After trailing by as many as 18 points in the third quarter, the Pacers outscored the Pelicans 38-28 in the final frame, falling just short of pulling off an epic come-from-behind victory, losing 114-113, with most of the starters on the bench. For more on what led to those wild swings, as well as some broader observations, let’s do a deep rewind on a game that, in many ways, speaks to some developing trends from a 1-3 week.
Ball Pressure Over Everything, Continues
And...we’re back. After pressuring up on Ben Simmons and Giannis Antetokounmpo earlier in the week, here the Pacers are yet again, defending way too high against a non-shooter.
This is starting to get really frustrating. Sure, try to shave seconds off the shot-clock with T.J. McConnell playing full-court pest. That’s fine. He’s a role player, and he’s darn good at it. But why continue to surrender these types of odd-man advantages to players who are either dominant drivers, rarely shoot, or both? Like Point Zion goes to show, there’s nothing aggressive and disruptive about that coverage. If anything, it’s conducive. Not to mention it pulls Sabonis away from the glass, when he otherwise could be sagging inside the three-point line, in better position to box-out. Plus, this problem extends beyond Sabonis.
Look at this compilation. Brogdon is flat-footed against Simmons. Lamb got roasted (no pun intended) by Giannis. This is awfully high to be denying the delay action against Ivica Zubac without a viable low-man in sight, and why expend this much energy fighting over against Draymond Green?
For the season, those five players (i.e. Williamson, Simmons, Antetokounmpo, Zubac, and Green) are 36-of-139 (25.8 percent) from three. To be fair, the Pacers rank top-five in points off turnovers, in part, because of this coverage. But the same could be said in two of the last four seasons, when forced turnovers were the product of the scheme, rather than the purpose of it.
Jeremy Lamb...at the four?
Before this week’s slate of games started, if someone had asked you which Pacers would log defensive possessions against both Giannis and Zion, how many guesses would you have needed to drill down on Jeremy Lamb, let alone at the four?
Again, it isn’t like this is a switch or a weird cross-match in transition. Lamb is assigned to Zion because the Pacers are playing small. This is also a byproduct of starting Justin Holiday. When he comes out of the game, someone else has to sop up some of the bench minutes at power fauxward before he returns. Granted, it’s not as if Lamb got crunched by Zion on this horns set, but how much experience could he possibly have as a back-line defender? According to defensive versatility metrics compiled by Krishna Narsu of Nylon Calculus and Andrew Patton of The BBall Index, Lamb spent exactly seven percent of his floor time last season defending the four position. That’s not a lot. There’s also a sizable difference between defending a four like Bojan Bogdanovic, who operates predominantly through off-ball movement leading to on-ball actions, and wrestling with the hunk of muscle that is Zion Williamson.
Moving forward, the Pacers don’t have a lot of options at four with enough mobility to stay in front out on the perimeter without giving up heft in the post; however, in this spot, against the league’s second-leading scorer at the rim, maybe try... dusting off JaKarr Sampson?
Defensive quibbles aside, the bigger struggle was on the other end of the floor, where the Pelicans were sapping the flow from Indiana’s offense by ducking under and trapping the ball, making it harder to turn the corner. For a team that aims to put constant pressure on the rim, whether via drives or dives, the extra congestion in the paint had a tendency to result in stagnant, kamikaze layups and floaters, like so:
This possession, for example, sums up the first half in a nutshell. First, Eric Bledsoe cuts underneath the pindown to beat Doug McDermott to the other side. Then, in an attempt to run Lonzo Ball into the screen, Brogdon attempted to pause methodically behind the hand-off, only to be confronted by two defenders once he attacked. Meanwhile, after getting nothing on the slip, Sabonis tried to kick-start the ball movement by setting a flare screen for Jeremy Lamb, but Brogdon already had his head down, playing isolation basketball.
By halftime, the Pacers had 48 points on 37 percent shooting, with Brogdon and Sabonis going a combined 5-of-19 from the field. Admittedly, some of that was just missing shots, including a few point-blank chippies around the rim, but Sabonis was bothered by the physicality of Steven Adams and the coverage stalled out Brogdon. At the same time, the threes that the Pelicans typically surrender by emphasizing the ball and the roll weren’t falling yet, which only emboldened their game-plan to shrink the floor.
