Parsing meaning from preseason action can oftentimes be akin to peering through a dense fog while driving. No matter how much you squint your eyes, your vision is still going to be obscured, preventing you from seeing what lies within. The same goes for under-baked chemistry, irregular playing rotations, and the varying levels of intensity that come along with gearing up for when the games count; as those factors also hang in the air, creating a cloudy atmosphere for evaluating the meaning of what’s happening on the basketball court.
Still, despite the visual illusions of the final score and the extremes of leading the Charlotte Hornets by 27 points in one game and trailing the New York Knicks by as many as 25 points in the next, there are still shapes and features that can be distinguished from the turbid conditions. So, after turning off the radio, rolling down the windows, and listening for traffic, here’s what stood out about the Pacers from the first half of preseason, presented as winners and losers.
Winner: Offensive tweaks and wrinkles
After being delayed in joining his new team as a result of waiting on his trade from Boston to become official, Aaron Nesmith didn’t have a particularly impressive Summer League. In fact, he shot 28 percent on twos and 25 percent from three while committing 5.3 fouls per game and averaging more turnovers (3.7) than assists (2.3). For the most part, anything that required him to put the ball on the floor in the half-court was dicey, as he struggled to finish in traffic and demonstrated poor shot selection, especially when driving to his left.
That’s why his first field-goal attempt from preseason was so eye-catching. According to Synergy, Nesmith sourced over 70 percent of his usage coming off screens with the Celtics last season going to his right, meaning the screens were set on the left side of the floor. On this possession, though, the opposite is true. The Pacers are deliberately running the action for him to catch the ball curling to his left.
That’s significant because, typically, when he attacks with his weak hand, which doesn’t happen often, he’ll drive to the opposite side of the paint and then stride stop into a spinning fadeaway. In addition to being a difficult shot, defenders will eventually adjust to that ball fake if they know he isn’t going to finish with his left or go directly into his floater.
All of which adds to the intrigue of what happened in Charlotte, seeing as how he flowed into a push shot but made the process of turning the corner more awkward by taking a dribble with his right as his inside hand, effectively exhibiting avoidance behavior.
Even so, the set-up from that possession seems like a strong indicator that the Pacers plan on feeding him reps that deliberately nudge him in the direction of working on his dexterity, while also providing him with the safe space of doing so with the benefit of off-ball screens as wheel grease. At the other end of the spectrum, however, whereas that offensive wrinkle is arguably aimed at pushing Nesmith out of his comfort zone, the Pacers are deploying a tactic for Terry Taylor that weaponizes his lack of consistent comfort from a particular zone.
Granted, Taylor shot 34 percent from the corners last season, but he did so on low volume and doesn’t often get defended like a “stretch” four. To compensate for this, he is instead “stretching” the floor with playmaking, gliding into uphill dribble hand-offs out of the corner while frequently playing on the same side of the floor as Buddy Hield. Within that arrangement, if Taylor’s defender sags off, Hield gets an open shot from the corner. Likewise, if both defenders commit to Hield, then Taylor rolls to the basket where he basically never misses. It’s win-win.
In both cases, whether attempting to prime the pump for Nesmith or accommodating Taylor with a more effective workaround, the Pacers are matching the action to the short and long-term needs of their personnel rather than forcing the personnel to meet the needs of the action, which wasn’t always the case last season.
Winner: The plan for optimizing Bennedict Mathurin’s skillset
Zooming out, that last sentence also seems to apply to the entirety of the way in which Bennedict Mathurin is being deployed as a rookie. Think back to his time at Arizona, when one of the most common plays that was run for him was designed to prevent a switch. Beginning with a zipper screen for the four to cut to the opposite elbow and set-up in horns while the five acts as the trigger man, notice how the four positions his body, facing the ball with his hand reached out as though he might catch a pass.
That’s intentional and also a red herring, as the four-man’s real purpose was to screen Mathurin into the hand-off. By standing in the opposite direction of how a pindown screen would normally be set, however, the defense is occupied by the potential reversal and less likely to switch, allowing Mathurin to catch the ball on the move with his defender either trailing or ducking under.
While not replicated in exactly the same manner, that central tenet of getting him the ball in the right spots so he can get downhill easier permeates throughout almost every play the Pacers are calling for him, be it curling a pindown off some veer action from Turner.
Or, keeping it simple with a quick away screen to attack out of wide.
Plus, when the away screen gets denied or they want to mix it up, they’ll do as they did with Buddy Hield last season and have him intentionally fake and reject this action to instead become the back screener out of Spain pick-and-roll.
Then, after popping out to three and with Andrew Nembhard attacking the nail, Mathurin has the opportunity to unlock his athleticism from the second side against a tilted defense.
To be fair, he’s had some trouble with getting lost at the other end of the floor and has been indecisive with whether to fight over or duck under screens. But, when it comes to the plan for optimizing his skillset on offense, the Pacers seem to be striking the right balance between limiting how much he has to do against a set defense and giving him enough leash off the bench (for now) to explore the depths of his confidence as a multi-level scorer.
Loser: Myles Turner running hand-offs
Another way the Pacers are towing that line with Mathurin and others on the roster is with hand-offs, which also serve as the primary means for connecting both sides of the floor and providing continuity between actions. The only problem is, the execution doesn’t always go off without a hitch, especially when Turner is responsible for doing the steering and ends up needing to make some type of decision in space.
On the one hand, after not playing since January, some of that can probably be attributed to rust and getting back in game shape. On the other hand though, there isn’t much that differentiates that gumminess from the gumminess that existed last preseason at this time, aside from who else is on the roster.
