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Why the Pacers are struggling to double-team the post

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And how to fix it.

Indiana Pacers v Philadelphia 76ers Photo by Tim Nwachukwu/Getty Images

In scoring 24 points on 68 percent shooting through only three quarters, Joel Embiid dominated the Pacers, again. That much was all too familiar. A reminder of the balletic big man’s last four 30-plus point performances against Indiana. This time, however, he wasn’t parading to the free throw line, as his norm; or merely turning every defender in his path into paper mache, as he so often does; he was picking the Pacers apart off the pass, mercilessly dissecting their every double-team and botched rotation, in what has become a season-long trend for a team ranking dead-last in defending post-ups including passes, according to Synergy.

Consequently, with the Sixers cashing-in on five of Embiid’s seven potential assists, notwithstanding hockey passes, let’s take a closer look at what went wrong for the Pacers and how to fix it, organized by type of coverage.

Blue — Doubling from the high-side

In past seasons, with Embiid racking up fouls early and often against Myles Turner, the Pacers could rightfully be accused of being too reactionary, feeling out the lopsided match-up with single-coverage, oftentimes at the cost of early foul trouble and sapped offensive rhythm, before opting to send in reinforcements. By comparison, the Pacers were more proactive on Monday night in deploying extra bodies, which ultimately served to keep the bruising behemoth with savvy footwork off the charity stripe, but doubling from the top player inside the strong-side elbow (i.e. blue) created all sorts of confusion in rotation on the weak-side, as well as other problems.

First of all, because Embiid is doing more in face-up situations and is capable of shooting over the top, the help needed to be better timed. Here, if the goal was to force the ball out of his hands, then Malcolm Brogdon has to go on the pass or the catch, not well after the hold.

Now, watch Domantas Sabonis. In the same scenario, he goes right away, inducing a hang-time pass to the opposite corner. On that subject, notice that because a big is doubling from the high-side, Embiid has to put air under the ball, which buys Brogdon enough time to contest the shot from Danny Green, scampering from the dunker’s spot to the corner.

That’s good! The only problem is, Philadelphia didn’t often cooperate by stationing a big on the high-side, and that’s where things got dicey. Suddenly, instead of engulfing the ball with two seven-footers, the Pacers were relying on T.J. McConnell not only to make the longer dash from clear outside the 3-point line to the block, but also to somehow impede Embiid’s sight lines with a 6-foot-1 frame. Consequently, instead of being bothered into tossing a higher, slightly off-target pass, Philadelphia’s All-Star starter was able to throw a one-handed laser directly into Furkan Korkmaz’s shooting pocket.

Of course, the fact that Korkmaz was open (not once, but three times!) also brings up a whole other point about this particular type of coverage. Look at the weak-side. Ideally, McConnell would release McDermott from the double-team with enough time to closeout to either Korkmaz or Milton with Justin taking the first pass. However, because he’s late on the double, everything is lightning quick, which forces McDermott to hold and ultimately results in Justin making a mad dash and closing out so aggressively that Korkmaz is able to side-step the flyby.

Again, almost the exact same shenanigans develop, with McConnell being too small and too far away to impact the kick-out in any sort of meaningful way, even while jumping. Be that as it may, the feisty guard still ultimately achieves the goal of getting the ball out of Embiid’s hands, but because Thybulle followed him with a dive, McDermott is forced to hold before chasing out with Justin uncharacteristically caught in no-man’s land, overcommitted in the paint rather than splitting the difference and rotating on the first-pass.

That said, the roles were also confused from the get-go. With blue defense, as was stated above, the first player from inside the strong-side elbow, who isn’t defending the passer, doubles. That’s Justin, not McConnell, which probably contributed to why the former was pulled too far over to adequately play the role of interceptor.

Then, of course, there was also the mishap where Turner and Sabonis both collapsed on Embiid, leaving only Justin to play tag on the weak-side, which in the end, forced a big to get involved with a long contest.

Overall, that’s the trouble with this type of coverage. Because the ball oftentimes gets skipped to the opposite site of the floor, rotations are automatically longer and not as clean; instead, defaulting to scramble mode.

2-3 Zone — Trapping the post

This was already covered in an earlier post detailing some of the ongoing issues with the zone coverage more broadly, so in the interest of brevity, let’s just say the struggles to match-up and defend on a string in the 2-3 are still very much a thing.

To recap, the nearest ball-side forward is responsible for trapping. In this case, that’s Sabonis. So far, so good. But again, as had happened in the previous article, if the Pacers are going to trap the post, then Brogdon has to deny the outlet pass to the perimeter.

Otherwise, this is way too easy.

Plus, if Brogdon had committed nearer to Mike Scott, that’s a trap sprung by two 6-foot-11 centers. Even supposing Embiid manages to lob the ball to the other side of the floor over the top of their outstretched arms, there’s probably going to be more time to rotate out of the double-team and recover — just as was the case in the earlier example.

Doubling from the passer

Generally speaking, however, when both bigs weren’t involved in the trap, the Pacers were arguably better served keeping the rotations in front. Look here, for example, at what happens when Doug McDermott doubles from Danny Green. Now, all of a sudden, instead of scrambling outnumbered on the back-side, it’s a series of shorter and easier closeouts triggered by the flight of the ball.

Furthermore, with each subsequent swing pass, the player rotating out of the double-team (i.e. McDermott) gains extra time to recover to either the dunker’s spot or the corner.

For that reason, doubling from passer, while less aggressive, is arguably a better fit for Indiana’s roster filled with combo guards and centers, with the exception of a few hang-ups.

For one, as long as Embiid is this far away from the paint, it’s probably best for McDermott to dig the post, sliding back and forth between his man and the ball, rather than full-on doubling. As it was, because the sharpshooter choose to commit to the bruiser from mid-range, no one was available in the lane to take the Mike Scott-baton from Sabonis on the cut, which ultimately triggered the very thing that this type of coverage is aimed to avoid: Long closeouts.

To be fair, that might just be a reader error; but, if not, and considering that this is also coming from the team that had Malcolm Brogdon repeatedly fight over on screens against Ben Simmons, then some questions probably need to be raised as to why the game-plan is as dogmatic as it seems. Especially since there appears to be at least some leeway within certain areas of the scheme that should arguably be more black-and-white. Take this possession from the first half, for example. Fortunately, this ends with Ben Simmons picking up an offensive foul, but this should be an automatic front on the back-side from Brogdon.

Or else, against teams with size, like the Sixers, or say, the Nuggets (when healthy), who can post-up Nikola Jokic on one side of the floor with Paul Millsap in the dunker’s spot and Michael Porter Jr. cranking from the corner, the Pacers will be avoiding a mismatch on one side of the floor only to get overwhelmed, whether via the block or a quick dive or cut, on the other.

In that regard, without Caris Levert or T.J. Warren available to pick-up some of the scoring slack, the Pacers have a smaller margin for error on defense against more talented teams, which means pristine execution is as necessary as coverages that fit the personnel as well as the opponent are paramount.