And yet, the bench managed to storm back from an 18-point deficit, scoring 38 points in the fourth quarter, as the starters, with the exception of Justin Holiday, watched from the sidelines. So, what changed? Well, for one, after starting the game 1-of-8 from deep, the Holiday brothers caught fire, shooting 8-for-11 in the second half. Still, the turnaround wasn’t as simple as just making and missing shots. It was also a result of how they were getting shots. T.J. McConnell is used to players going under on his picks, so he was effectively wheeling-and-dealing in his natural habitat, keeping his eyes peeled for shooters while probing off of horizontal screens at the elbows.
In addition to that minor shift in screen placement, staying in motion made it easier for the feisty guard to get shoulder-to-hip advantage going downhill than when Brogdon was being greeted by Ball face-to-face after mucking around with the set-up. Another trick McConnell had up his sleeve? Freezing Adams with a hip change just as Goga was running into Ball on the under, creating the same effect as hitting a slipping big ahead of a switch.
It also helps that Aaron Holiday is rarely gun shy. When given the slightest bit of airspace, he kept it simple and let the ball fly.
Lastly, watch Doug McDermott. Remember the play from the above section when Bledsoe met him on the other side of the pindown? Check out this adjustment. Again, Bledsoe ducks under. This time, in an attempt to jump the intended passing lane to Justin. But wait, rather than shooting the gap, he gets screened by McDermott on the cut-through, thus forcing Ingram to chase on the shot after getting rocked by Goga (!!!) on the pick.
To that point, riding with the bench unit — at least until Goga fouled out — shouldn’t be seen as just rewarding a group for playing hard and clawing out of a huge deficit. In some respects, from McConnell’s keen familiarity with the coverage to Aaron’s shoot-first mentality and the savvy floor spacing of Justin and Doug, it was also the right combination at the right time to counter the defense.
That said, after tying the game on a transition three with 1:54 to play, the Pacers proceeded to give up a putback to Steven Adams, with their best rebounder on the bench; while at the same time, Brandon Ingram was hunting Aaron Holiday at every turn, including sinking a pullup jump-shot over the smaller guard to regain the lead. Then, in the absence of Brogdon and Sabonis as closers, the Pacers ended up running the same high pick-and-roll play within the span of a minute in the clutch. The first time, Myles Turner drained a three, cold off the bench. On the next attempt, however, Lonzo sniffed out what was coming.
Myles Turner was THIS close to winning it for the Pacers pic.twitter.com/8RkHh83Hjj— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) February 6, 2021
In the end, the same tactic of going under that bogged down the offense for the starters, spoiled the comeback for the bench, allowing Lonzo to be in position at the rim.
Consequently, like Philadelphia’s 2-3 zone, it seems as though the Pacers have another defense to solve.
The Pacers just keep borrowing from the Raptors. Designed to generate a three out of inside-out offense, this play was highlighted in a preseason article about activating Myles Turner’s spacing around Domantas Sabonis. Now, for the first time, here it is in living color, triggered by Malcolm Brogdon entering the ball into the post and then setting a top-pin for Turner to orbit into an open shot, as is also demonstrated by Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka.
Of course, despite lifting his volume of attempts to a career-high 4.4 per game, Turner is still shooting below 35 percent from three for the season, but at least the Pacers have a play in their back-pocket that distracts from the post while creating elbow room for both bigs.
With the exception of the win over the Warriors, when Edmond Sumner hounded Steph Curry while the rest of the team dared “the others” to beat them, it rarely seems like the Pacers are on the same page when deploying junk defenses. Granted, that might have something to do with the types of lineups that are on the floor, but that also underscores the point that those are the lineups that typically call for or require changeups. For instance, Brandon Ingram was doing what bigger wings do against the Pacers, scoring 30 points on over 50 percent shooting, so in a grouping that would’ve forced either Goga or Sabonis to be his check at the four, they dropped into a box-and-one.
Turns out, Ingram throws an errant backdoor pass against the change in coverage. Still, it seems less than ideal for Goga and Lamb to be negotiating what type of defense they’re in, as well as who belongs where, mid-play.
Likewise, a similar problem occurred against the Clippers, when instead of lifting to the wing so McDermott could cover the nail, Brogdon stayed mostly glued to his spot, forcing a long closeout from Sabonis with Aaron pinching middle.
For these types of defenses to be an attack mechanism for the Pacers, and not just something that works when the other team makes a mistake or misses a shot, they can’t be as confused as their opponents.