It happens on almost every singing competition. A contestant, known for performing within a specific style or genre, steals the spotlight with an out-of-the-box song choice. Covering an overplayed bop as a stripped down piano ballad, the unexpected rendition wows the judges, earning the typical profusion of rave reviews:
“that was the most refreshing and unique thing I’ve seen on the show this season”
“you made that song your own”
As formulaic and trite as those one-liners may sound within the setting of reality television, they aptly reflect the experience of watching Caris LeVert play basketball in a Pacers uniform, at least as it pertains to his ability to recreate sets with individualized reads.
Consider, for instance, this possession from Indiana’s third meeting of the season with the Miami Heat. As was the case in the prior two contests, with Jimmy Butler checking Malcolm Brogdon, LeVert is drawing the weaker defensive assignment, triggering traps when involved as the ball-handler. Here, in sticking to the normal script of this particular Iverson wrinkle, LeVert cuts over consecutive picks at the elbows and waits for Sabonis to follow him with an overcut and screen for the ball. The only problem is, the screen brings with it the unique congestion of Bam Adebayo, who forces the slippery driver into a negative dribble away from the open slip.
In the end, rather than hitting Sabonis right away as the release valve, the coverage induces a swing-swing reversal, which ultimately buys Miami’s insanely mobile five enough time to recover out of the blitz and break-up the play like a one-man wrecking crew.
Now, look at how LeVert responded in the second half. Rather than cutting over both picks, notice how he darts under the first, feigning as though he is about to bolt down the lane toward the basket, before he abruptly wheels back around Sabonis, gaining separation from Duncan Robinson, who ends up thrown for a literal loop. Then, with Sabonis immediately slipping out of the pick, Bam goes with him, creating airspace for LeVert to attack downhill rather than suffocating him into being a passer.
Like the piano ballad, that tweak is LeVert’s cover — a new interpretation of the same play.
Want to hear him play another song? Checkout what happened against Portland, when C.J. McCollum was overplaying him. If LeVert had been denied the ball on the Iverson cut, this turns into an offensive reset. Instead, because he doubles back, effectively transforming Sampson’s overcut into a screen followed by a rescreen, his split-second read of the defense keeps the offense flowing, without any extra set-up from Brogdon.
Moments later, to keep things fresh, he treats the consecutive picks like a lattice, weaving in and out, before snaking in front of Sampson’s screen and going to work from mid-range.
To be fair, these shots don’t always fall and from stagnant surrounding motion against Miami’s traps to getting scorched inside and out versus Portland, neither of these games resulted in wins. However, in a season that hasn’t gone as planned, moments like this have made even lopsided games, derailed by unfathomable strings of injuries, worth watching.
Consider, for example, the start of the second half against Oklahoma City. Admittedly, as losers of 16 of their last 17 games, it is very hard to take the Thunder seriously, but watch LeVert over this series of clips: Not only does he orchestrate spamming the same action four times before the 9:00 minute mark of the third quarter; he makes four different reads.
Manipulating the weave into a high ball screen, he attacked deep when the Thunder ducked under, threading the pass back between two defenders for Sabonis to take a couple steps toward the rim. When Sabonis purposefully rolled into the under to hold off the on-ball defender, LeVert pulled the trigger from deep. Go over, however, and he either patiently waited for a rescreen to stop-and-pop in front of the basket or he crossed from left-to-right, sliding his check one way before ultimately rejecting the pick and kicking the ball to three against a collapsed defense. Quality of opponent aside, that’s still good basketball and demonstrative of his ability to do more with less.
Plus, little by little, he’s also started to tap into his feel for maintaining the flow of the offense away from the ball. Here, for instance, with McDermott coming off a split stagger, he cuts backdoor as the passer, actively creating the angle for the pass-back.
Overall, LeVert is difficult to evaluate. After all, how much should reasonably be expected from someone who is learning to jell with new and ever-changing rotations of teammates in a new system after undergoing surgery to treat kidney cancer? Through that lens, the fact that he’s averaging 24 points and 4.4 assists over the last five games while shooting 53 percent overall and 41 percent from deep is a remarkable feat and should arguably stave off reason to be overly critical of some of his shot-hunting, strange defensive lapses, and struggles to convert in isolation (13-of-48), until next season, when he has his legs fully under him.
In the meantime, for a team that has at times battled with being overly mechanical this season in the absence of downhill scorers, LeVert’s return to action has been like a fresh take on an old song, providing a pathway to different arrangements of the existing system with his knack for making reads serving as the music.