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What two contenders revealed about the Pacers

And what can be done about the ongoing weaknesses that were further exposed.

Indiana Pacers v Milwaukee Bucks

Two issues, each coming on opposite ends of the floor, that were previously simmering beneath the surface of a rosy start for the Pacers, featuring internal development and modernized tactics in spite of injuries to key players, came to a head in games this week against the East’s two top teams. One, producing a stunning, late-game collapse against the Philadelphia 76ers (16-6), and the other, resulting in a 20-point beatdown versus the Milwaukee Bucks (13-8). So, what are these problems and how do the Pacers, even with a shorthanded and somewhat unbalanced roster, fix them?

Let’s review the film.

Philly’s 2-3 zone

With the Sixers playing mostly zone, the Pacers turned a 16-point lead into a 9-point loss over a stretch of eight minutes, shooting 1-of-10 from the field to go with five turnovers. Indiana’s struggles against zone span back to last season, when regulated lines of defenders would assemble in an effort to dare them into being what they weren’t — a high volume three-point shooting team with less ability to lean on high pick-and-roll like a crutch. Now, the incentives for opponents to drop back into the alternate form of coverage have changed, but the scoring droughts have nonetheless carried over.

Per Synergy, Indiana’s 0.885 points per possession against zone ranks 23rd in the league — a mark which is actually worse than last season (0.996). By comparison, the Pacers rank 5th against man coverage, while also leading the league in rim frequency and sitting near the top in player movement. Not only does zone pack the paint with bodies, making bulldozing to the basket more difficult, it strips the lyricism out of an offense that relies on off-ball screens and red herrings to pry open driving lanes; instead, producing stagnancy plagued by fits and starts.

By comparison, two nights later, the Pacers scored points on nine of 19 zone possessions against the Grizzlies, making some of the shots from beyond the arc that rimmed out in the prior game while also hitting the offensive glass. Tellingly, though, Indiana also faced the most zone of any Memphis opponent this season. Plus, it begs pointing out that not all zones are created equal. While the Grizzlies were sliding back from a 3-2 zone into a 2-3, thus making it easier to play inside-out, Philadelphia was purposefully beckoning the Pacers into the Kraken of sprawling tentacles that was Matisse Thybulle and Ben Simmons.

Look here, for example, at the exaggerated stances of those two terrors. See how they’re angling their bodies with their chests toward half-court? That’s to funnel the ball toward the middle of the floor and into the help while also negating the outside top-screen.

To be fair, Brogdon was arguably too deliberate down the stretch of this game, pounding the ball in place and making passive passes. Still, unless this possession develops at lightning-quick speed in transition — which is more of a challenge when the ball is going through the net at the other end of the floor — this type of screen is of no advantage, leading only to a simple reversal, with Furkhan Korkmaz pouncing the drive and then recovering to the corner for the contest.

In addition to muddying penetration, all that length and timing for Philadelphia also made it nightmarish to pass the ball to the middle of the floor, where odd-man advantages are typically exploited — especially when Philadelphia’s two pit bulls were nipping at the ankles of Sabonis off-the-catch and keeping him off-balance.

Eventually, the Pacers went to their pet play against zone, which also just so happens to be Toronto’s pet play against zone. But again, watch Thybulle, here, and compare his incredible recovery skills (wowzer!) to Terry Rozier in the same role versus the Raptors (*cues sad trombone*).

Granted, closing with T.J. McConnell, as a non-shooting threat, instead of Jeremy Lamb or Aaron Holiday, who had 17 points on 11 shots, including two field-goals in the arid fourth-quarter, was questionable, but the Pacers also needed to stop attacking Philadelphia’s match-up zone in the same manner as they would all other types of zones. For that matter, as opposed to what happened against Memphis, Dwight Howard wasn’t surrendering offensive rebounds in bulk, and with no rhythm or consistency, the shots the Pacers made earlier in the game, long before the offense started running out of gas in the fourth quarter, as it so often does, stopped falling. Consequently, without being able to substitute for Caris LeVert’s slippery playmaking or T.J. Warren’s ability to manufacture buckets in the gaps, perhaps what worked in the past against the Pacers also would work for the Pacers.

For example, look at how the Mavericks carved out a hole for Jalen Brunson to drive down the middle of Indiana’s 2-3 on this possession. Instead of screening the outside of the top of the zone, Dallas is screening both sides of the inside — a tactic which arguably would’ve made the deadly waters of the high-paint safer for passage against the exaggerated stances of Thybulle and Simmons.

Think of it this way: Rather than practically icing the Sabonis screen at the top of the zone, Simmons would’ve been crashing into a pick from the opposite side of the floor at a downward slant, prompting the back-line to contest and opening up the corners.

