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To improve at zone, the Pacers need to get good at being boring

On a bland possession from preseason and why there might be meaning in the mundane.

NBA: Preseason-Cleveland Cavaliers at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

It hasn’t happened often, but it has happened. Following a made free throw or occasionally after a timeout, the Pacers have once again taken to dropping back into a 2-3 zone. Mixed in as a gentle change-up to the team’s base scheme, the sight of regimented lines, even when deployed in a less heavy-handed manner, immediately elicit memories of last season, when the attempts to create chaos for opponents all too often backfired into being a hot mess of self-inflicted confusion. That said, despite retaining most of the same roster, the early returns already seem to suggest that those comparisons might not be quite fair.

For one, they aren’t haphazardly switching between man and zone and man mixed with zone; they’re playing one other type of defense. And, rather than trying to implement that one other type of defense amid a condensed schedule with sparse actual practice time, at least there’s been a full training camp, albeit not with a fully healthy complement of players, to drill habits and get a better sense of what works and what doesn’t.

While subtle, the returns from that assessment have already been evident. For example, take a look at this possession against the Grizzlies and notice how Domantas Sabonis takes the wing pass first and then gets bumped down by T.J. McConnell.

Sure, ideally, that rotation would be quicker, occurring on the flight of the pass rather than just in time for the contest, but at least the rotation was actually made.

If that sounds like a low-bar (it is!), recall that swing-swing reversals typically spelled doom for the defense last season, as the center was all too often expected to lumber out to the corner. Admittedly, in addition to Brogdon operating as though he was stuck in slow motion on the non-existent bump down, it’s worth questioning why Turner opted to stay attached to Isaiah Stewart on the opposite side of the lane when Sabonis was standing right there. Still, that quibble would be moot if not for the overall casualness of relying on the big, who is playing middle, to chasedown shooters outside the paint.

Worse still, though, was the back-half of the season, when they routinely started ending up with two players on the ball, effectively trapping the wing, without making any attempt to deny the nearest pass.

Given how hyper-aggressive those coverages were without a clearly defined purpose, what happened during preseason was compelling, by comparison, in that it was also refreshingly boring. Of course, not unlike the rest of the defense, which gave up numerous back-cuts to Memphis and repeatedly surrendered unfavorable cross-matches against Cleveland, the execution hasn’t been perfect.

Here, for instance, as soon as Jarrett Allen flips the ball screen, the defense is at a disadvantage. With Keifer Sykes attempting to jump the first pick and fighting over on the very high re-screen (ahh, flashbacks!), Torrey Craig is forced to engage with the ball, causing Oshae Brissett to defend two players at once with Myles Turner cleansing on the opposite side of the lane in anticipation of Garland dribbling left off the pick.

In the end, Kevin Love steps out of bounds and ultimately bails out the possession, but the easiest fix would be for Sykes to recognize the potential shot-distance on the re-screen and slide under, meeting Darius Garland at the level of the three-point line — a tactic which, to be fair, the Pacers have been far more open to during preseason than was the case last season. Plus, though Brissett would ideally be stunting up the floor with his inside foot, allowing him to see both the wing pass and the corner, at least he was where he was supposed to be. All of which is to say that, while it’s obviously too early to project whether the overall defense will actually improve, the various roles and responsibilities within the 2-3 zone already seem to make more sense, perhaps reinforcing why the simplest solutions can oftentimes be best.