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On the Summer League Pacers and playing higher in the gaps

It’s only Summer League, but the defense is already looking different under new leadership — again.

2021 Las Vegas Summer League - Indiana Pacers v Portland Trailblazers Photo by Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

As a breeding ground for overreactions, too much can at times be read into specific player performance at Summer League, where bucket-getting has a tendency to reign supreme amid rosters cobbled together with mercenaries and fraught with unfamiliarity. Still, beyond Chris Duarte looking mostly unbothered and Isaiah Jackson showing some flashes of passing feel to go with his ability to challenge shots on the perimeter, there was meaning to be found in the sense that, with yet another coaching change taking place this offseason, exhibition play also seemed to provide an early peek at some of the base sets, actions, and principles that Rick Carlisle may intend to use in shaping the Pacers next season, while also perhaps highlighting what skill-sets he values.

After all, from what sets they opened games with and ran coming out of timeouts to how they ended quarters, there was no shortage of cross-over between Indiana’s Summer League squad and the way in which the Mavericks operated this past season, particularly from the standpoint of blending nuanced play-calls with allowing players the rope, especially out of the high-post, to be deceptive in putting concepts before precision.

Still, in the wake of what happened to the Pacers in 2020-21 on the other end of the floor, where Nate Bjorkgren’s whirling approach to defense wavered between hyper-aggressive and under-baked, one possession stood out from the rest as being expressly informative.

With the Portland Trail Blazers holding the ball for the final shot, this was the scene at the end of the first quarter.

Now, turn up the sound and listen carefully for what Summer League Head Coach Mike Weinar called out from the sidelines:

Did you hear it?

“Higher, Cassius!”

“Higher, Duane!”

In response, notice how both players, who are covering the corners, position themselves to be “higher” up the floor, angling their bodies toward the sidelines.

Why does that matter?

Look back at this possession against the Wizards and spot the difference. Malcolm Brogdon isn’t even stunting toward the nail as confrontationally as the Pacers normally aimed to last season; and yet, in building a head of steam upon receiving the pass, Russell Westbrook is still able to knife behind him and dish up a lob for an easy two.

It’s easy to point the finger at Brogdon for not splitting his vision there, but the slant of his stance, intended to funnel the action middle, is exaggerating his blind spot, as is Jeremy Lamb’s flat positioning behind him. To put it more simply: The gap, which allowed for Westbrook’s 45-cut, is wider, because Brogdon is shrinking toward the nail, while Lamb is playing even with his assignment in the corner.

Now compare that to Weinar’s directive. Not only is the gap on the two-side much smaller, but the fact that Duane and Cassius are each stunting up the floor with their inside foot, as opposed to their outside (like Brogdon), means they have a better chance of controlling and reacting to cutters with the action being forced to the corners and toward their hands.

In essence, rather than sinking-in and loading up at the blocks and elbows, playing higher in the gaps shrinks the floor by dictating terms to the offense with first-mover advantage and impacting the ball with players who aren’t directly guarding it. Coincidentally (or, maybe, not-so-coincidentally) this is what the Clippers, who advanced past Rick Carlisle’s Mavericks in the first-round of the playoffs, did at times during the Western Conference Finals.

Here, for example, on the final possession of the first-half of Game 2, notice how Paul George, Reggie Jackson, and Marcus Morris are playing on top of their assignments, with George, as the first player removed from the pick-and-roll, basically guarding Devin Booker in the mid-range and pushing the ball downcourt to the opposite sideline.

Along with fewer overhelps and allowing the big to retreat with and crunch the screener earlier, what else playing higher in the gaps enables is shorter closeouts. To that point, when players are walling off the paint, rather than packing it, there isn’t as much ground to cover from sideline-to-sideline, which has the potential to minimize the possibility of off-balance defenders having to sprint out to shooters — as was so often the case last season.

Overall, given that Summer League defensive schemes are generally more rules-based than personnel-specific, defending in shift position has highlighted and meshed well with Chris Duarte’s sense for help defense and when to be aggressive off-ball.

All too often, reads are thought of as only happening on the offensive end of the floor, where pick-and-roll creators attune themselves to slight shifts in body weight and positioning; however, from judging how closely to guard the ball to determining how far to wander away from it, players also have to be innate decision-makers on defense — a skill which Duarte has already shown in flashes, perhaps with the potential to contribute in further mobilizing what should already be evident: Containing the ball doesn’t only fall on the defense at the point of the screen, just as rim protection isn’t solely the responsibility of rim protectors.

Of course, it remains to be seen whether playing higher in the gaps will factor into how the actual Pacers play next season, seeing as how the availability of various bigs, from Goga Bitadze being away from the team for personal reasons to Bennie Boatwright sustaining an injury in the first game and Amida Brimah not playing in another, may have influenced what rules they decided to play by, especially with Isaiah Jackson’s mobility doing a lot of the heavy-lifting at the five in various switchy, small-ball lineups. Plus, some thought would have to be given to the fact that, although with greater purpose, defending in this manner requires intense ball pressure to encourage wider-angle drives while also disrupting potential passes to fading shooters and backdoor cutters as the scheme’s main soft spots.

Still, regardless of what balance they strike between swapping assignments and size, for a team that ranked dead-last this past season in opponent rim frequency (a figure which, by the way, improved only to 28th in the minutes when Myles Turner was on the floor and tasked with cleaning up for the excesses of funneling mixed with confusion), there’s reason to consider extending the test ground of shrinking space with positioning to the regular season, not only to cover for potential weak links in various lineups, but also as a potential and necessary means of rim deterrence.