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How crunch-time defines the current state of the Pacers

This isn’t just about bad luck.

Miami Heat v Indiana Pacers Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

Routinely unfathomable and all too often grim, the last five minutes of games that are separated by five points or less is the equivalent of the witching hour for the Pacers — who are minus-34 in 67 clutch minutes this season, despite otherwise posting a slightly positive net rating. Unraveling from average to borderline ill-starred, Indiana has a knack for finding falling pianos to stand under in close-run contests, be it committing mystifying gaffes on defense, struggling to “hit a bull in the ass with a bass fiddle” from the perimeter, or ending up on the wrong side of crucial non-calls (twice!).

For that reason, there isn’t a single all-encompassing answer for why the Pacers have gone 2-8 in games decided by the aforementioned score margin, but there are several recurrent themes — many of which, while also pointing toward a team that could be having more agency in making their own luck, should be raising some red flags.

Unwieldly Lineups

Injury considerations aren’t all to blame for why the Pacers have melted away at the end of games — even against equally depleted opponents! — but when T.J. McConnell spots up away from the ball or Jeremy Lamb gets roasted coming out at a weird angle on a closeout, it’s hard not to picture what a healthy version of T.J. Warren as a two-way player would offer in those same situations. After all, though admittedly occurring before the start of crunch-time, Immanuel Quickley probably isn’t going to be so bold as to pounce this driving lane with Warren in the strong-side corner, right?

Granted, McConnell made some big, late-game shots against Philadelphia and Sacramento with both teams chasing him over on screens; however, in most cases, he has to give up the ball at some point, and when he does, wouldn’t it be preferable for him to be screening or cutting rather than nailing his feet to the three-point line?

Passing the ball out of the post, where Sabonis is still averaging fewer post-ups per game (2.6) than Kristaps Porzingis during Carlisle’s final season in Dallas (3.7), may not look as modern as swinging the ball around the perimeter, but a layup from McConnell, which he is converting at a 62 percent clip, is worth more points (1.24) than a three (0.84). Of course, some of this is moot for the time being, seeing as how the plucky guard is now expected to be out for “weeks, not days” with a sore right wrist, but the broader point about not automatically equating positioning with spacing and playing more to the strengths of whoever is available to shift opposing defenses still applies.

Lack of focus

Compare and contrast the following clips. This is 2017-18 Victor Oladipo, with his team up by 35 points at the end of the third quarter, still racing down the floor to prevent a pick six.

Now, watch LeVert, down by three with 3:15 to play, following this fast-breakable miss from Brogdon. Notice any difference?

Don’t get it twisted. LeVert doesn’t have the same jets as the All-Star-caliber version of Oladipo, and it’s fair to question why neither big is dropping back to protect the basket, but there’s only so many ways to explain that degree of lag: Either his back is limiting his ability to shift gears, which has been noticeable in other settings, or he lacks urgency. If the latter is the case, that shouldn’t be happening in the first quarter (it has!), let alone during crunch-time. To be fair, however, this issue extends well beyond LeVert.

Take a look at this possession from the most recent close loss. There is 2:15 left in the game, with Atlanta up four. The Hawks are running a double-drag, which is one of their most common actions; and yet, Kevin Huerter moseys into a shot with ease, as palms go up on the Pacers side, effectively providing the universal sign for not being on the same page.

For the game, the Pacers had mostly been chasing over and switching on those actions. It’s possible there was supposed to be a change in coverage. Or, maybe, Brogdon getting so badly spun out created confusion. Regardless, that isn’t exactly desperation defense.

The same was the case in Denver, when Will Barton, with 28 points and counting, banked in a floater, making it a two possession game. Give Aaron Gordon credit for setting a solid screen and props to the Nuggets for the baseline exchange that made pre-switching more challenging, but the Pacers were hedging against Barton when Sabonis was defending the screener for most of the game and then suddenly came out in drop without making any impact on the ball. Again, spot the difference between those prior possessions and during winning time.

With Turner positioned under the basket, sure seems as though it would’ve been preferable to force-feed the action through Gordon, given that he was 2-of-10 on the night.

At any rate, complacency and lack of focus might be expected, even if still undesirable, with a sizable lead; not so much while trailing from behind — which is a jarring disparity from a few seasons ago and arguably warrants questions as to what changed.

Exaggerated Coverages

Worse still, when opposing defenses ramp up, the Pacers can also swing to the opposite end of that spectrum, transforming into frantic, lone wolves who appear as if they’ve never met and aren’t allowed to communicate. In defense of the players, some of the pace control and tedious oversight that was going on during the recent 0-3 road trip, which the coaching staff has since relaxed to a degree, deserves part of the blame for the DIY-nature of the offense against extended ball pressure.

Still, even when they aren’t constantly receiving directives from the bench or sacrificing transition flow to set up a play out of a timeout, it routinely seems as though they are reading an assignment for school on autopilot without actually processing the words on the page. Take a look at this fourth quarter possession against Minnesota. As has rapidly become the norm in these situations, the Timberwolves are blitzing Brogdon with Sabonis as the theoretical release valve. In reality, Sabonis isn’t the release valve; he’s a paragraph to be skimmed before mechanically veering into a screen for Justin, who gets run off the line anyway, resulting in a three from a worse shooter.

For shaky shooters like Sabonis, chasing a ball screen with a wide pindown hurts drop coverage because the defense is typically too far back to impact the player flying off the pick; however, when both defenders are on-ball (as was also the case against the Lakers), this is excess offense — especially when the option is there to play out of the middle of the floor with D’Angelo Russell as the only available tagger on the weak-side.

If Russell commits to Sabonis in that scenario, Justin gets an easier, catch-and-shoot three.

Generally speaking, though, the roll-man — sort of like the middle of the zone against Miami — is rarely more than an abstract concept at the end of the games or during scoring draughts. Watch back most of those minutes and it won’t take long to find plenty of instances where the ball either sticks or goes everywhere but to the screener.

Just look at their shot chart during crunch-time. Admittedly, almost the whole thing is covered in red, but they’ve also launched 48 percent of their shots as threes despite shooting only 27 percent from behind the arc.

This problem isn’t just limited to crunch-time, either. Remember the 24-0 run they surrendered in Charlotte? They never even attempted a shot in the paint during that span. Or, how about when they scored 10 points over the final 10 minutes against Detroit’s smaller front line? Sabonis scored zero points on zero field-goal attempts. Likewise, from the point in which the Lakers pivoted to playing center-less lineups, the Pacers got outscored 40-23, shooting 21 percent from the field (6-of-28), with Turner and Sabonis combining for two shots during the fourth quarter and overtime.

And, here’s the thing: The issue during those stretches, despite having size for position, isn’t even so much about the volume of threes as the type of threes. As in, is it really preferable for Duarte to be going solo against LeBron, when Sabonis could be establishing position against Melo on the scram and potentially throwing back out for a cleaner attempt?

In that regard, the togetherness they preached during training camp has a tendency to come across as synonymous with de-emphasizing him as a fulcrum in favor of deploying him as a brick wall to cycle through neglected and rejected picks from the perimeter. Meanwhile, given that Myles struggled to handle a few rare passes on the slip with Melo defending him as the screener, what other answers are there against these types of lineups, if they don’t feel confident in leveraging their size?

Remember, this is what happened at the end of the game against Minnesota.

All of which is to say that, while injuries clearly haven’t helped and more consistent effort could potentially mitigate some of their hardship, what happens during crunch-time seems less like a bewitching aberration from the norm than a sobering clarification of their current non-identity: a team lacking in direction while operating as individuals, few of whom have been maximized, with a ceiling that lowers against heighted pressure.