With losses piling up in bulk through the first two weeks of the season, the Pacers have a lot working against them. Like two ships passing in the night, Malcolm Brogdon went down with a hamstring injury during the first loss to Toronto just as Caris LeVert was gearing up to make his season debut, albeit on a minutes restriction, for the second. Meanwhile, though it seems unfair to expect more from a rookie who has already impressed with his shot-making and footwork, Chris Duarte has struggled with how and when to get the ball to rollers — an improvement area which matters more at the current moment, when opponents are swarming Domantas Sabonis and the remaining, full-time primary ball-handlers are T.J. McConnell, who teams duck under against, and Brad Wanamaker, who seems to lack a middle ground between attempting kamikaze drives and treating the paint like lava.
None of which is to mention that, amid the team’s most recent loss, which saw the Pacers take 61 percent of their shots in the second half as threes, while converting just 33 percent and never attempting a free throw, Jeremy Lamb turned his ankle, Duarte briefly exited after taking a shot to the knee, and Sabonis could be seen working out his elbow off-and-on in the wake of getting clipped on a hard screen.
Looking ahead, it’s possible that some of the team’s problems, stemming from iffy shooting and lack of downhill playmaking, will course-correct once Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert, and T.J. Warren are available to play at the same time and can put pressure on opposing defenses while perhaps relieving some of the congestion in the paint. In the meantime, however, for a team that is currently tied for the worst record in the Eastern Conference, the challenge is to find better ways to make due with the players who are currently available.
For that, let’s review the film — both from this season and last, as well as that of the 2020-21 Mavericks.
Three can be company or a crowd
Until LeVert and Brogdon are both on the floor to keep defenses off-balance, the Pacers have to be more resourceful with how they go about putting the initial bend in the defense. After all, what resulted in mismatches late against Miami, with Justin Holiday hooking back into stacked screens, oftentimes led only to resets in Brooklyn, with Chris Duarte forced to screen the defender who was ducking under rather than the roller’s man.
Unable to rely on what otherwise would be creative Spain wrinkles, the team brought back last season’s pitch action, with McConnell tossing the ball back to Sabonis on the move to flow into a dribble hand-off. The only problem was, the Nets were aggressive in overplaying that mode of potential grease, knowing full-well that the Pacers had few other available means of generating traction on the slalom.
Last season, when the Pacers ran into that type of snag, there were typically two options: Pivot toward the basket, with the cutter wheeling around the hand-off and waiting for the overhead, late-pass at the rim (which few players, sans the wavelength formed with Doug McDermott, have handled), or counter for the coverage with inverted pick-and-roll, a la what was deployed against the Suns.
In that way, it’s still a three-man action — there just isn’t a screen for McConnell’s man to duck under or a hand-off to overplay. Instead, Justin would be pinning his defender at the elbow, allowing Sabonis to attack with his strong hand. Put simply: Just because most of what happened last season isn’t worth remembering, doesn’t mean everything should be left in the past.
What goes around, comes around
Speaking of which... Remember how McConnell used to cook attacking baseline out of this down-screen, boomerang action, even when his man slides under?
Good news! The Pacers are running that same play, again — sorta. The main difference is the entry. Rather than immediately receiving the pass-back from the player coming off the down-screen, the action is preceded with a dummy stagger for the player in the weak-side corner.
From there, the second screener slides down and sets the down-screen for the first screener to flip around and effectively launch into last season’s play, with the pass-back eventually leading to a ball-screen for McConnell to turn the corner.
In case that sounds like a mess of basketball-speak, here’s an untangled version of the jargon in video form.
Of course, in addition to the action being disguised with the initial staggered screens, the other change is the exact placement of the pick as well as the pass-back. Last season, as can be seen in the prior clip against the Knicks, McConnell received the pass-back at the top of the key and raced off the ball-screen at the elbow, allowing him to beat his man to his spot. Now, with two bigs involved as a result of the set-up, he’s catching the boomerang at the elbow and coming around the pick at a far lower angle around the wing.
The end result? Fred VanVleet doing what few defenders could do last season and out-touching him at the baseline.
In the second half, the Pacers tried again. This time, with the player in the weak-side corner clearing out between the staggered picks, rather than running over, against the more aggressive coverage. Then, in keeping with last season’s formula, McConnell got the ball back at the logo and prepared to hit turbo against the switch only for... **record scratch**... Duarte to clog up the driving angle?
To be fair, there are benefits to continuous spacing, but not in the middle of the play, when filling the corner ultimately results in Justin being shoehorned into playing two-man game and prevents McConnell from, instead, doing this:
For that reason, it’s the strategy behind the spontaneous movement that matters — not necessarily the amount. Duarte’s instincts are sound in responding to Justin’s relocation; he just needs to slide up to the wing, rather than cutting across the lane and creating unnecessary traffic. Moments like that, while easily correctable and perhaps still a product of learning how to play off of each other within a new system, highlight the importance of attention to detail, especially for a short-handed roster that can’t afford to relinquish advantages.
Similar to last season’s Mavericks, the Pacers oftentimes involve two guards in pick-and-roll action at the end of quarters. With four players standing along the baseline, one will engage in a running slip, either forcing a switch for the ball-handler to attack in space or creating enough hesitation to result in an open shot or perhaps even flow into a hand-off.
Still, one area which the Pacers could improve on, particularly without the benefit of Luka Doncic’s passing wizardry, is screening the secondary help. Here, for example, when Fred VanVleet steps up to stop an iso-ing McConnell (hey, it’s better than McConnell spotting up from deep with 15+ seconds left on the shot-clock!), Justin would screen for Turner in the corner, as Maxi Kleber demonstrates in the accompanying clip.
On the one hand, that would be generating yet another three for a roster that currently only has two players shooting above 35 percent from deep; however, on the other, there’s a difference between launching from the corner in rhythm and being forced to put up an attempt at the end of a possession wherein the ball never even touches the paint, as was the case at times during the second half of Saturday’s most recent loss.
Granted, some of the credit goes to Toronto’s defense and length, but the endless string of aborted drive-and-kick also wasn’t doing much to loosen their approach, at least not with the available personnel. Again, in that regard, even a simple wing exchange or, in this case, weak-side flare screen has the potential to occupy the defense just enough to get two feet in the lane.
Overall, there needed to be more of that, just like there needed to be more of delivering the ball on-time and on-target to the bigs on duck-ins.
After all, for as long as the team is down by multiple starters, every small edge, whether it be as obvious as recognizing a mismatch or as minute as properly respacing or tinkering with the location and timing of screens, is huge.