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Attacking switches key for Pacers against Hornets

From intelligent spacing to decoys and deception, on combating the defense that has stalled Indiana’s offense.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Beyond entering the final games of the regular season with identical records, the Pacers have a lot in common with their potential play-in opponent, the Charlotte Hornets. With Gordon Hayward still sidelined with the foot injury he sustained in Indiana at the start of April, it remains to be seen who will be available for both squads on Tuesday, as the Pacers also continue to maintain a long list of injuries that includes multiple starters. Assuming Myles Turner remains out with a partially torn plantar plate, attempting to protect the rim without a rim protector will be another trait shared between the two teams, along with ongoing defensive rebounding struggles.

And yet, while both squads lean heavily on switching in certain spots, though in different ways, one has notably struggled to navigate the swapped assignments in the match-up more than the other. In fact, for the regular-season series, which the Pacers lost 1-2, Indiana only mustered 106 points per 100 possessions — its worst scoring output against any Eastern Conference opponent, sans the Brooklyn Nets (105.2), who also post a high switch rate on ball screens.

Consequently, for a team currently reliant more on outscoring opponents than stopping opponents from scoring, here’s a list of do’s and don’ts for how the Pacers can better attack Charlotte’s switching scheme, including from the standpoint of both reads and sets.

Do: Hunt Mismatches

Many of the high ball screens the Pacers set are preceded by weave actions that force opponents to defend from side-to-side before getting slammed into a brick wall. When run at full speed with a screen that sticks, the play is as functional as it is lyrical, setting up a dribble drive into the paint. The trouble against the Hornets, however, is that every pass of the baton gets met with a new defender, neutering the pace of the action and oftentimes vaporizing the effectiveness of the screen. Here, for instance, after jumping from one pass to the next, LaMelo Ball overplays Brogdon, influencing the ball away from the pick.

For that reason, it’s important to identify not only which plays work, but also where the mismatches are within those plays or others. On this possession, rather than running the weave, T.J. McConnell tosses the ball to Sabonis as the trailer behind the play, with both sides of the floor engaging in screening action. Again: The Hornets switch, but watch what happens next. First, Caris LeVert has a mismatch with Cody Zeller at the top of the key, but elects to immediately swing the ball to Edmond Sumner. Meanwhile, with Myles Turner ducking-in against Brad Wanamaker, Sabonis begs for a reversal to deliver the ball to his teammate in the post, but Sumner immediately hands off to McConnell. Then, as Sabonis, himself, flashes the lane against the smaller defender, McConnell chooses to skip the ball overhead to Turner, who has to lift from the corner to meet the pass.

For those counting, that’s three mismatches that were bypassed in pursuit of the toughness of expecting a 6-foot-11 big man to shoot on the move. To be fair, that might work with a smaller lineup, but it also speaks to the importance of knowing your personnel — both with regard to who’s on the floor for the Pacers as well as, in a split-second, who’s guarding who.

Don’t: Spoil the Spacing

That said, purposing to attack mismatches, whether inside or out, can be easily compromised by cramped elbow room. For example, Turner (or, whichever big is on the floor) can’t be posting up Gordon Hayward at the same time as Sumner is trying to beat Cody Zeller, when Sabonis is landlocked in the lane.

Otherwise, without a clear means of escape after releasing from the pick, Sabonis nearly gets pegged on the kick-out to LeVert.

On the bright side, the chemistry between LeVert and Sabonis has started to blossom over the last 10 games, with the former averaging 21.9 points and 7.3 assists on 45 percent shooting. In the most recent loss, Sabonis cleared out for LeVert to attack, both ahead of and in the wake of ball-screens, those looks just didn’t go down.

Of course, since starting the season 13-of-48 in isolation for the Pacers, he’s made of 12 of his last 23 attempts as a solo artist, which should instill some optimism if plays breakdown.

