In treating every game as a separate contest with unique challenges and advantages, the Pacers oftentimes aim to be fluid, responding either on-the-spot or based on the match-up rather than establishing any firm commitment to sameness and order or being married to a specific playing rotation. For better or worse, this situational approach has also recently applied to the defensive end — where they’ve run the gamut from making shrewd, in-game adjustments and testing out inventive wrinkles to appearing as though they aren’t on the same page while being exploited.
For a closer look at some of the ups and downs, let’s review the film from three different games, highlighting both what did and didn’t work in adapting to and scheming for opponents.
Switching defenses mid-possession
The Chicago Bulls don’t shoot threes early or often. Through 19 games played, Indiana’s nearest geographical opponent has attempted less than four percent of their shots as triples coming between 22 and 18 seconds on the shot-clock, tied for the lowest mark in the league, and rank 29th in three-point attempts per 100 possessions. On Monday, while down by two potential shooters in Nikola Vucevic and Alex Caruso, they were held to a season-low 77 points on a season-worst 36.5 percent shooting, as Indiana’s marksmanship (13-of-31 from deep), combined with a lack of turnovers (11), forced the Bulls to play outside their comfort zone — against zone — for a large portion of the contest.
And yet, to refer to what the Pacers were playing as merely “zone” doesn’t fully capture the unique way in which they managed to throw off their opponent’s rhythm; not only confining Chicago to the half-court, but also baiting quick threes and over-reliance on iso-ball.
Checkout this possession from early in the first quarter. After Caris LeVert converted a layup at the other end of the floor, watch Brogdon. See how he looks over to the bench and then proceeds to raise his fist as the team transitions from offense to defense? That’s how the Pacers signal for zone following a made basket.
From there, the rotations and alignment are just as would be expected in their 2-3 zone, with both guards up top and the forwards slightly higher than the center who is playing middle. Per the usual rules, when Lonzo Ball swings the ball to the wing, Justin Holiday takes first pass until Brogdon can bump him down to the corner, while at the same time LeVert covers point on the reversal.
That is all very normal. What happens next, however, is slightly more atypical. On the next pass, when the ball gets entered into the high post, LeVert chases on the cut-through and suddenly, just like that, the Pacers are in man-to-man for the remainder of the possession.
Beyond choking out the clock, what’s further interesting is that the exact trigger for the change is incredibly difficult to deduce, in part, because the Bulls rarely played long enough in the possession to find out, more often either immediately attempting to split the wing or settling for the first available shot.
In some respects, though, that alone was a win. For the night, Chicago shot 0-of-6 on early threes at nearly double (7.1 percent) their normal frequency (3.9), and according to Synergy’s game-breakdown data, went scoreless against zone on 9-of-13 possessions — which is likely a low-ball number given that Indiana was, at times, morphing between schemes. Granted, the Pacers clearly benefited from a having a rest advantage over their opponent for the first time this season, as the Bulls very much looked the part of a short-handed team playing on the second night of back-to-back, but there’s also something to be said for simultaneously speeding up and wearing down a tired team against a mixture of set defenses when they prefer, and often dominate, in the open floor.
Think of it this way: Sure, this possession ultimately results in a made shot from mid-range, but Chicago also had to feel out zone and man-to-man in order to generate a late-clock, self-created two — perhaps explaining the lack of ball movement as the game wore on.
After all, what’s signaling the shift in scheme isn’t exactly any clearer from that possession in retrospect, let alone in real-time. Generally speaking, it could be the position of the ball or the position of players. Some teams might allow their standout rim protectors, such as Myles Turner, to call audibles after so many passes, while others may automatically activate the zone on the small forward side of the floor, so as not to give up a mismatch.
As it pertains to the Pacers, it’s possible that latter point may have factored, seeing as how they didn’t seem to be matching up when the ball was on the side with Sabonis; but again, it wasn’t as if the Bulls were making multiple passes to reveal a pattern, either. That said, one thing that stands out as a possible common dominator is the involvement of the high-post. Whether via flash or stationary pass entry, Indiana shortly thereafter matched-up, even going so far as to motion for Brogdon to drop down from the top of the zone to the bottom.
Covering the high-post has been a problem area for the Pacers’ zone schemes in each of the last two seasons, so if that’s the trigger, it would make sense — both in terms of resolving and creating confusion. Of course, beyond potentially masking a soft spot while deploying a smart, match-up specific wrinkle, arguably the most unheralded aspect of this particular curveball is the importance of forcing the other team to take the ball out of the net. In that way, loosening the restraints on pace control in this particular game wasn’t just about the possibility of turning defense into an easier and freer-brand of offense; those quick scores combined with hot shooting, in turn, allowed the Pacers to set not just one, but two, defenses at the same time.
While perhaps not as moldable as switching between defenses mid-possession, the Pacers have also demonstrated increased flexibility of late when it comes to tinkering with match-ups. Consider what happened against the Utah Jazz, for example. On the night, with the exception of the monster stop from Turner that resulted in the weird arm fight, Rudy Gobert went 7-of-10 from the field, including 6-of-8 when defended by Indiana’s starting centers, though it should be noted he was mostly shaking loose catching lobs out of 2-on-1s without a tag or slipping out of traps and dunking on the rotating low-man.
