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What one play-call says about the Pacers

Takeaways after watching every sighting of ghost flare-boomerang-step.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Utah Jazz Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

With a place for everyone and everyone in their place, the Pacers have a specific play that, while simple, rarely disappoints. Striking a balance between providing multiple options and playing to the strengths of the players involved, all five players are positioned to move and touch the ball in a way that matches tasks to skills.

Here’s how it works.

Step 1, Corner-to-Wing Exchange: Appearing like a random series of cuts and reads, the set begins with the lead ball-handler driving toward the sideline and swinging the ball to a cutting wing who simultaneously replaced in the corner by a trailing big.

Step 2, Ghost Flare-Boomerang: From there, as the ball continues to ping around the perimeter, the player who received the initial pass chases their own reversal and sets a ghosted flare screen, which triggers a boomerang pass and sends the action back in the opposite direction as they slip to the basket.

Step 3, Step-up Screen: At this point, after a long journey from one side of the floor to the other and back again, the ball returns to the original initiator, who is typically T.J. McConnell but also sometimes Malcolm Brogdon, with the end result being a step-up screen to attack baseline.

So what, right? Those are the Xs and Os, but what does any of it mean, if anything? Well, after clipping every time the Pacers have run this play this season, here’s what can be learned about the team more broadly from how they go about going through the motions.

Ahem... they don’t just go through the motions

Last season, the Pacers ran mechanical false action (like UCLA-reject) solely to distract from what was coming. To be fair, the same largely applies to the play diagrammed above, as the player ghosting the flare screen mainly does so to space and shift attention away from the side of the floor the ball is about to be headed toward, but the ball also finds the cutter on the move every now and again.

Even when those shots around the basket don’t drop, the benefit to taking them and being willing to press different buttons is that defenses are less likely to sniff out and/or load up on the intended endgame later. Needless to say, another way in which this set deviates from last season is in the the overall way the players are attuned to read-and-react and occasionally call audibles, rather than painting-by-numbers. For example, most of the time, that flare slip option isn’t there; but the other purpose that cut serves is drawing the attention of the next nearest defender for a beat on the reversal.

To this point, most opponents have still been willing to take their chances with Turner from distance, even with his improved accuracy. That’s why, if his defender sags off momentarily to protect on the slip, he has the greenlight to skip the pleasantries and let the ball fly.

The same goes for Caris Levert against favorable match-ups. The timing is somewhat off, here, because Chris Duarte rolled his ankle mid-possession, but the fact that the rookie doesn’t quite have the juice to slip, resulting in a switch on the perimeter, illustrates the way in which LeVert also has the all-clear to cut the action short and attack in space.

Overall, what this shows is that the structure is there to provide a potential roadmap, not an ironclad itinerary.

They create odd-man advantages with inverse gravity

While it still seems highly questionable that Domantas Sabonis, a bruising playmaker, is launching three 3-pointers per game on 26 percent shooting while averaging fewer post-ups (2.8) on nearly identical pace than was the case for Kristaps Porzingis, as a stretch-big, during Rick Carlisle’s final season in Dallas (3.7), there’s no denying the way in which the two-time All-Star bends defenses around the basket — even when he doesn’t touch the ball.

Just look at this possession against Milwaukee. Not only does he set a bone-crushing screen that results in a switch; Khris Middleton drops down to provide help at the same time as Grayson Allen scurries across the lane, effectively creating a 3-on-1 on the back-side.

This was also visible against Charlotte, when after slipping out against the spontaneous blitz he, again, drew a crowd, facilitating a power play from Torrey Craig.

By comparison, spot the difference against Denver. Here, after Turner releases from the pick notice how both defenders commit to the ball. Then, as McConnell storms baseline, Aaron Gordon abruptly retreats from the help to prioritize the three-point line over the basket, resulting in an open dunk.

In that way, with Turner improving as a shooter and Sabonis more known for scoring around the basket, the respective amount of gravity that each draws from within this play oftentimes results in outcomes opposite from the expected norm — albeit with the latter generating, though not always directly assisting on, threes for others.

Of course, don’t take that to mean the reverse never happens. If the screen gets rejected at the level without any gains, Sabonis can also dive to the rim and wriggle through tight space with his footwork — a result which, yet again, highlights how he’s capable of shifting defenders and what he adds as a people mover in the right spots, rather than intentionally calling plays for him to pick-and-pop early in the shot-clock. After all, there’s a difference between becoming a more complete player in knocking down the shots he’s leveraged into and letting the defense off the hook by shoehorning him away from advantage creation.

As this play goes to show, spreading the floor and starting possessions with all five players outside the arc doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive from his interior presence.

They make it work against multiple types of defensive coverages

In addition to switching and putting two on the ball (as was shown in the prior section), the play — with a few minor adjustments — also manages to mostly keep it moving when teams duck under. Checkout what happened against the Blazers. See how Jusuf Nurkic is leaving a little room for Damian Lillard to slide under and then stays in-between the ball and Sabonis as McConnell drives baseline, attracting the corner defender?

Now, watch Myles. There’s no official way to credit him in the box-score (cut assist!), but moving from the wing to the basket is what sucked Robert Covington away from the corner, allowing Caris LeVert to knife through the tilted defense. Likewise, when the Jazz squared up and Hassan Whiteside opted to lay off from the wing rather than be involved in the screening action (as Gobert also did on some possessions in defending Turner rather than Sabonis), Torrey Craig applied the same weak-side cutting principle — only converting a tip-in at the rim behind his own crashing defender.

Or, how about when Donovon Mitchell overplayed the reversal and then went under multiple times? Not only did the Pacers immediately flow into a three-person backdoor action to relieve the congestion, Sabonis kept setting re-screens for as long as it took for McConnell to tunnel to his way to his spot.

Their timing can be vulnerable to pressure — at times, resulting in awkward outcomes

For that reason, with the exception of one outstanding recovery block and unless the big is nimble enough to force a negative dribble, what appears to be more effective in disrupting the rhythm of the play is oftentimes what happens at the beginning rather than the end.

In Toronto, when the Pacers came out of the gates flat and never managed to find a shot of energy, the Raptors forced them to play out of pocket by denying the initial pass.

With that step skipped, Indiana still managed to flow into side-to-side action, but the next available option was a rare and somewhat awkward big-to-big hand-off, in which Turner had to try to turn the corner with OG Anunoby sliding under, resulting in a turnover.

They take better care of the ball

Still, for a team that currently ranks near the bottom of the league in turnover rate (25th), that being the only live-ball giveaway in the 20+ times they’ve run this play is certainly notable, especially since there aren’t a lot of teams who can boast the same degree of physicality, mobility, and aggressiveness as the Raptors. Granted, some of that is surely the product of teensy sample size, but there’s also something to be said for the way in which spacing is constantly maintained and remolded without expecting more than anyone is capable of as a playmaker or otherwise.

For that reason, when considering that ghost flare-boomerang-step is a play called for no one in particular and everybody in general, arguably the biggest takeaway is the value in putting players in position to be themselves (i.e. unleashing T.J. McConnell and Malcolm Brogdon, taking advantage of Domantas Sabonis as an attention magnet, giving Myles Turner the greenlight, allowing Caris LeVert to go to work, treating cutters as more than window dressing, etc.), while also allowing for breaks in choreography. Like any other play, the exact motions involved could very well become predictable for defenses over time, but the overall principles of play (weak-side cutting!) along with the potential lessons learned from rehearsed improvisation says a lot about what the crux of this team’s identity needs to be as the season progresses: All five players on the floor deployed to operate in their power.