Do: Wear a disguise

Still, as the Pacers found out against Miami last season, it’s best not to rely on iso-ball alone — especially when weighing the potential for an off night in a win-or-go-home setting.

With that in mind, the Pacers have several other plays — in addition to the weave action laid out in the earlier section — that may likely need to be run differently in order to avoid being scrapped against exaggerated coverage. Here, for instance, Turner and Sabonis are preparing to connect a stagger to a subsequent stagger, as they so often do, but look at Miles Bridges. See how’s he switching and jumping the second screen?

With Zeller basically playing a one-man zone, it’s fair to question why McDermott didn’t respond by slicing to the rim; however, watch what happens when the Pacers run a split-stagger, with Jeremy Lamb twirling around the first screen.

Almost immediately, Malik Monk calls out the switch with Gordon Hayward, chasing Justin over the pick, before passing the 3-and-D wing over to P.J. Washington on the curl and ultimately inducing a contested pull-up two.

In the most recent game, here’s how the Pacers countered: Think this is going to be another stagger? Think again.

Like putting on a mustache and glasses, that’s just a clever disguise for the real play, which is actually the down screen, chase action that Indiana so often runs for T.J. McConnell to attack baseline. Take a closer look at why it works, though. With McDermott clearing to the opposite corner and Justin immediately flipping around as the first screener, Terry Rozier has no one to switch with on the “second” screen. Instead, Zeller detaches from Turner so that Rozier can have space to stay with Justin. Then, when Justin flips the ball back to McConnell, forcing a switch, Rozier gets snagged on the ball screen, giving Indiana’s speedy reserve guard all the space needed to motor to the rim.

With LeVert still finding his footing at a time when Brogdon was sidelined and Sabonis went down, that was one of only eight field goals the Pacers scored in the fourth quarter — half of which were converted by McConnell.

Want to see another nifty wrinkle?

Here’s the same play. But wait, watch what Brogdon does on the toss-back to McConnell. Again, the big detaches so that Rozier can stay with the ball, only this time (whoops!) Brogdon recognizes the switch and beats it with a keeper, using a tricky bit of sleight of hand to power himself all the way to the rim.

Turns out, for a roster with few isolation maestros, deception isn’t just fun; it’s effective.

Don’t: Stop Moving

Of course, some false actions are better suited for this particular match-up than others. For the most part, when not playing small-ball, Charlotte has made an effort to avoid switching and doubling against Sabonis on off-ball screens designed to generate post-ups.

For example, the Pacers intentionally reject running a UCLA cut on one side of the floor, here, in order to fire the ball to the other with McDermott setting a back-screen for Sabonis to slide to the block.

The only problem is... Zeller scrapes and claws to stay with Sabonis, who ends up misfiring on the face-up, mid-range two. Granted, since returning from back soreness against the Thunder on May 1, Sabonis has converted 47 percent of his shots classified as jump shots, but he’s arguably more potent when also activated as a passer, which calls for movement.

For the sake of comparison, here’s the same play against the Lakers, who also avoid switching on the back-screen from McDermott, only the post-up turns into a hand-off that becomes an open, albeit missed, three.

Do: Defy Gravity

What goes down must come up, right? Isn’t that how the saying goes? Well, it should in this case. Remember what we just watched in the prior section? Note the difference when Sabonis receives a down screen to come up toward the elbow, rather than diving to the block, on this sideline out of bounds play.

Now, when Biyombo avoids making the switch, he’s pulled away from the rim, opening the door for Indiana’s two-time All-Star to spread the floor with playmaking, as Brogdon fakes the supposed “Chicago” action (for Lamb to receive a pindown before receiving a hand-off) and cuts to to the basket for an easy two.

All of which is to say that, in addition to relying on Brogdon, LeVert, and Sabonis to attack from outside and in, the Pacers — for a second season in a row — also need to complement and distract from their lead playmakers, whether via the simplicity of continuous spacing or the complexity of decoys, with every trick in the (play)book.