls, for example. See how Thomas sets a back-screen and then receives a screen to circle to the corner?

When facing 2-3 zone, the Pacers simply cut out the middle man, with McDermott instead screening the top directly for Sabonis, who then screens the bottom for McDermott.

As a result, the exact machinations of the screen-the-screener are slightly different, but the endgame, yet again, is undeniably similar.

When the Pacers cut across picks at the elbows

Prior to last week’s trade for Caris LeVert, this topic was also already discussed in a prior blog about how Oladipo was being used away from the ball to maximize his partnership with Brogdon and replace some of what was lost in east-west tension in the wake of Warren’s injury. For now, in an effort to keep things brief, just remember that the Pacers like to pair Iverson cuts with overcuts leading into ball screens.

If that sounds like a jumbled mess of basketball-speak, hop here to read the full breakdown or simply click on this nifty visual aid, which (of course!) also shows the Raptors running a slight variation of the same play.

When Malcolm Brogdon ghosts flex screens

Ok, so here’s why that last refresher course was necessary: Unlike last season, when one-dimensional, one-and-done schemes oftentimes resulted in fits and starts, Bjorkgren’s offense is considerably more lyrical, cascading from one action to the next.

Take this possession against the Pelicans, for instance. See how Oladipo cuts across the same picks at the elbows? For one, that bit alone is what the Pacers were running for T.J. Warren in the playoffs in spite of the increased defensive attention he was facing on the catch. Beyond a remembrance of that lack of counter-pressure, however, notice how what looks like the set-up from the previous section in this writing is actually just a red herring, relocating Oladipo to the corner, so that Brogdon can seamlessly flow into a faux flex screen across the baseline before veering into a a hand-off at the top of the key.

Oh, and that last portion, with Brogdon following the progression of the offense into an open three, also just happens to be a Kyle Lowry thing.

There’s always a comp. Trust.

When Doug McDermott scurries to the corner

Combining the beauty of watching a shooter glide from one side of the floor to the other with the surprise of an unexpected, bone-crushing screen, corner pin-in actions are oftentimes the perfect balance of aesthetics and utility.

Switch on the wing exchange, and whoops, as Thon Maker goes to show against the Raptors, a center suddenly gets trapped behind a brick wall.

Try to shoot the gap, however, and the screener will simply step to the side, wiping out the trailer and forcing a long closeout from a big.

Just watch out for centers who can swallow up space with length, like Willie Cauley-Stein.

Moving forward, in order to avoid these sorts of feats of athleticism, McDermott needs to stay more vigilant of the path of his pursuer, perhaps driving the closeout or cutting behind the screen when the defense sniffs out what’s coming. After all, unlike last season’s Raptors, who ranked in the top-10 of corner-three frequency, the Pacers currently sit in 26th, so the more this play can go off without a hitch, the better.

When the Pacers bob and weave

Then again... take a closer look at this gem that Bjorkgren unearthed against the Mavericks. Like the Raptors, the Pacers routinely weave into high ball screens, handing the ball off like a hot potato while swapping sides of the floor, to set up dribble drives.

Except, with Bjorkgren tailoring the action to his personnel, there’s one main difference. Watch Justin Holiday. Instead of standing under the basket as a secondary option like Pascal Siakam, pay attention to how he screens his younger brother into the final leg of the weave and then sprints to the corner with Malcolm Brogdon clearing opposite.

First of all, try watching that in real-time without heart eyes. More importantly, however, when Aaron gets directed away from the basket by Cauley-Stein, guess who arrives “Just-in” time as a stop-release in the corner? Plus, if Aaron had managed to turn the corner, he arguably would’ve had another spaced kick-out option with Brogdon’s man pulling over as an extra line of defense.

Here, check-out the entire sequence in full motion:

See? Heart eyes.

But wait, there’s another, albeit different, example. Granted, the Raptors aren’t going full-on moving shields, here, with six-consecutive screens like the double-big Pelicans, as was highlighted in a previous writing, but they are chasing a stagger with a subsequent stagger.

That’s what the Pacers do, too, but if they can’t get a clean shot or drive off the second set of picks, then the first screener back-pedals to the corner for three, with the second screener effectively chipping in with a killer slip assist. Again — pretty, pretty!

In that way, though a rare sighting, the Pacers have the means to generate corner threes; they just don’t always have need to play all the way through to that option. At least not so long as they’re leading the league in rim frequency and points in the paint.

Speaking of which...

When Domantas Sabonis does Pascal Siakam Things

An entire article has already been devoted to this subject, so we won’t stray too far into repeat territory about how Sabonis is attacking off of pitches like Siakam, except to say:

This rules. Still.

So far this season, there are 58 centers who have played in at least 10 games. Among those names, only four are averaging at least four drives per game. Among those four, none are converting a higher percentage than Sabonis, at 59 percent. Better yet, is that sometimes the mere threat of him driving opens up drives for others. Take this back-to-back sequence against the Knicks, for instance. Because the lefty big man had just twisted and twirled his way down the lane for two on the prior possession, T.J. McConnell is able to flip Julius Randle’s expectations against him and glide to the rim.

The same was the case against Dallas, when after Sabonis successfully pirouetted around Kristaps Porzingis, Brogdon was able to easily feign the pitch and slalom downhill.

Plus, Bjorkgren has since incorporated another wrinkle from the Raptors —- hitting copy-and-paste on involving a third-man in some sort of screening action at the elbow for the ball-handler to gain an extra step of momentum like a speed boost.

Or, in the case of Sabonis, potentially bully a mismatch under the rim in the event of a switch. Plus, inverted, short-angle pick-and-rolls at the elbow also work as a counter when the defense is overplaying a hand-off. Either way, the action is clearly growing in nuance with the Raptors as a guide.

Just like the Pacers.