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How cutting kept the Pacers offense moving in Miami

Takeaways from two roads wins over the Heat.

Indiana Pacers v Miami Heat Photo by Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

Six months after getting swept by the Miami Heat in the bubble, a match-up which was once fraught by fitful, standstill pick-and-roll, has taken on a new identity. Suffocating the Pacers with switches while also loading up at the blocks and elbows, Miami never had need to play zone in that series, as they strategically did in later rounds against Milwaukee, Boston, and Los Angeles; instead, betting that Malcolm Brogdon and a diluted version of Victor Oladipo wouldn’t be able to beat them in isolation. Fast forward to now, however, and suddenly, not only can Miami no longer find the bottom of the net from three, shooting an inexplicable 7-of-29 on wide open looks over the two-game miniseries, but Jimmy Butler and company also logged 12 possessions of 2-3 during Sunday’s matinee contest alone.

To be fair, mixing in the alternate coverage may have just been part of the pregame plan — a response to Indiana’s league-high rim frequency. But, that’s also sort of the point. With Domantas Sabonis available to slip into space as a release valve and/or draw extra attention while posting the inside match-up, that calculus changed from last season, as did having Caris LeVert, who Miami repeatedly, and sometimes heavy-handedly, blitzed. Put together, those two shot a less than stellar 19-of-53 from the field for the weekend, but their very presence opened up the floor for others, especially with LeVert drawing the weaker assignment, as was the case in overtime on Sunday, when he set-up Malcolm Brogdon for an off-ball three merely by attacking Tyler Herro at the elbow, and thus, attracting Jimmy Butler’s attention.

Still, those personnel changes weren’t the only visible difference from last season — and, really, even the last few last weeks. Indiana also made strides in knowing where to move when the ball moved, reshaping the defense with Miami’s hyperaggression acting as both enemy and ally for the team dressed in red (sometimes in the same possession!).

On that note, here’s five unscripted ways the Pacers cut up the Heat, maintaining a better sense of flow in the offense.

Facilitating from the post

A topic that oftentimes gets overlooked in discussions about stagnant post play is how effective a spot it can be to generate assists from. For point of reference, per Synergy, the Pacers have netted themselves more points per possession on passes out of the post from Sabonis (1.196) than on spot-up opportunities (1.036) and shots coming off screens (0.958), albeit on much lower volume and with the caveat that the former category may double classify under the latter two in some instances. Still, as was highlighted in a blog post last week, in order to avoid becoming too mechanical, facilitating those types of shots oftentimes requires a symbiotic relationship between reads and sets, especially when Sabonis is single covered. Enter: This sublime basket cut from Malcolm Brogdon.

Full disclosure, in news that should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone at this point, this is a Raptors set that Nick Nurse typically calls for Pascal Siakam out of timeouts.

Note the difference, though: Normally, Lowry sets the rip screen for Van Vleet and then simply drifts to three, allowing Siakam to go to work. For the Pacers, Butler jumped out to switch, opening space for Brogdon to scurry into an easy two.

In that way, Bjorkgren is supplying the marching orders, while also amplifying the skill-set of Sabonis, but the individual interpretation, which has been missing at times over the early portion of the season, is what makes the choreography dance.

Relocating under the basket

This was a concept the Pacers dabbled with during preseason, but it hasn’t made much of an appearance since. Back then, Victor Oladipo would move ball-side on high pick-and-rolls with the goal being to open up the roll for Sabonis or weak-side space for a dump-off pass.

Here, with Miami overcommitting to Justin Holiday on the hand-off, Turner — in much the same manner — makes himself a moving target under the basket as Kelly Olynyk detaches to cover Sabonis.

Granted, Turner didn’t convert the gimme basket, but he did manage to get himself to the line while filling the gaps, which is slowly becoming more of a trend.

If he can consistently find spots to assert himself, whether balancing the floor under the basket, as shown in the above clip, or flashing in front of mismatches when Sabonis draws double-teams — a missed opportunity while playing alongside T.J. Warren in the playoffs last season — this roster makes more sense.

Cut assists

Oh hey, another Myles shoutout! Consider everything that got taken away in just this one possession:

  • First, Miami denied the pinch post hand-off from Sabonis to Justin.
  • Then, Precious Achiuwa prevented Brogdon from driving baseline.
  • Meanwhile, Butler ducked in front of Sabonis on the dive.
  • In response, Brogdon backed up and attacked yet again, only to be curtailed once more, this time, by both Achiuwa and Olynyk.

Suffice it to say, this easily could’ve ended in disaster, but watch Turner. Instead of staying glued to the 3-point line, he makes the heads up play to cut to the middle of the floor, sucking Gabe Vincent away from Justin Holiday in the corner.

As was highlighted earlier this month, teams are jamming Turner’s 45-cuts, and he doesn’t always know which cut is his, but his activity — regardless of what the box score says — is what made this three possible. Mark him down for a cut assist.

Boomerang Go-and-Catch

This was another wrinkle that was brought up in that blog post a few weeks ago. With teams playing higher against Doug and Justin coming off screens and occasionally going so far as to jump off the ball with a next defender after a pass, the option for pass-backs or backdoor cuts has been there for the taking, if only they would indulge.

Well, against Miami, indulge they finally did, with McDermott quickly throwing the boomerang for McConnell to attack space decisively off the catch.

And that, right there, is the key. To be fair, this isn’t a cut, per se, from McConnell but this is one of the ways that he compensates for his lack of shooting. For most players, this would be a shoot or attack decision. For McConnell, it’s strictly an attack or attack decision, which is why getting a head start before he catches the ball is pivotal. It’s for that reason, along with his ability to contort his body into his signature baseline floater, that he’s able to slice ahead of the help rotation from Bam. Keep the boomerangs coming.

Bump and run

With all due respect to the incredibly saucy pass that McConnell threw over his shoulder to McDermott with his back turned to the basket, this is the McConnell-McDermott connection most worth writing about. No, it isn’t as fancy. It didn’t inspire a goggles celebration, or end with a lob dunk. But it did show a great read of the defense; and not just any defense, zone defense — which, as you may recall, the Pacers struggled with immensely against the Sixers earlier this season. Granted, not all zones are set or created the same, but that’s also what makes this particular read all the more impressive. What distinguishes the Heat’s zone is that they make it a priority to take away the extra pass to the corner by jumping into passing lanes off bump downs and stunting and recovering.

That’s what Herro is attempting to do, here, versus McDermott; but whoops, he gone!

Again, to recap, the Heat didn’t run zone against the Pacers last season, so props for the recognition — especially with the shot-clock running down.

All of which is to say that sweeping the two-game miniseries wasn’t just about the fact that Indiana hit 20 threes on Friday or that Miami was ice-cold in both games, there was also, at least for this weekend, substantive growth shown in the way of unscripted reads to go along with the potential of what might be possible with LeVert executing at a more efficient level against the weaker match-up.

In that regard, what was once a nightmarish match-up in the bubble last season, suddenly seems considerably more competitive.