There was a moment from Wednesday’s win over the Houston Rockets that perfectly encapsulated the changes the Pacers have made on defense. After squeezing between two defenders and bounding down the lane for a driving, floating jump shot, James Harden could only look up as the tips of Myles Turner’s fingers wiped away his high-arching tear-drop like rain repellant. On the night, Turner had eight blocks, giving him 33 on the season and 13 more than anyone else in the league. Through eight games played, he’s defending a league-leading 10.3 shots per game at the rim while holding opponents to just 44 percent on those attempts. Put simply: He’s taking his towering presence around the rim to another level, cleaning up for the excesses of a system that aims to force teams into turnovers with shot-clock sapping ball pressure at the expense of giving up odd-man advantages and ranking 30th in preventing opponent field-goal attempts less than five feet from the basket.
And yet, while Turner has obviously been a major contributing factor to maintaining Indiana’s top-10 defensive rating from last season, the iron palm he’s ruling the paint with doesn’t fully explain how the Pacers are managing to put the three-point line on lockdown, ranking first in limiting opponents attempts from deep, even while shrinking the floor.
Granted, from the 21-0 run that resulted from full-court pressing the Bulls to deploying a box-and-one against Jayson Tatum, dropping into a 2-3 zone on baseline out of bounds plays, switching during OT against the Pelicans, toying with Myles Turner at the level, and using the sideline and baseline as extra defenders with Sabonis at the five, Indiana is running a wider variety of defenses which makes it tougher to parse the whole of what their defense is as a lump sum. After all, the strength of one coverage might be the soft spot of another, and vice versa. Still, a fun game to play while evaluating Indiana’s base shell is to count how many players are either crowding the ball or have at least one foot in the paint.
This is perfect.
For a clearer before and after, however, take a look at these two screenshots; the first, from last season’s more conservative scheme; and the second, representing the current emphasis on mucking up driving angles. Last March, Malcolm Brogdon was hesitant to even jab-step toward Trey Lyles, instead staying within reach to close out to his own man — Dejounte Murray, a low-volume 3-point shooter.
Now, 10 months later, look at how he deliberately goes a few extra steps to the nail, just one pass away from the action, to clamp down on Julius Randle.
And James Harden.
To be fair, Harden and Supercharged Randle both obviously pose greater threats than Lyles as scorers, but the same could be said of them as passers, too. And, here’s the thing: The shots that the Pacers appear to be conceding with this coverage (i.e. open above the break threes), also happen to be the shots that the Pacers are best at limiting, holding opponents to the lowest above-the-break three-point frequency of any team in the league, according to PBP stats.
So, uh, what is this sorcery, you ask? Let’s investigate.
The only team that the Pacers have played that ranks among the top-10 in three-point attempts per 100 possessions is the Houston Rockets. Otherwise, Indiana has matched up with the Celtics (twice), Knicks (twice), Cavs, Pelicans, and Bulls — none of whom, as you can see below, are particularly launch-happy.
Still, potential schedule flukes aside, the Pacers have allowed five fewer three-point attempts per game to those teams when compared to their non-Pacers opponents. Admittedly, variance has a tendency to rule in the early portion of the season due to small sample size theater, the impact of which players are injured or healthy, and whether teams have learned to play together, but there appears to be more to this story than just the possibility of skewed perceptions.
Acquiescing to pressure
With steady, defensive pressure on the ball, no team wards off a lower percentage of their opponent’s field goal attempts very early in the shot-clock than the Pacers.
How serious are the Pacers about being the aggressors above the break? This is Domantas Sabonis, with one foot on the logo, denying the ball to Jaxson Hayes, who has attempted a grand total of four threes in 72 career games, so as to drag out the shot-clock.
Generally speaking, from there, they either steal the basketball, or they give up straight-line drives, putting themselves in rotation. Either way, although the risk of wearing down and sending opponents to the line at a much higher rate than last season loom as potential long-term drawbacks, unleashing a prowling guard seems to have impacted the airspace teams have to pull-up in semi-transition, as Indiana’s opponents have taken a league-low 2.8 percent of their shots as threes between 22 and 18 seconds on the shot-clock. To put that minuscule number into further context, consider this: Prior to playing the Pacers, the Rockets were averaging 5.4 ‘very early’ threes per game. Against Indiana? They put up one — for the entire game.
Tricks in every trade
Even so, clamping down on pull-up jump-shots in transition while shaving seconds off the shot-clock doesn’t explain why the Pacers aren’t surrendering threes opposite the ball in the half-court. After all, just because Victor Oladipo can spring back to the three-point line from the paint like a Ninja Warrior lunging off of angled steps, doesn’t mean the same can be said for the rest of a roster loaded mostly with combo guards and centers. With that said, look back at the original example at the beginning of this writing against the Knicks. If Brogdon is living at the nail, how can he also be running his man off the three-point line?
Well, turns out, the Pacers have developed a magic trick for being in two places at once. When Brogdon goes to help, look at who recovers to his spot on the floor. Hint: Not Brogdon. Rather than staying on Reggie Bullock, in the corner, Aaron Holiday moves with Elfrid Payton up to the left slot, as they exchange wings.
Most teams have mastered the art of scrambling with X-outs (i.e. swapping paths of recovery) on the weakside, when a help defender gets hung up tagging or sinking. The Pacers are using the same principle, just on the side of the floor with the ball. What this accomplishes is twofold. For one, by rotating up to the slot, Aaron is buying time for Brogdon to release from his stunt and scamper to the corner. The other key, though, is that he’s unexpectedly walling off the nearest, most obvious pass. In the end, rather than sprinting out from the nail merely to contest a three, Brogdon prevents a three-point attempt in what becomes the precursor for two rounds of drive-and-kick ultimately resulting in a mid-range shot with less than five seconds on the shot-clock.
Make or miss, that’s a win for the Pacers.
A similar scenario played out against Boston, with Oladipo rotating up from the corner to cover for T.J. Warren against Jayson Tatum.
In this case, Tatum knocked Oladipo off the scent with a pass fake, but the extra moment it took him to shake the surprise defender at least managed to buy Warren, albeit in his clearly limited state, enough time to run at the All-Star wing’s hip.
To that point, playing offense against the Pacers is somewhat like being shot into a pinball machine. Eventually, after ricocheting against several bumpers, be it a full-court pest, extra attention at the nail, or a defender rotating up from the corner, the ball will make it to the area of the floor inside five feet of the basket. However, just when it looks like it’s about to drop through the drain of the net, Myles Turner — and, on rare occasions, Domantas Sabonis — will be there on the drive to contest the shot like the machine’s flippers, either ending the possession with a rebound or starting the whole process all over again.
That said, challenges are sure to come. It’s remarkable how quickly the Pacers have adapted to a new system with barely any training camp to start the season 6-2, but the Pacers won’t be new to the rest of the league forever. Sooner or later, if they help too much or lose track of their checks, they’re going to start getting slammed by back-screens or sliced by cuts.
It hasn’t happened often yet, but watch Tristan Thompson, here, as Jayson Tatum somehow manages to weave through a wall of bodies to finish with his left.
That how’s teams are going to get open from deep against this type of coverage. Then again, that’s also what it seemed like during preseason, when prior to mixing in the aforementioned switching technique on kick-outs, providing early help at the nail was resulting in disorganized chaos.
All of which is to say that, with the defensive progress that’s been made since that particular clip occurred as evidence. There’s a logical reason why the Pacers currently appear to be made of magic: They aren’t sorcerers, they’re tinkerers.