With Goga Bitadze defending at weird angles and Isaiah Jackson biting on every pump fake, the Pacers played 15 minutes in New Orleans without a center on the floor. Instead, pivoting to small-ball — even at the risk of Jonas Valanciunas throwing his weight around in the lane and inhaling offensive rebounds — as a recourse for bandaging what had mostly been porous perimeter containment while also managing foul trouble.
For the most part, nothing exactly worked, as the Pelicans tallied 93 of their 117 points either in the paint or at the free throw line; however, much like this season as a whole for the Pacers, it’s arguably more worthwhile to search for the flash of gain as opposed to focusing on the pain. Just look at this possession. See how Torrey Craig is fronting the post? That type of coverage (i.e. white) typically requires split-line help on the back-side to protect against lob passes, which means Lance Stephenson is responsible for sliding over.
To counter, most teams will flash the paint in search of a high-low look as a second option; and yet, watch how Lance momentarily glitches on the flight of the pass, jutting back toward the ghost standing in the corner even as his actual man is cutting to the elbow.
It’s that brief loss of focus that then forces him to retreat and provide cover against Valanciunas, leaving Garrett Temple open to pull the string from two.
Now, compare that to what occurred on this nearly identical scenario from the second half. To be fair, it’s possible that cleaning up some of those types of mistakes was a point of emphasis for the downsized starting lineup coming out of halftime, but pay attention to the difference Chris Duarte makes as an off-ball defender. Not only does he hop back and forth, creating the illusion of congestion for a potential overhead pass without overcommitting; he stays attached on the flash, ultimately inducing Josh Hart’s decision to drive.
From there, he switches the screen, and with Oshae Brissett closing out not once but twice (!!!), the 24-year-old rookie proceeds to demonstrate his knack for reading the eyes of passers and shooting passing lanes, even though he’s forced to temporarily turn away from the ball in order to track his man around the 3-point line.
Granted, Devonte’ Graham deserves some of the credit for leaving his feet in the lane, but the entirety of that possession still underscores what was a growing trend for the rookie over the team’s five-game road trip, in which he averaged 18.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 1.8 steals on over 50 percent shooting: Whether reverse pivoting out of a probe dribble without losing any balance on his jump-shot, making patient wrap-around passes at the rim, or protecting against multiple options with off-ball reads, Chris Duarte looked more instinctual every time he stepped on the floor — on defense as well as offense.