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Why the Pacers’ junk defenses were junk against the Wizards

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And whether changing defenses and changing defenses frequently is having more of an adverse impact on opponents or the Pacers

Indiana Pacers v Washington Wizards Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

On Monday night, in what, per NBA.com’s John Schuhmann, was the second fastest-paced game (119.5) in the 25 seasons for which the league has play-by-play data, the Pacers surrendered 154 points, getting torched around the basket and dusted in transition, as the Wizards put up season highs in field goals made (63), field goal percentage (61.2), points in the paint (96), fast break points (30), and assists (50). Of course, central to it all was Russell Westbrook, who after burning the Pacers for a 30-20 game in March, when the roster was mostly healthy, tallied 14 points, 21 rebounds (a new career-high), and 24 assists (tying a franchise record). Bizarre and embarrassing, with live-ball turnovers and fast-breakable missed shots leading to (literal) touchdown passes, it’s difficult to distill exactly what went wrong for the Pacers on defense into a single catch-all, aside from the fact that the single catch-all might just be that it’s difficult to distill exactly what went wrong.

After all, in the moments when they weren’t getting lapped in the open floor, they were oftentimes paying Westbrook, along with Bradley Beal, too much attention, mixing in junk coverages that at times bordered on inscrutable. So much so that what type of defense they were attempting to play wasn’t always clear (not good!). Or, at the very least, what their respective roles and responsibilities were within those various and ever-changing types of defense weren’t always clear to them (even worse!). Either way, with Westbrook dominating the Pacers as a passer, recording only eight field-goal attempts compared to 26 in March, a thorough investigation into why the junk coverages were... well... so junky is probably warranted, especially since the Wizards scored 40 points in the third quarter alone, when Indiana was alternating mainly between box-and-one and triangle-and-two.

To keep things simple, let’s start there and build a running commentary of those scores, going possession-by-possession. As a quick aside, however, look at this possession of 2-3 zone from the first quarter. See how the Pacers are putting two on the ball? That’s an issue which, strangely, will continue across those other coverages, while forcing the rest of the team to make tough choices and creating easy options for the offensive players, whether Westbrook, Beal, or others, to pass out of it.

In this case, assuming the actual intention, for whatever reason, was to trap the wing in a 2-3 zone and this isn’t some sort of miscommunication, then Sabonis, as he’s shown, should be muscling the post, while Caris, as the weak-side guard, denies the closest pass to the wing. Instead, because LeVert is hanging back in the paint, the double-team gets rendered pointless, as the loosely defended kick-out forces him to cover two shooters at once.

Trust me, this will inform on how egregious things get later.

Ok, back to the quarter of woe.

Something-and-two

This is triangle-and-two. Or, at least, Edmond Sumner and Justin Holiday, who are chasing Beal and Westbrook, are playing triangle-and-two. As for those players who are forming the actual triangle, well, uh, that’s debatable, seeing as how Caris has his back turned to the side of the floor he’s supposed to be covering, ceding a wide open shot.

Enough said, right?

Quit frontin’

Alright, so after a few transition scores following yet another live-ball turnover, the Pacers are back in triangle-and-two. LeVert fights over the Beal screen for Westbrook (because, of course he does), but Brissett gets burned for fronting Hachimura on the flash, when the basketball isn’t on his side of the floor. To be fair, if this were box-and-one and Brissett was strong-side, the weak-side low box player could slide across to protect against the lob.

Of course, that isn’t the case, here, so without back-side help, Brissett needs to be in pass-denial position.

But hey, at least the rough outline of a triangle, with everyone standing in their proper places, was visible. Small victories!

Flash Point

Oh look, the 2-3 is back. Or, at least this appears to be 2-3, since it wouldn’t really make sense for McDermott, of all people, to switch onto and shadow Westbrook.

Whatever the case, LeVert, as the weak-side guard, should be denying the flash into the high-paint — not pointing back-and-forth in negotiations with Brissett about who should be covering Bradley Beal (Answer: Brissett).

That said, if Brissett is going to stay attached and sink into Len, then Sabonis has to rotate over to protect against Hachimura instead of falling for the fake dump-off and making LeVert’s mistake worse.

Double Trouble

Alright, this is where stuff starts to harken back to the original zone possession. Russ is out of the game, so the Pacers are playing box-and-one, with T.J. McConnell chasing Beal. Look at McDermott, though. After Beal dribbles off of the double drag, he traps the ball.

