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How the Pacers are setting the pace

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And why playing faster isn’t only about running faster.

Indiana Pacers v Utah Jazz Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

All of Nate Bjorkgren’s G League teams had one specific trait in common. Across four stops, none of his squads ranked lower than fifth in pace. Inside the G League bubble in Orlando, Fort Wayne carried on that same tradition, coming in at fourth while running the same playbook as the Pacers. And yet, despite the obvious similarities in system between affiliate and parent club, the Pacers — at the point in which the Mad Ants kicked off their season on February 10 — sat in 15th, racking up only a slight increase in pace (100.1) over last season (99.4). To be fair, the G League as a whole tends to run smaller and faster from a team standpoint than the NBA, and personnel differences clearly matter, but that’s also sort of the point, at least as it pertains to Indiana’s recent commitment to running.

Consider this: Since Caris LeVert debuted for the Pacers on March 13, Indiana has jumped up to third in possessions per game, while benefiting from the addition of an extra on-ball threat. But, here’s the thing. Over the last eight games, when either Myles Turner or Domantas Sabonis has been out of the lineup as a result of separate ankle injuries, the Pacers have fully embodied their namesake, quite literally setting the “pace” for the rest of the league. Moreover, during this stretch, a whopping 18.3 percent of Indiana’s shot attempts have come from between 22 and 18 seconds on the shot-clock — second to only the Sacramento Kings and up from 14.3 percent over the prior 47 games.

In that regard, this is the vision that Nate Bjorkgren described at his introductory press conference, when he laid out his intentions to design a multi-faceted offense that would generate extra possessions, creating opportunities out of disruption with multiple ball-handlers. That said, for a team that’s surrendered 115 points per 100 possessions over those same eight games (good for 25th in the league) while ranking dead-last in both opponent paint-points (including sitting at 29th even while Sabonis was out) and opponent offensive rebounding rate (including languishing at 28th even while Turner has been sidelined), getting as many looks at the basket as possible, when reliant on outscoring opponents, has also been a critical strategy.

So, with that in mind, how exactly have the Pacers suddenly ratcheted up the pace?

Transition defense as an abstract concept

The easy answer is they’re playing a lot of five-out in the half-court (seriously, you can see Nate Bjorkgren calling this from the sideline repeatedly during broadcasts) while also busting their butts in transition. If we’re being honest, however, the same can’t exactly be said for the energy output of all their recent opponents.

Edmond Sumner dribbled the ball the full-length of the floor for an uncontested layup in Houston, prompting a timeout from Stephen Silas, who was reportedly “pissed” at his team’s effort.

In a similar vein, T.J. McConnell went coast-to-coast against Memphis, with Tyus Jones turning into a swinging door.

Granted, both guys deserve credit for high-tailing it from end-to-end rather than walking the ball up the floor and milking clock (that’s happened!), but it would be disingenuous to this discussion not to at least mention some of these moments when it’s appeared at times as though opponents have treated transition defense like an abstract concept.

Cut assists

Still, although they’ve played three of the six worst transition defense teams in the last eight games (i.e. Houston, Minnesota, and Orlando), opponents aren’t the only reason the Pacers have been scoring fast-break points in bulk. For instance, marvel at this possession for just a moment. At the same time as a 6-foot-11 big man is bringing the ball up the floor and making a pass on the move (without getting too deep!), T.J. McConnell is running the floor like a big, rather than spraying out to the three-point line.

Look closer and it’s that motion, along with the no-look from Sabonis, that opens up the shot on the wing. Because McConnell slices across the lane in transition, Joe Ingles commits to the cut and ultimately gets sucked away from Brogdon, who pulls the trigger from deep with over 18 seconds still remaining on the shot-clock.

Micromovements

Before the Pacers started attacking Rudy Gobert with kamikaze drives and rolls during the second half of Friday’s loss to the Utah Jazz, they were making more regular use of quick-hitters, whether with ball screens or hand-offs, to take advantage of the space ceded to them by his drop.

In this case, because teams have come to realize that the Pacers run pitch plays for Sabonis to attack with his strong hand, all it takes is a subtle head turn from Brogdon to generate separation from Gobert on the baseline, rather than challenging him at the rim or settling from deep. In addition to providing a stark contrast to what happened after halftime, this serves as a reminder, especially against stiffer defenses, that acting is a part of basketball.

Flip pass

One of the niftiest tricks to emerge from this stretch has been this unassuming flip pass from Caris LeVert.

Shoveling the ball backwards to a trailer (**crosses fingers for healthy Myles**) while in motion may not seem flashy, but being able to transition seamlessly from dribble-to-pass makes it hard to predict and because he keeps his handle live, the defense has to honor his drive. In that regard, the function is similar to a behind-the-back pass out of the pick-and-roll. Because there is no need for LeVert to stop and pivot into a pass across his body, look at the shot-clock when Brogdon and Justin let go of the ball on those two possessions.

That’s a time-saver!

Off-ball receivers

Of course, early offense isn’t just about running fast or sprinting to the line in transition. The Pacers have also substituted some of their plays that involve lots of moving parts for more simplified actions with heightened regularity. Here, for example, Oshae Brissett and Goga Bitadze could easily be mobilized into the team’s double-stagger play, which requires greater attention to detail as well as time to develop.

Instead, Jeremy Lamb fakes a ball-screen and moves into open space, creating a gap for McConnell to attack quickly along the baseline. What happens concurrently, however, is key. Although Brissett bobbles the pass, notice how he cuts through the middle of the floor, so as not to upset the spacing, as the ball is penetrated.

Two days later in Utah, that same cut resulted in an open three for Goga, when Gobert collapsed on the drive and Niang got, uh, all kinds of confused.

For the sake of comparison, here’s the same play being run at the beginning of March against Philly. Admittedly, T.J. McConnell, master of the sideline attack, manages to shake Tyrese Maxey without any help in sight, but observe the weak-side. Rather than cutting as the ball is penetrated, see how JaKarr Sampson is setting a decoy pindown? That creates a distraction to allow McConnell to attack 1-on-1, but it also has the potential to limit the flow of the offense in cases where he might run into an on-ball stopper.

Now, in addition to Brissett, who by the way has plenty of experience looking for these cracks in the defense due to his past history with both Bjorkgren and the Raptors, Indiana is opting more often for the cut over the last eight games as opposed to the off-ball screens.

In each instance, the offense isn’t starting with 17 seconds left on the shot-clock; it’s finishing. In that way, Indiana’s rise in pace has been as much about subtlety as speed, perhaps providing a blueprint for how the commitment to playing faster can be maintained even when both bigs are back in the lineup; hopefully, continuing to develop chemistry with LeVert and the system as a replacement for some of the attributes of playing a flock of ball-handlers around a single center. As the Pacers learned late against the Jazz, not all shots taken early in the shot-clock are created equal. But, for as long as the defense continues to struggle, as it has since the win over San Antonio, pushing the pace can’t revert to being an early season platitude, when generating extra possessions for in-rhythm shots, whether via play options or players reads, has been imperative — and perhaps never more evident than when it doesn’t happen during the fourth quarter.