For the second season in a row, the Pacers have the potential to enter the “playoffs” looking for a win against an opponent which they have yet to beat at full strength. In contrast to last year, however, when Indiana managed to eke out a bench victory over Miami in the final seeding game before getting swept out of the first round, the Pacers, as the current ninth-seed, only get one shot at knocking off this season’s unsolvable foe, the Washington Wizards (No. 10), in the play-in tournament. And yet, in the likely absence of Myles Turner, what is a team like the Pacers, who spent the entire season whirling through defensive coverages and funneling the highest percentage of shots to the rim, supposed to do in a win-or-go-home format against a squad that swept the regular-season series, scoring a mammoth 117.7 points per 100 possessions, including an average of 78.7 points in the paint?
Confronted by Bradley Beal, who dropped 50 on the Pacers when last these two teams met, and Russell Westbrook, the NBA’s all-time leader in triple-doubles, the answer — regardless of who is available for the Pacers — may not have so much to do with rim protection as rim deterrence. With that in mind, here’s a list of suggested do’s and don’ts for the possible 9-10 match-up.
Do: Go Under
In March, when Bradley Beal was out and both Myles Turner and Malcolm Brogdon were available, Russell Westbrook tallied a 30-20 triple-double against the Pacers, as his team racked up 74 paint-points. Part of the problem, as continued to be the case in the next game, when Indiana got thumped oscillating between man, zone, and man mixed with zone, was the season-long refusal to duck under picks against iffy shooters.
Intent on creating an aggressive and physical defensive mentality, regardless of personnel, watch what happens, here, as a result of Brogdon chasing over against Russell Westbrook — a 35 percent shooter outside the paint.
For one, not only was it a breeze for Westbrook to get into the paint with his defender trailing in rearview pursuit, but look at the surrounding floor spacing. That’s an empty-side pick-and-roll, which means no one is available to tag from the weak-side. Consequently, the Pacers have two choices: Switch after chasing over, with Brogdon giving up size and veering into Rui Hachimura on the roll, or bring the help from the strong-side, with Sabonis detaching from Alex Len at the dunker’s spot. Of course, given the amount of pressure that Westbrook is capable of putting on the rim, neither option is particularly palatable.
In the fourth quarter, as well as for much of the third match-up, the Pacers switched (and occasionally trapped) with Westbrook pulling the big, be it Turner, Sabonis, or Bitadze, into space. That is, except for a few rare possessions, when an unheralded hero emerged.
Enter: Justin Holiday, who in several instances this season has broken free of the overboard with overs mold to encourage jump-shots or passes against dynamic guards with questionable jumpers. It happened in the fourth quarter against Houston, when John Wall had torched the Pacers for 20 points through three frames.
/turns blind eye to rebounding struggles while instead choosing to celebrate this monumental moment— Caitlin Cooper (@C2_Cooper) April 15, 2021
You might say, Justin had this defensive possession "under" control. pic.twitter.com/QiWawW94AE
And, it occurred now and again in the final meeting with the Wizards, when the tactic led to Westbrook pulling up for two.
Granted, ducking under is no way revolutionary or some grand schematic adjustment; however, for the Pacers, who have preferred all season long to chase over with a one-size-fits-all approach, at least they’d be making an attempt to repel penetration away from the paint while also clearly identifying what they’re willing to live with, rather than taking away nothing while attempting to take away everything.
Don’t: Give up unforced switches
Even with the obvious disclaimer that Bradley Beal is a bucket, it’s fair to question how many times the Wizards could’ve stymied the Pacers with this particular play. Over and over again in the third quarter of game three, Ish Smith pitched the ball for Beal to attack off a screen with his strong hand. Generally speaking, the challenge is two-fold. First, assess the actual impact of the screen. As in, how fast is the screener sprinting and how likely is he to actually stop and set the pick. More often than not, if the screener is Bertans, he’s probably going to slip out. In that event, rather than hesitating or switching, just run with him, so the on-ball defender (in this case, Justin Holiday) can stay square and guard the ball.
Admittedly, Sabonis slides across the lane to help, but the miscommunication on the initial ball screen action is what triggers scramble mode as a necessity and ultimately results in the hard closeout from Justin.
Of course, “no screen, no scheme” doesn’t exactly apply when a non-shooter is setting the pick and making contact. All too often in those situations, Beal either ended up gliding to the rim against a dropped big or pump faking for two as the defender in rearview pursuit went flying by. Not only is Beal way too good for those kind of mistakes, but he’s also capable of scoring through walls of defenders, even when he bobbles the ball.
I mean, look at this. No, really, LOOK at this. This is absurd. After Beal stumbles coming off of the pick, all three bodies are pulled over from the weak-side, as if the Pacers are in I-formation, and not only does Beal proceed to use them like pylon cones, but...
He converts THIS basket.
In some respects, that’s just simply a case where you tip your hat to the man and move on; however, given that Beal ripped the Pacers repeatedly with this same play, the best solution (if there is one?) is probably a modified version of this coverage that Beal wrecked: Defend at the level of the screen with the big, (hopefully) force the ball out of his hands without getting split, and tag the roller early — preferably with the next closest off-ball defender (not all three!) for whom the screen is moving away (i.e. LeVert).
Do: Off-ball Next Switch
That said, Beal isn’t only a load on-ball; he’s also tough to handle coming off screens. To be fair, Sabonis has to be better cutting off the baseline, here, but also why are the Pacers ok with putting him on an island with Beal in the first place?
