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Lessons learned from the short-handed Pacers

On what can be applied, even in losing, when the team returns to full strength.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Over the last three games, with several players in protocols, including the team’s starting backcourt, the Health and Safety Pacers have in some ways resembled the Regular Pacers. Both prone to lengthy and untimely dry spells, the current depleted version of the roster, not unlike the team’s typical pattern at full-strength, surrendered a 15-0 run to close the third quarter in Cleveland, scored seven points over the final nine minutes in New York, and got outscored 17-5 to start the fourth quarter against Brooklyn. That said, although the results of those late-game scoring droughts have been all too familiar in leading to three additional losses, some of the process, particularly with regard to how the team has adapted to the literal changing of the guard, has been refreshing as well as perhaps informative for how the team could better function once back to health.

Keep it simple

While injecting life into both the fans and players alike (Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis were clapping at the free throw line when he entered the game!), Lance didn’t just do his work early in scoring 20-straights points for the Pacers in the first quarter; he rapidly altered the way Brooklyn was guarding him. After drilling several jumpers with his defender either ducking under or sagging off, the Nets went from disconnecting way too early on switches to fighting over and inducing drives. In turn, with his man more often in rearview pursuit, the prodigal point wing had fewer bodies to contend with in the lane while manipulating the pick-and-roll. Granted, in typical Lance fashion, there were a few moments where the ball got sticky in isolation; however, generally speaking, give him credit for skipping the pleasantries and cutting to the chase.

Just look at these two possessions and spot the difference. With Caris LeVert steering the ship at the end of the game against Chicago, notice how he opts to reject the re-screen with Nikola Vucevic at the level and ends up losing the ball after driving into the off-ball stunt from DeMar DeRozan.

Now, watch Lance, who in a similar scenario, waits for Sabonis to flip the pick and then tests LaMarcus Aldridge’s ability to backpedal while barreling to the rim.

To be fair, Aldridge doesn’t take up space as well as Vucevic, but look at what happened in the second half when Bembry started to fight over. See how Lance, again, actually uses the pick, therefore creating space and time for the pocket pass to Sabonis to occur?

Don’t get it twisted. Screen rejections have a place, particularly when the screener is approaching quickly and increasing the likelihood that the second-line of defense will be off-balance. That said, there’s also value in surveying the entire floor and recognizing that Craig’s defender isn’t likely to stay attached, in the case of LeVert, whereas Irving has no chance to impede Sabonis from the weak-side corner, as it applies to Stephenson.

Moving forward, history suggests that Lance, for as long as he remains with the Pacers, probably won’t consistently shoot the ball well enough to make the game as easy as it was against Brooklyn’s less than watertight defense, but LeVert could benefit from allowing the offense to do more of the work for him, regardless of the duration of his teammate’s stay.

Grease the wheels

From pressuring the ball on defense and understanding the assignment on post cuts to already sinking as many threes in his start against the Knicks (4) as Brad Wanamaker made in 22 games, Keifer Sykes has gradually appeared more sure of himself in his role as mercenary point guard — even going so far as to signal for plays that required less deception and/or acceleration on his part in favor of passing to a cutter up top out of simple actions. Look closely at this possession against the Knicks and notice how he is twisting his wrist with a flat hand. That’s how the Pacers call for floppy — a common play in which a player, positioned under the basket, can choose whether to cut off a single pindown on one side or a stagger off the other.

Admittedly, the Pacers didn’t actually convert on many of the possessions in which they’ve run floppy over this stretch, but the logic behind featuring a play with which most players are likely familiar was clear — especially since the end result was generally a clean shot, minus a few exceptions.

To that point, while the chemistry between the passer and the player under the basket with regard to curling or fading wasn’t always fully baked, there were some unrealized wrinkles — such as Justin flying off the double side into a screen for Myles to pop — that could be useful as a means to generate additional catch-and-shoot threes once the roster is healthy.