If this is going to be a thing or was necessary because of the screening action, then Justin needs to slide over to cover Len with Aaron denying the reversal pass and Sabonis splitting the difference on the weak-side. Otherwise, it’s almost more harmful than helpful.

Granted, the main goal of forcing the ball out of Beal’s hand is achieved, but watch what unfolds next. Following a quick swing-swing reversal, Sabonis has to sprint out of control from the opposite side of lane to cover his corner, with Neto ready to attack. Then, due to the off-balance nature of the closeout, Justin drops down and doubles, starting the whole process all over again.

In turn, this brings the entire topic of this section full circle: If doubling the corner is going to be a thing (hopefully, without getting split), then the weak-side high box player (i.e. now, Aaron) has to sprint across to deny the reversal pass, with Doug being left in the unfortunate position to intercept the pass to one of the other two players.

This is asking A LOT, especially for an undermanned team that was already running in a track meet. With that in mind, look back at the initial coverage and imagine if Doug had fronted Len instead of doubling Beal. In that event, not only would he have been in position to rush out to his corner if need be, but Sabonis could’ve protected against a potential lob or skip pass and got a hand in front of Neto, without flying by and needing Justin to double. Although less aggressive, wouldn’t that have been preferable to expending all this extra energy only for Ish Smith to slash down the lane for two anyway?

Skip Away

Alas, the double trouble continues. First, however, watch everything that went haywire before Aaron Holiday and Doug McDermott eventually both ended up on the ball.

  • Not only did T.J. McConnell, in shadowing Westbrook, fight over on the screen (why?), but Justin is up on the screen (also, why?).
  • Consequently, that coverage within a coverage causes a brief moment of switch or stay confusion between Justin and McConnell, when going under arguably would’ve clarified who should be sticking to Westbrook (McConnell!).
  • Still, the Pacers are mostly ok. Sabonis closes out to his corner, but the cut through from Ish Smith in the wake of the minor hiccup causes Aaron, as the weak-side high box defender, to stray into strong-side low box territory. This is getting dangerous.
  • Even so, all would be well, if McDermott had just communicated the lift to the wing, instead of scrambling there in unison with Aaron.

Generally speaking, the wing to the corner skip is the responsibility of weak-side low box defender (i.e. Sabonis). In this scenario, though, because Doug didn’t stay low, there’s no one at the split line to protect against a lob to Robin Lopez if Sabonis chases out — hence the extra long closeout from Justin.

On the hook

Nothing cataclysmic happened, here, from a schematic standpoint. Not sure why Aaron and Doug are chasing their checks, when they should be zoning up, but it doesn’t impact the final result, which is Robin Lopez doing what Robin Lopez, as the player with the second-most made hook shots in the league, does.

With only one center in uniform, not much else can be done about that, other than pressuring up and being more aggressive on the initial catch.

Sideline Shenanigans

Turns out, defending sidelines out of bounds plays with box-and-one is tough. Just ask the Pacers, who end up giving up a lob, here, with the smallest player on the floor defending the tallest player on the floor, while Sabonis is tucked away in the corner.

On the whole, this is a microcosm of what often goes wrong on these possessions: Either matching-up outside of designated areas (i.e. Doug) or very literally defending a spot on the floor (i.e. Caris). In this case, McDermott should be releasing from Chandler Hutchison to provide help in front of Lopez at the split-line, not chasing to the other side of the lane. Likewise, LeVert, who isn’t defending anyone, should be picking up Hutchison, with Aaron instead fading back to Bertans.

But also, maybe just stop playing box-and-one in these situations?

Staggering

Seriously, stop! At first glance, without the context of what type of defense the Pacers were playing throughout the second half, the absurdity of this possession probably makes it seem as though Doug McDermott was just hanging out and enjoying the vibes.

In reality, however, he’s defending low-box and the corner is his responsibility. Again, as was the case with McDermott, himself, in the prior example, Aaron shouldn’t be chasing Bertans outside of his zone, when he’s actually in charge of guarding the perimeter and mucking up the passing lane to the high-paint. In the end, that distortion — a common theme for the Pacers when executing these coverages — forces LeVert, rather than Sabonis, to rush the corner with a longer closeout, while also further highlighting the hazards of playing box-and-one against teams running obstacle courses higher up the floor with spread shooters.

Curl Pick

Moving on to the fourth quarter, this is similar to attacking a switch with a curl pick, where the cutter tight curls right around the defender that’s ready to pick him up as the screener pops back. Here, Beal loops around Bertans in an attempt to shed McConnell as his shadow before, then, screening for Sabonis, which forces a longer closeout through a brick wall. The alternative, of course, would be McConnell switching and giving up size against Bertans, while also blowing up the scheme, at least with regard to Sabonis chasing Beal.

