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How the Pacers countered Sacramento’s top-locking defense

And why Chris Duarte and Justin Holiday were limited to a combined season-low in three-point attempts.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Sacramento Kings Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

With Malcolm Brogdon missing a second-straight game due to illness, Sacramento’s off-ball defenders repeatedly planted their bodies between their check and the screen in an effort to make it even harder for the Pacers, already short on shooting and playmaking, to shake loose from three and move the ball.

Just look at this screenshot. See how Harrison Barnes is preventing Justin Holiday from flying over the pindown from Myles Turner?

Now, watch how things get gunky and mistimed. Once Justin exits the action, Duarte assumes he is next in line to get sprung free at the same time as LeVert decides to, instead, toss the ball to Turner. As a result, what could’ve functioned as either a curl cut or empty hand-off at the wing becomes an offensive reset, with LeVert and Turner each striking out against their respective switches.

Plus, consider this: That’s how much top-locking managed to skew the court-mapping of the offense with three starters on the floor, which is to say nothing of the sparse but still too many minutes when the Pacers attempted to play Brad Wanamaker as the primary ball-handler with Duarte and/or Justin denied access to off-ball screens alongside various wing combinations of Jeremy Lamb, Torrey Craig, and Kelan Martin — none of whom are particularly adept initiators.

In part, some of those personnel obstacles might explain why Rick Carlisle deemed it more necessary to be barking out hyper-specific orders and play-calls (two-side New York!) from the sidelines, whereas earlier in the season — particularly down the stretch against Miami — Brogdon and Sabonis could be seen having at least some leeway to hand signal for Spain and other actions. At any rate, though the plan didn’t always go as planned in terms of actually producing points, here’s how the Pacers adapted when forced to find counters.

Take what you can get

By comparison to last season, no one on the current roster quite has the same sense for dashing to the basket and using backdoor cuts to set-up defenders as Doug McDermott, but Chris Duarte certainly has a knack for fading to the corner. Here, because he steps in from the sideline, his man never fully has a chance to play him top-side, which means all it takes is a subtle feign over the screen paired with a quick jab moving to his right to peel free and shoot over the top of the switch.

Simple, but effective.

What goes around, comes back around

From the standpoint of choreography, another way the Pacers circumvented what would otherwise be an induced basket cut is by flowing out of staggered screens for the player in the weak-side corner into Spain pick-and-roll.

In this case, after getting shooed out of the picks, Duarte barely makes contact on the back-screen en route to the catch at the top of the key, but he still manages to deliver the ball on time and on target to Sabonis under the basket.

Later, out of the same counter, he got the back-pick to stick, with McConnell drawing plenty of attention on-ball, but came up short from deep.

One other matter of note: Notice how in both of those examples McConnell’s defender went over the screen, which wasn’t the case last week on stacked actions when he started in place of Brogdon in Brooklyn. Moreover, the Kings also went over on nearly all of his screens at the end of the game, when he scored seven points in the fourth quarter.

As such, unless other teams join Sacramento in either copying Nate Bjorkgren’s overboard with overs strategy from last season or start buying into the way McConnell shot the ball against Portland (3-of-4 from three), it’s probably fair to expect that this particular wrinkle may not always run quite this smoothly in depleted lineups. After all, the Kings also chased over against Wanamaker, who has shot 21 percent on pull-up threes for his career.

That said, LeVert also had an opportunity to steer the same counter. In this instance, however, Barnes anticipated what was coming and communicated for Holmes to dance around the pick and drop back to the restricted area, allowing everyone to stay home.

Consequently, LeVert wasn’t able to gain any ground, and after pivoting into a subsequent pick-and-roll, ended up hunting yet another shot, as he so often did in the second-half (6-of-17), though Turner appeared to be open.

Hello from the other side

Of course, the Pacers didn’t just rely on wheeling around into Spain as their only workaround; they also made other slight alterations to their usual offense. For example, watch Duarte manipulate these two screens at the elbows. Normally, out of Iverson, he cuts over the top with Turner setting a ghost screen to either attack ahead of the pick or fire the ball to the opposite side of the floor, like so:

Here, though, notice how he runs under the picks, operating almost like a mandolin, in an effort to slice his defender off his outside hip. Then, rather than slipping out of the play, Torrey Craig hit back by actually setting the screen and forcing a switch.

Subsequent illegal screen aside, it’s all of that subtle back-and-forth that allowed the Pacers to still run their usual play, even against different coverage.

Meanwhile, the same technique was also applied to the aforementioned staggers for the player in the weak-side corner, wherein instead of flowing into Spain, Duarte and LeVert would, again, run on the opposite side of the picks in an attempt to scrape off their defenders, effectively receiving a down screen from Sabonis before launching into pick-and-roll.

As can be seen, when leveraged away from the three-point line, learning how and when to locate rollers, instead of typically holding onto the ball until the very last second and then trying to make a play under the basket, is the next evolution for Duarte. Ideally, while it doesn’t exactly seem fair to expect more from someone who has already impressed with his footwork and tough shot-making, this read would be an earlier pocket pass so that Sabonis, with the defense pulled over, could ping the ball to Craig in the corner.

As the league leader in touches and passes per game, Brogdon being healthy will relieve some of those playmaking responsibilities; however, with the way the offense seeks to find the second side of the floor, this will still need to be an improvement area in the long-run against various types of defense.

Just around the corner

This only happened once, but pairing Sabonis inside as a decision-maker and physical screener with Justin as a heady movement shooter was a clever way to avoid being top-locked in the first place. Nothing about this is particularly fancy, as it appears as though Justin is merely entering the ball into the post (oh hey, it’s possible!). But, watch what develops next. Rather than clearing out, the team’s oldest player unexpectedly back-pedals to the corner for a hand-off, throwing the Kings for such a loop that in addition to Sabonis, the lefty big man’s defender very nearly acts as an additional screener.

Obviously the result there was a foul rather than a three-point attempt, but at least Justin was put in position to shoot. For the night, while it’s reasonable to expect that some of the messiness and bad timing will be cleaned up by the role clarity that comes with Brogdon returning to action, Indiana finished with more turnovers (19) than assists (13) and shot 24 percent from three, with Justin and Duarte only combining for eight of the team’s 25 total attempts — two figures which both represent season-lows. Nevertheless, from fading and feigning to veering and curling, many of the counters still managed to maintain the spirit of motion in the offense, even if less than stellar execution, which admittedly must be corrected, at times reinforced the overall purpose behind Sacramento’s coverage.