For the season, the Pacers have averaged 24.5 catch-and-shoot threes per game, compared to 30.7 over the last three games. Plus, in the event Lance is signed to the roster spot that is now available after waiving Kelan Martin, plugging Duarte into Justin’s spot as the runner in bench lineups could free up the 24-year-old rookie to get more shots away from the ball while also further demonstrating his ability to change speed as a secondary playmaker.

Per Synergy, while not all attributable to strictly this action, the Pacers used slightly less than two more possessions per game off screens since losing to Cleveland than for the season as a whole. Of course, that figure only counts trips that ended in points, free throws, or turnovers, not those where two defenders committed to the shooter and opened opportunities for passes over the top with gravity — which could also be an area of improvement for Duarte while putting less pressure on the drivers to attack downhill.

Other side of the coin

In any case, Stephenson and Sykes weren’t the only players the Pacers called upon to handle in the absence of Brogdon and LeVert; Sabonis also got reps as a 6-foot-11 point center, taking on a similar number of touches per game over the last three contests (95.3) to that which was funneled through him under Bjorkgren (97.4), particularly from the elbows and post areas combined (14) than for the season (10.1), albeit in increased minutes.

Still, while it isn’t exactly new to see the lefty big man pushing the ball up the floor off a rebound, there’s been a change in how some of those grab-and-go forays have developed in the frontcourt. Rather than immediately pivoting into hand-offs for shooters at the left wing, like was the case during McMillan’s final season, it appears as though the coaching staff is slowly starting to open up to the idea of experimenting with him out of inverse pick-and-roll. Consider, for example, this possession against Charlotte — which occurred prior to the team’s COVID outbreak. Normally, for the sake of comparison, when Sabonis brings up the ball and initiates in these situations, the trailing guard receives a back-screen and catches a pass in stride, if open, or the screener automatically wheels into a hand-off that functions like pick-and-roll and/or precipitates a subsequent screen for a shooter (i.e. veer).

In this instance, however, with the Hornets switching the back-pick, Duarte recognized that his defender was top-side and simply sandwiched his man with a screen for Sabonis to attack the gap that, while ultimately resulting in a turnover after subsequent passes, also caused LaMelo to commit to the ball, opening a potential seam, from the corner.

In retrospect, it still isn’t entirely clear if that counter was by design or merely a read from Duarte, but there’s been more sightings of guards screening for Sabonis, particularly in semi-transition, over the last few games.

Just take a look at the clips, as he receives decoy picks from Sykes and Washington and flows into a left-to-right cross (gasp!) to draw-and-dish.

Or, checkout how many skills are demonstrated, below, for a big, as he transitions from maneuvering around a hedge with his strong hand as the ball-handler to screening for Justin as the shake and punishing the switch on the roll. Whew!

Same, here, when he dribbled off the pick from Sykes and waited for Washington to clear on the lift before diving into open space with James Harden caught top-side on the switch.

All of that is Sabonis at his most Sabonis and, in part, accounts for why he’s averaged 26 points, 11 rebounds, and seven assists on 67 percent shooting over the last three games in spite of drawing crowds and committing some turnovers while, at times, surrounded by inconsistent or awkward spacing. Whereas earlier in the season, it occasionally seemed as though the team’s two-time All-Star was being de-emphasized merely for the guards to cycle through a series of neglected and rejected screens, the willingness and urgency of those on the floor to move and pass, enabled him to be a mobile hub in a way that, when paired with a more decisive version of LeVert or with Duarte wheeling away from the ball, doesn’t have to be a casualty of the roster returning to strength, but rather a potential means of additional offensive versatility in certain spots.

After all, why not consider mixing in some ball-screens, as the Orlando Magic have done for Robin Lopez, out of these already existing elbow split-cuts?

All of which is to say that, although being depleted clearly didn’t make the prospect of winning any easier, generating team-ball and unexpected performances from players fighting for their place in the league at least made the product more enjoyable while at the same time unearthing new possibilities for the squad’s strongest source of interior gravity as well as, perhaps, the team at-large.