Beyond just appearing uncertain and wobbly in situations where he has to play out of pocket, part of the issue is that he can wrongly anticipate a switch and doesn’t often dribble toward the defense in search of creating space with contact, which can lead to the action never actually getting off the ground.
Now that he’s playing at solo five, he needs to show more progress facilitating as the trailer.
Winner/Loser: Defensive communication
That said, one area where Turner is already making his presence felt is with how early, loudly, and repeatedly he is calling out coverages. Sure, that goes part and parcel with being the defender who is guarding the screener, but it was rare to see or hear someone being so demonstrative as for those calls to be audible over the broadcast at the end of last season. Here, for example, because Turner is yelling “blue,” which is what the Pacers call “ice” or basically the pick-and-roll component of no-middle, Mathurin has time to react, flipping his back to the screener so as to push the ball-handler toward the sideline.
Now, while admittedly a different action, look at the difference on this possession, when it appears as though no one calls out the stack screen or knows what anyone else is doing.
As in, if they are switching everything, then Isaiah Jackson should be jumping out to the ball with Duarte passing the roll-man to Haliburton before switching onto the back screener. Then, if the big tries to post Haliburton, Taylor can come over from the corner to scram switch him out to the perimeter. If they aren’t switching everything, then Jackson should be hopping around the backscreen in drop, with Duarte and Haliburton either switching or staying connected. Whatever the case, the possession shouldn’t end with Jackson requiring a shove from Haliburton to snap out of his trance in no-man’s land.
Just ask Myles.
For that reason, although it hasn’t happened yet during preseason, it remains of interest to gather data on Jackson in the role of free safety, taking advantage of his recovery speed and reaction time absurdities from the weak-side, as opposed to always being in the position to quarterback the defense. To this point, with Turner and Smith as the starters, Jackson has been entering the game as the five to pair predominantly with Smith and then Taylor. From there, Turner re-enters to play with Taylor and then Smith. Maybe that will change once Turner starts playing for the entire game. But, for now, he and Jackson have been like two ships passing in the night, either signaling the team’s confidence in developing Jackson solely as a five or perhaps revealing a priority to insure that Jackson and Smith log minutes together in anticipation of what might happen later in the season.
Winner: Haliburton, Duarte, and Mathurin doing the unexpected
Like Isaiah Jackson and Myles Turner, the trio of Tyrese Haliburton, Chris Duarte, and Bennedict Mathurin haven’t played much together, but they’ve each already displayed characteristics contrary to that of their most recognizable attributes.
For example, Mathurin was a timely cutter at Arizona, but he mainly did so as the scorer, oftentimes out of purposefully designed plays with some type of weak-side action to occupy the help so as to leave his defender on an island. By comparison, what stands out about this possession against the Knicks is the way in which he cuts with the aim of creating a scoring opportunity for his teammate. And, here’s the thing: In all likelihood, this isn’t even the cut he supposed to make. Typically, when the Pacers are running two-man game, the player at the wing will cut to the basket so as to collapse the weak-size zone. That way, if they need to reverse the ball, they can automatically transition to the next action as a hand-off for the player coming up out of the corner. But, watch Mathurin. When the Knicks flood over to the strong-side, he cuts from the corner to the dunker’s spot.
Also, notice that he’s doing so with definite intention, as he starts motioning for the ball to get thrown behind him in tandem with his very first stride.
That allows Aaron Nesmith to drift deeper toward the open corner, and with T.J. McConnell simultaneously moving Derrick Rose in the opposite direction with his eyes, necessitates a longer and, ultimately, off-balance closeout. As a result, while sliding along the baseline in that situation may not be what’s prescribed by the offense, there could be found money in adopting that strategy more broadly, particularly as a means to punish defenses that clog the lane with the corner cutter turning their cut into a flare screen on their own man. In that way, what was an incidental read by Mathurin to cut in and around the pick-and-roll might actually be a demonstration of ingenuity — or, at the very least, a show of willingness to move when the ball moves, even when not to score.
Haliburton, in contrast, can be seen paddling against the current of his own deferential mentality on this possession, as he makes the read to hunt his own shot away from the ball.
By design, that play normally progresses with Haliburton making an Iverson cut from wing-to-wing and then flowing into an empty and/or dummy pick-and-roll. If that’s covered, the ball gets fired back to the opposite side of the floor, shifting the defense for the other guard to receive a step-up screen. In this case, though, Haliburton circumvents the way in which he is being blanketed by darting with a misdirection cut in one direction and then fading back to his original location. What that goes to show, especially in a quarter that saw him lead the team in shot attempts, is that alternative means exist for him to be aggressive in looking for his own offense that don’t necessarily require him to tangle with length while being in possession of the ball.
Along those same lines, Duarte also showed initiative in creating an advantage with off-ball screens — just not for himself. Here, for example, with his defender preventing him from using the stagger from the corner, he recognizes the coverage and immediately calls for the team to morph into Spain action as the counter for top-locking.
After shaking free of his shadow and popping out to three as the back-screener, he then orchestrates the pick-and-roll from the second side, bringing to light some of the progress he made as a playmaker with the Dominican Republic’s National Team during the offseason.
All of which is to say that, whether it be Mathurin creating space as a cutter, Haliburton calling his own number away from the ball, or Duarte directing traffic and staying under control as a passer, there’s something to be taken not only from the reads they are making, but also from what those reads suggest about how they might ultimately mesh and support one another, easing each other’s burdens.
For now, the method by which they will defend bigger wings is still hazy, but at least there is some sunlight peeking through the fog of preseason, perhaps providing a guiding light as to where they can grow and what might be with regard to their fit, both in the short and long-term, over the course of the 82-game schedule.