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How the Blazers beat the Pacers’ 1-3-1 zone

After rifling through zone coverages last season, Indiana tried yet another formation in Portland.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Portland Trail Blazers Steve Dykes-USA TODAY Sports

In matching what was an uneven game, which saw the Pacers finish as erratically during crunch-time as they started in building an early deficit, Indiana came out of halftime with an equally uneven approach to defense. With a raised, clinched fist, Indiana’s guards not only signaled for zone following a make or dead ball situation; they also routinely glanced at the bench, as T.J. McConnell can be seen doing below, for what type of zone to play.

Why? Because, at times, rather than defending at the top of a more conservative 2-3 alignment, he was responsible for chasing out of 1-3-1 as the tip of the spear.

The results of the latter type of coverage were mixed; sometimes, even on the same possession. For example, kudos to Torrey Craig for releasing from his man to get a piece of this shot around the basket, but look at Brad Wanamaker.

As the player in the middle, he is responsible for denying the high-post as the ball moves to the wing; and yet, he is very literally defending a spot on the floor at the same time as Caris LeVert, who should be dropping to the block to provide inside help, is essentially guarding no one, though he is at least calling out the flash.

Let’s hear it for Torrey, amirite?

Unfortunately, once the Blazers recognized the scheme, overloading and exploiting the weak-spots in the high-post and corners became more commonplace. Here, as was the case with Wanamaker, once the pass is made to the corner, where Turner and Sabonis converge for the trap, Justin has to drop down and front the block, with McConnell splitting the difference between Dame and McCollum.

Instead, Nurkic gets a wide open dunk.

Whether they wanted to be soft-trapping the half-way corners was also somewhat questionable. If converging around C.J. McCollum, who scored a game-high 27 points, was the goal, then Caris should’ve been looping up to cover Dame on the potential reversal so that Justin could stay attached to Robert Covington and provide an earlier contest.

Plus, watch what happened on the opposite side of the floor. Because LeVert is playing high out of the middle against Lillard, which probably isn’t necessary against the current version of Lillard (four points, 2-of-13 shooting), he’s out of position to deny at the elbow when McConnell meets up with Duarte at the wing, resulting in a whole bunch of flying around as well as an off-balance closeout.

In all, after producing some stops in combination with 2-3 in the third quarter, the Blazers scored points on four of six zone possessions during the final period, including some of the above-shown easy baskets with under three minutes to play.

All of which brings to question the value of continuing to mix in the 1-3-1 during crunch-time, especially once Portland had identified and bore down on the soft spots. Granted, the Blazers had also found some rhythm from deep against the 2-3 and were hunting switches against Turner and Sabonis in man-to-man, but playing 1-3-1 doesn’t exactly shield the bigs from defending on the perimeter or getting stuck in mud. In fact, given that the player at the bottom of the zone is required to run from sideline-to-sideline, the opposite has the potential to be the case, as does fatigue.

Just look at this slam from Norman Powell.

That said, just like overhelping on Covington with under 15 seconds to play shouldn’t arbitrarily be blamed as more bad than leaving him wide open out of an unplanned double-team earlier in the half (both were equally egregious!), the ease with which Portland eventually picked apart the 1-3-1 wasn’t the only reason why the Pacers lost. After all, there were also costly turnovers, point-blank missed layups, and the entire start of the game when they dug a 16-point hole while playing on top of themselves on offense and making the Blazers look competent in transition.

Still, for a team that once again was without two starters and has come up empty on the road (0-4), struggling to stay connected as the game progressed while expending excess energy chasing and shifting within a physically demanding scheme; in many ways, seemed like an all too familiar replay of themes from last season.