As a result, when Turner went to the bench for a quick rest near the the start of the fourth quarter and wasn’t available as rim reaper, Indiana decided to test out a different strategy for slowing the reigning Defensive Player of the Year’s roll-gravity: switching, with Kelan Martin, a 6-foot-5 shooting guard, as primary. During that stretch, aside from when the Frenchman got blocked by Sabonis, Gobert never touched the ball and secured zero offensive rebounds, drawing only a non-shooting foul against Brogdon.
To be fair, it helped that Utah mostly settled for and misfired on threes, but putting a guard on the screener also gave Indiana a better chance of keeping any potential isolations in check without risk of repercussions inside — given that Gobert, with his limited scoring arsenal, has attempted exactly three shots in the post all season. Kelan got plenty of shine for scoring 11 points in the fourth quarter, but he also deserved recognition for having the strength and mobility to make this type of change in coverage feasible on the fly.
Though it may have seemed like it from some of the egregious breakdowns that occurred during the fourth quarter against the Lakers, Wednesday’s loss was not the first time that LeBron James has called for a shooter to screen for him in late-game situations versus the Pacers. Think back to the bubble, for instance, and look at what happened when he attempted to target Aaron Holiday, with Quinn Cook releasing from the pick.
See how Aaron is jumping out at the ball, momentarily deterring LeBron from driving, before recovering through the gap allowance and providing help at the nail?
Now, fast forward two seasons later. Granted, Wayne Ellington is a more established shooter with a quicker release than Cook, but what exactly was the plan on these actions? In every instance it seems as though Brogdon was drilled not to give up a switch that would result in putting a smaller player on LeBron; and yet, the other guard involved seemed very unaware of those instructions. Look here, for example. Malik Monk didn’t even stop to make contact on this pick, so rather than hesitating or switching, LeVert just needed to run with him so that Brogdon, as he does anyway, could stay square and defend the ball.
Likewise, if Brogdon wasn’t going to peel-back or leave a gap for the recovery, as was the case for Aaron, then McConnell can’t stay with the ball — especially if it takes Torrey Craig shoving Myles, who was initially occupied by the off-ball screen, to rotate one pass away.
Considering that the Pacers typically switch guard-to-guard screens, perhaps old habits die hard, but it seems as though the hedging that worked in the bubble could’ve been useful to avoid these situations if they didn’t want to scramble around blitzes and traps.
Pre-switching and late-clock doubles
Speaking of which...Though Sabonis managed to produce two stops late in isolation when LeBron attempted to attack the rim, switching the bigs onto the generational talent during the fourth quarter and overtime still yielded untimely results from the perimeter, including a three over Turner near the end of regulation.
After that shot sailed through the net, the Pacers started searching for opportunities to switch on the screen approach so as to avoid stranding either Turner or Sabonis on an island. That approach was effective on this possession, when Craig effectively zoned up at the elbow and waited for the pick before switching and inducing a long two.
The only problem was, the Lakers countered by simply chasing the pre-switched screen with another screen from whomever the big was guarding.
Those looks didn’t fall, but the end result of LeBron-led pick-and-roll vs. a big was still largely the same as the shots that did go down. In that sense, it’s a make-or-miss league; however, given that James scored 21 of his 39 points outside the paint, it begs to question why the Pacers weren’t doubling him more — or, at least better — if they weren’t going to fully downsize. Here, without any screen, Justin doubled to prevent LeBron from going one-on-one against Sabonis, but then neither player denied the immediate pass back.
Also, if someone was going to stay on LeBron while the other rotated out of the trap, why wasn’t that person Justin? Likewise, why did Brogdon wait to double until after LeBron had dribbled 5+ times, rather than when he was backed out toward the logo?
In the end, purposefully holding the help until a certain point in the shot-clock likely reduced the amount of time the Pacers may have spent scrambling, but in neither instance was anyone else on the team forced to make a play or create their own shot — which was mainly the point. Meanwhile, with the Lakers outscoring the Pacers 40-23 after pivoting to center-less lineups, Turner and Sabonis combined for exactly two shot attempts during the fourth quarter and overtime, as the Pacers shot 21 percent (6-of-28) from the field.
Admittedly, Sabonis brings value as a screener, connector, and rebounder, but the Pacers also remained intent on keeping at least one big on the floor to be targeted even as they refused to leverage their size, whether missing Turner on the slip or throwing darts out of bounds when their two-time All-Star was open a few yards away. To that point, considering they got more than they bargained for from LeBron as a shooter, it’s certainly questionable if continuing to launch from deep — when they couldn’t “hit a bull in the ass with a bass fiddle in the overtime,” as Carlisle described — was their best offense, particularly when scoring was needed to cover for their various miscues and mismatches on defense.
All of which is to say that, from confining the Bulls in the half-court and slowing Utah’s roll-gravity to not appearing on the same page and attempting to play small while still staying tall against the Lakers, every step forward from the Pacers seems to always be paired with an equal but opposite step back — much like the season as a whole.