Think of it this way: Instead of chasing over and switching at the apex of the curl with Sumner veering back toward Len, imagine a full commitment to switching on the pass.
Interestingly enough, that’s exactly what the Raptors — yes, the same Raptors that Bjorkgren has spent most of the season trying to emulate — did against the Pacers last season. Typically, when Justin Holiday would fly off of a wide pin, most teams would either lock-and-trail him as the cutter with the big playing higher up the floor to protect against the shot, or the man guarding the ball would stunt toward him once the pass occurred so the big could hang back. But, look at what Fred Van Vleet does instead. This isn’t just a quick lunge at Justin (a la LeVert versus Beal); it’s a full-on switch, which allows Serge Ibaka to stay in front of Sabonis, with Patrick McCaw peeling onto T.J. McConnell.
In essence, the off-ball next switch, which prevents a big from getting mismatched on the perimeter, has the same functionality as scramming a guard out of the post. Indiana nearly executed that coverage in the prior meeting against Bertans, with Justin coming off the ball to contest the potential shot while leaving Westbrook at the top of the key, but the end result turned out to be a poorly executed trap on the wing (go figure!), as Sumner trailed from behind and prematurely leaked out.
In that instance, the goal would be for Sumner to sprint underneath the ball and recover middle, with McConnell stunting from the weak-side to force Westbrook into the gap that Sumner is running toward. Returning to the original example with Beal, however, since that is the player who most requires this type of coverage, LeVert would bump Sumner over to Westbrook, sprinting with high, active hands so as to force a hang-time pass in the event of a pass-back between the two All-Star caliber guards (more on this later!).
Overall, given that LeVert is already stunting off of Westbrook as a sketchy shooter, jumping over to make this situational switch on off-ball plays involving Beal shouldn’t be too radical of adjustment — especially since, in this particular case, no other rotations are needed.
Don’t: Gamble for offensive rebounds
That said, in averaging 24 fast break points per game against the Pacers, Washington has also done plenty of damage around the basket in transition. Granted, at least when it comes to the second woeful loss, remedying some of what’s happened in the open floor is probably as simple as just running back. Still, the Wizards lead the league in pace since the All-Star break, which means what the Pacers do on offense — from misfiring on quick, fast-breakable shots to becoming too mechanical with sets and gambling for offensive rebounds — can have a very real (and damaging) impact on their defense.
Take what happened on this missed free throw from Aaron Holiday, for example.
Because Brissett jumps with Westbrook and challenges the triple-double machine for the rebound, Washington converts the tap-back into an easy scoring opportunity at the other end. Ideally, although some lucky bounces are bound to happen, Brissett should immediately prioritize playing prevent defense. As in, as soon as Westbrook slips in front on the “box-out,” jam the electric guard and try to prevent the pass, while at the same time, buying time for Sabonis to protect the basket as Aaron sprint releases from the miss.
Likewise, although this is arguably a more reasonable gamble with the game tied, sparring with Gafford on the glass left Sabonis out of position on Westbrook’s transition drive to take the lead with under 30 seconds to play.
At a certain point, when it’s evident the other team has inside position or looping up from the baseline on a curve to survey for rebounds while still getting back isn’t an option, forming a wall has to be prioritized over chasing a mere chance at a second chance.
Do: Be in the gaps
In reference to what was mentioned earlier in the above section on off-ball next switching, Russell Westbrook’s ability to catch-and-go (a la T.J. McConnell) makes the possibility of surrendering a pass-back to him a risk. For that reason, with respect to what was laid out at the tail-end of that blurb, bumping the player who has to recover to him with high hands, so as to induce a hang-time pass is critical, as is keeping him in sight at the nail.
Here, for example, Malcolm Brogdon isn’t even stunting as aggressively as the Pacers normally do with help coverage on drives; and yet, in building a head of steam upon receiving the pass, Westbrook knifes behind him and dishes up a lob for an easy two.
On the one hand, criticize Brogdon for playing above the line of the ball and being blind to what’s happening behind him, but the slant of his stance also brings up a broader question within the context of which center is on the floor — now and in the future. Though less exaggerated than usual, see how Brogdon has his chest angled toward the ball with his inside foot dropped? That’s being done intentionally to funnel the ball toward the rim. The only problem is, being positioned like that also leaves the Pacers vulnerable to getting slammed by back-screens and burned by back-cuts (see: Westbrook). Plus, without Turner available to depress opponent field-goal percentages at the rim, the value of force-feeding everything middle becomes decidedly less so.
To that point, if this wasn’t mid-season, tinkering with the directionality of the defense to better suit Sabonis, might be worth considering. As in, rather than stunting toward the nail, help defenders would stunt up the floor, with their inside foot high to help, so as to avoid getting caught behind the play or having to pivot to recover.
Of course, making that tweak, no matter how small it may seem, would fundamentally alter how the Pacers influence the ball and set their defense, so it isn’t particularly realistic at this late juncture, regardless of the distinct differences between Indiana’s two starting centers as defenders. As things stand now, though, the player defending at the nail has to provide some degree of resistance on drives without losing their check.
All of which is to say that, from going under to switching with a point and aiming to keep more of the action in front, for a team that ranks dead last in paint-points allowed, more has to be done to deter opponents from getting to the rim — regardless of which center is defending the rim and especially if the opponent is the Wizards.