Admittedly, this is too simple of action to spam every trip down the floor, but if the Pacers had been able to force even a few more quick decisions and rotations, while circumventing Philadelphia’s wily length, then maybe, just maybe, they wouldn’t have been as tight and some of those misses would’ve been makes. That’s why, for a team that relies so heavily on getting to the basket, the Pacers are going to have to find ways to adapt the pressure they put on the rim with motion against man to puncturing various types of zone, including the brand played by the Sixers — which, in the words of one of Bryan Colangelo’s wife’s alleged burner twitters, might very well require finding “a new slant,” at least with regard to screening angles.

Milwaukee’s spot-up shooting

It was lightly alluded to in a prior article about how the Pacers limit three-point attempts while crowding driving lanes, but opposing teams are starting to exploit their help-and-fly coverage by forcing them to cover more ground in the half-court. As of this writing, Indiana is still holding opponents to one of the lowest above-the-break frequencies in the league, but the Pacers rank last in defensive efficiency against spot-ups — a product of a scheme that aims to run opponents off the line but also cedes high-percentage practice shots out of rotation with very little in between.

Here, for example, is a classic hiccup that continues to recur. Because Malcolm Brogdon is guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo as his primary assignment, Myles Turner has to double from the high-side, ultimately resulting in a long contest with Jeremy Lamb occupied by Jrue Holiday in the dunker’s spot and unavailable to rotate.

Again, like zone offense, defending kick-outs out of hard doubles isn’t a new problem for the Pacers, but this particular example does inspire a fresh batch of questions. According to Synergy, Indiana’s 1.23 points per possessions surrendered on post-ups including passes still ranks last in the league; and yet, rather than zoning up these mismatches mid-possession, they continue to double, forcing a big to run-out to shooters. In this case, however, it also is somewhat puzzling as to why Turner wasn’t guarding Giannis in the first place. Not because he was going to stop him (umm...who’s going to on this roster, even when Warren and LeVert are healthy?), but to avoid coverages like this while also eliminating one of the many cross-matches in transition.

Granted, the Pacers sell out on shooters at times, preferring to pack the paint and swap recovery lanes, but look at what these match-ups hath wrought. Because Brogdon is guarding Giannis, Sabonis has to keep track of Middleton on the perimeter, leaving Myles to come off of Lopez to protect the paint overhelp. When, more comfortably, he could’ve been sagging into the paint off of Giannis, with Sabonis at home on Lopez, and either Justin or Brogdon defending the kick to Middleton.

Then there was also the matter of why Brogdon was going over on stagger screens, making it easier for Giannis to build up a head of steam, with Turner and Holiday miscommunicating on the switch-or-stays.

Likewise, because Lamb is playing flat-footed and way too high up, Giannis is able to blow right past him and get to the rim — just like Brogdon against Ben Simmons.

As that particular possession goes to show, Myles probably wasn’t going to thwart Giannis’ never-ending reach at the rim as his primary defender. After all, the two-time MVP never even attempted a jump-shot and was 7-of-8 at the rim with several finishes around Turner. But, that’s also sort of the point. Not only has there not been enough flexibility with the ball pressure over everything approach against non-shooters, but the decision to cross-match Turner on Lopez, when he was being defended by Giannis, oftentimes prevented the league’s leading shot-blocker from being in position to contest or induce shots while also creating chaos in transition. Additionally, the Bucks had 33 assists for 86 points, including 21 made threes. Granted, three-point percentage isn’t exactly controllable, but Milwaukee also played the hits against Indiana’s excess scrambling, creating two-versus-one advantages on the back-side with empty corners instead of challenging Myles and looking for the extra pass out of post-mismatches, thereby forcing bigs to double-and-run.

Overall, the Pacers rank 14th in defensive rating when playing against the top-10 offenses, per Cleaning the Glass, including surrendering 150 points per 100 possessions in the 23 minutes when Turner was on the floor against Milwaukee, the No. 2 spot-up shooting team in the league. Of course, not all of that onslaught should be pinned on Myles, who has been defending his butt off in the paint all season despite a very rough night, but the overall trend does seem to point toward the limits of expecting his rim protection to cover for the excesses of a system that routinely produces odd-man advantages without the lateral size or mobile length to default into scramble mode against potent scoring teams, particularly those with bigger, multi-talented wings.

For a team that freely cycles through defenses, running everything from man to zone and combinations of man and zone, the Pacers may need to start being more adaptable with how high they extend their pressure against certain match-ups — especially when they’re struggling to play in the gaps during the third game in four nights against a two-time MVP who was picking them apart in the paint, whether at the rim or out to shooters.