Neither option is particularly palatable. Again, underscoring the pitfalls of running box-and-one against spread shooters.

Mixed Messages

At this point, with an 8-man rotation, both mental and physical fatigue seem to be taking a toll. In transition, Aaron and McConnell match with Beal and Westbrook as if they’re about to go back to triangle-and-two, but the rest of the team appears to be in 2-3. McConnell shifts to bump down LeVert, which seems to suggest at least an adaptation to the latter. In the case of the former, Sabonis, as the ball-side bottom triangle defender, would front and step out, as Brissett scoots over to help.

In any case, with Hutchison stroking a wide open three, neither happens.

Brotherly love

Less than a minute later, they’re definitely playing triangle-and-two. So, maybe, mystery solved! Or, maybe, there was just confusion as a result of all the scheme changes. If so, based on this writing, that would be highly relatable. Anyway, watch the chain reaction of help from the triangle defenders when Russ, as a primary scorer, takes Aaron off the dribble.

Sabonis, in rotating over on the drive, forces the pass to the corner, with LeVert spraying out, as does Justin, except for the fact that he’s pulled over a tad too far toward his brother, which leads to Hachimura attacking the closeout. Overall, this is still a decent contest against a third, fourth, or fifth option, so go ahead and look past the extra steps that were required to get the job done, in spite of the make, just this once.

On the next score, however, Justin was back looking after Aaron, informing his little brother with a gentle shove that, yes, we are in triangle-and-two, and yes, you are the player responsible for defending Westbrook. In a blink of an eye, however, Russ was gone, skillfully navigating around Aaron, whilst evading the 2.9 dances of both Justin and Sabonis with a righty floater.

Hop, skip, and a jump

Down 13 with under three minutes to play, putting two on the ball, along with all the problems it causes, is back in style, apparently.

So, what, at least Russ isn’t scoring and the game is sped up, right? Well, because Caris, as the top triangle defender, hops to double instead of patrolling the perimeter and the high post, Justin is left to intercept the pass to one of two players, resulting in a skip to the corner. In turn, his mad dash from the high-side allows for a baseline drive, which demands help from Sabonis, creating an opening for Hachimura to pop free at the elbow. Climactically, in what should be perceived as a broader commentary on many of the struggles cited in this writing as well as the constant discipline it takes to execute this many types of defense, T.J. McConnell almost transforms into a human glitch, thinking out loud as stunts toward a wide open Hachimura while also questioning his own decision to peel away from his role as Beal’s shadow.

For the game, despite facing coverages that were intended to limit their involvement, Beal (+0.5) and Westbrook (+15.5) each finished with as many or more touches than their respective season averages, including a mammoth total of 109 for the latter. To put that number into context, MVP favorite and Nuggets fulcrum, Nikola Jokic, currently leads the league with 103 touches per game. Meanwhile, the other intended side effect, of forcing third, fourth, and fifth options to score, backfired, given the quality of most of the aforesaid shots, along with the fact that, per Synergy, Washington scored points on 16 of 28 zone possessions (57 percent) — which, taking into account the shear volume of possessions featuring man mixed with zone in the second-half, seems low-ball.

To be fair, the junk defenses weren’t the only part of the defense that was junky on Monday night, but that’s also sort of the point. After all, while seemingly minuscule by comparison, Indiana, in going overboard with overs, surrendered 74 paint-points to the Wizards in the prior match-up, even with Bradley Beal sidelined and Myles Turner playing 35+ minutes. This go-around, down by 3/5 of the intended starting lineup, mixing in other coverages might’ve worked as a mitigation tactic for the loss of rim protection, if not for the reality that this is Game 64 and the rules of who should be doing what, from ending up with two players on the ball and overhelping to trailing out of designated areas and creating self-inflicted mismatches with distorted boxes and triangles, don’t seem particularly cogent at this stage.

Admittedly, basketball is dynamic and what may seem simple in retrospect isn’t always as cut-and-dry in real-time. Plus, non-stop injuries amid a condensed schedule of non-stop basketball likely hasn’t helped with regard to correcting mistakes in the absence of practice time, especially with various players thrust into larger roles. Still, on a night when the Pacers were undermanned, what should’ve been a form of alleviation, drilled over weeks of in-game repetitions, only exacerbated what has been evident throughout much of the season:

All too often, the curveballs intended as agents of chaos for opponents, turn out to be boomerangs, instead, causing confusion for the Pacers.