In a reversal from last season, when the excesses of going overboard with overs resulted in surrendering the highest opponent rim frequency in the league, the Pacers have more often pivoted to confronting dangerous ball-handlers above the level of the screen, increasing the activity of the bigs in order to cover for the team’s struggles at the point of attack while also deterring a larger share of the action away from the basket.
No longer expecting Domantas Sabonis to function like Myles Turner, who also has seen an uptick in hedging against playmaking guards and wings capable of stepping into pull-up jumpers, Indiana’s short-armed All-Star has demonstrated improved agility without being responsible for challenging as many shots at the rim. And yet, despite the obvious need for scheme flexibility between the two centers as well as more general proactivity with Malcolm Brogdon oftentimes vulnerable against speedier guards and his understudy, Keifer Sykes, prone to being overwhelmed by size, the Pacers still seem to be searching for how to react in certain circumstances when the hedging big gets separated from the screener.
So much so, in fact, that several different rotation methods have been cycled through in various situations of late, highlighting both scheme and roster issues.
Hedge and switch
Just take a look at this possession against the Brooklyn Nets. Rather than tagging and releasing from Nicolas Claxton until Turner can recover from showing high, notice how Sabonis switches onto the roller, with the league’s leading shot-blocker instead sprinting to James Harden on the perimeter.
This wasn’t just a one-off read, either. It happened, with purpose, multiple times in this game, particularly against empty corner pick-and-rolls when both bigs were on the floor.
Normally, against these types of actions, most teams will have the lowest weak-side player, Sabonis, fully rotate from the baseline to contest the screener, with Duane Washington Jr. zoning up Patty Mills and LaMarcus Aldridge until Turner can either sprint to his original man and push the lefty big man back to the corner or execute a big-to-big switch.
With the Nets spreading the floor and based on the prior example, however, the Pacers seemed to be aiming for Turner to cover someone else on the perimeter while the rest of the team adjusted.
In theory, that rotation pattern should’ve led to shorter recovery paths, with Turner jumping up to Durant as Stephenson split the difference and shifted down along with Washington Jr., but the swap wasn’t always cued for whatever reason and delayed responses had a tendency to produce the opposite effect of increased ground coverage.
Meanwhile, as can be seen by the way Sabonis is motioning toward the bench following this kicked ball, there also didn’t always seem to be clarity on whether the switch was supposed to occur in instances where the Nets were playing flat and Turner would have to jump to the dunker’s spot and push Lance to the corner to avoid surrendering a 2-on-1 to Durant.
Likewise, crossed wires could once more be seen on this double-drag, when Sabonis retreated out of the hedge to the rolling screener, as was the case during his minutes at solo five, with the expectation that Turner would release from the tag; while at the same time, Turner was motioning for Sabonis to execute the switch out to his man on the pop.
Granted, some of these hang-ups can probably be chalked up to unfamiliar lineups and lack of reps, but the fact that this particular wrinkle even came into being for the Pacers also seems to say a lot about the duality of attempting to show with two centers on the floor: On the one hand, switching out of the hard hedge meant size was always present on the release valve. On the other, creativity, at times spawning confusion, was necessary to conjure the illusion of airtight rotations in the absence of mobility.
Hedge and stunt— vs. the pop
That said, perhaps not all leaks need to be plugged with the same degree of urgency. For example, note the difference between this off-ball stunt from Justin Holiday against Julius Randle on the pop and what happened in the second game against Boston.
To be fair, Randle probably could’ve reacted quicker, here, to get downhill, but see how Justin subtlety jabs at the ball to buy time for Sabonis to recover without completely abandoning RJ Barrett in the corner?
Now look at how far he came off from Jaylen Brown in nearly the same scenario, only with Horford drifting toward the elbow.
Even with Horford’s reputation for putting the ball on the deck as a playmaker, that’s way too aggressive against a player who has shot 31 percent outside the paint this season.
The same goes for Brogdon, here, despite forcing the pump-fake. After all, if Horford doesn’t settle for launching out of rhythm, Brown would be open on the reversal.
Admittedly, Dennis Schroeder doesn’t present the same threat as Brown, but why was this degree of gravity a thing?
While not pertaining specifically to hedges, this dynamic also applied to hard closeouts and staying attached to the 14-year veteran in the corner even as Jaylen and Jayson attacked the basket. Then, of course, LeVert also found it necessary to rush Rob Williams like an elite shooter in order to gamble for a steal instead of forcing him to make a play on the move.
Show coverage is already difficult enough in the absence of stockpiles of wings and cohesiveness, let alone when overcompensating for imperfect recovery angles against so-so or non-shooters takes precedence over staying home against Boston’s preferred options.
Hedge and tag — vs. the roll
All of which is to say that, whether reading how far to stunt or attuning the timing of when and from where to tag, every inch matters. In that regard, the loss to Phoenix was a tale of two halves for two specific reasons. To begin with, notice how Lance, as the player guarding the farthest possible pass to the weak-side corner, is late sliding over to help, resulting in a foul.
Compare that to Justin in the second half and notice how he starts out with his left foot in the paint, allowing him to meet JaVale McGee at the basket.
That’s a small change, albeit somewhat more feasible with Jae Crowder as his check, that made a big difference in the team’s ability to produce a stop.
The other shift was how they moved to tagging with the low man on the side where both the wing and corner were filled, even if that was the strong-side. To be fair, the first part of that sentence was also the case during the second frame, when Keifer was left defenseless against Ayton under the basket, but this is the side of the floor where the ball is moving away.
After halftime, notice Craig is helping from the side of the floor that the ball-handler is moving toward.
The benefits to that are two-fold. First of all, in both cases the player on the single-side doesn’t have to choose between bumping the rolling screener and staying home without the help of an extra defender. Secondly, Craig simply has more size, which is generally the key when lineups executing this type of coverage look the sharpest.
Think back to the overtime win over Miami or the late-game coverage against Chicago, before DeMar DeRozan made the heart-breaking, one-legged three at the buzzer. Oshae was defending Nikola Vucevic at nominal five and switching out while Justin and Torrey were either pre-switching on the screen approach or sliding over to rotate with speed when Sabonis jumped out above the level.
Likewise, when the Pacers went on the 13-4 run to tie the game at 66-66 during the third quarter of Friday’s loss to Phoenix, Duarte was pressuring the ball full-court at the same time as LeVert, Justin, and Torrey were playing random around the quarterbacking and attention drawn by Sabonis at one end of the floor and scrambling with length at the other.
That’s why, with the trade deadline less than a month away, the Pacers either have to learn from their execution errors against Boston and decide if there is a way in the long-term for this type of coverage to be more feasible with both bigs on the floor than what the porous results have been since the start of December and especially over the last 10 games. Or, in upgrading on the archetype that has proved somewhat resistant in spots with mobile length as a safety net while still retaining playmaking, finally stop hedging their bets and choose a direction, both as it pertains to floating between schemes as well as the center position.