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Inside the Huddle: How Bennedict Mathurin put Rick Carlisle’s words to action

And added new dimension to an old play.

NBA: Preseason-Indiana Pacers at Charlotte Hornets Nell Redmond-USA TODAY Sports

Daniel Theis has yet to be in uniform for the Indiana Pacers but in watching him represent his country this summer at EuroBasket it was evident how much different the NBA is from European basketball — and not just because of FIBA rules and the smaller court. With fewer ads, replays, and timeouts, the game is less interrupted. Moreover, the interruptions often allow for even more access to the game.

Just take this huddle from Germany’s bronze medal win over Poland. Rather than bland platitudes or a few stray snippets of inspiration, head coach Gordon Herbert can be heard formulating a plan of attack in concert with his players, as he asks for feedback from Franz Wagner before drawing up a play.

By comparison, unfiltered access to game strategy is rare in the NBA, let alone with actual terminology and player-coach dialogue. For that reason, this interaction between Rick Carlisle and Bennedict Mathurin, even in the absence of sound, is highly informative as to providing a window into both the tactical smarts and teaching of the former as well as the development of the latter. To understand why, think back to preseason when Tyrese Haliburton joined the broadcast during the first quarter against the Houston Rockets.

Starting off with an Iverson cut over the top from wing-to-wing, Haliburton recognizes what is about to develop, as the action typically flows into an empty and/or dummy ball screen on one side of the floor. If that’s covered, the ball gets fired back to the opposite side, shifting the defense for the point guard to receive and manipulate a ball screen.

“Right here, I think we’re going to get the young fella (TyTy) Washington on this play,” Haliburton predicts, referencing what he expects to happen to Houston’s ball screen coverage on the boomerang pass to Andrew Nembhard.

“What’d I tell you?” he then says, flashing a smile.

Of course, Tyrese deserves credit for being all-seeing even when he isn’t on the court, but this play is also a staple of any Rick Carlisle playbook. The Mavericks ran it during the end of his stint in Dallas, and the same has been the case for the Pacers, both currently as well as before and after last season’s trade deadline. In fact, they’ve gone through the motions of it so many times that, despite the plethora of options, they can at times be overly committed to the choreography, failing to recognize obvious scoring opportunities. Such is the case, here, when Myles Turner has a favorable switch but instead points for the ball to be reversed.

Taking all of that into account, now consider the aforementioned exchange between Carlisle and Mathurin, noticing first that it is Mathurin who seeks out Carlisle and not the other way around. Granted, reading lips can be tricky, but the general message is clear enough: slip the screen and drive, if open.

Curious instructions for a player listed at 6-foot-6, right? Well, during the timeout, Carlisle swapped out Buddy Hield and Jalen Smith for Chris Duarte and Andrew Nembard. As such, when the play starts, look at what role Mathurin is playing.

He’s one of the screeners at the elbows, which effectively means he is operating as the four, following the same footsteps as Terry Taylor and Myles Turner in the prior examples. Meanwhile, keep in mind that the Bulls were playing an aggressive drop against Haliburton, oftentimes requiring help from the low-man to tag the rolling screener.

Foreseeing all of this, Carlisle once again positions Mathurin to be like the steel marble in a wooden maze game, tilting the playing surface so as to further leverage his ability to get rolling downhill off-the-catch. As such, in keeping with what was discussed on the sidelines, he slips to the corner out of the empty ball screen.

Then, when his defender pulls over to help, he attacks the off-balance closeout, adjusting his body to finish around Nikola Vucevic at the rim, where he’s shot 16-of-23 from the field.

Incredible!

Over the last two games, the Pacers have experimented with four-guard lineups, wherein some combination of T.J. McConnell, Tyrese Haliburton, Andrew Nembhard, Chris Duarte, and Mathurin play with a lone big. In moments like this, when a plan comes together and there is a clear advantage gained, you can see the vision.

That said, there’s a reason why those lineups got shelved in the second half, when Taylor was reinserted at back-up four. Unlike what happened during the fourth quarter in Philadelphia, when they were able to rotate in and out from the paint with speed, trimming what was once a 20-point deficit down to eight, they struggled to provide resistance against Andre Drummond, whether on the glass or diving to the basket.

Still, as the team continues to search for combinations that work, what matters more than the potential macro problems of those lineups is the micro progress of Mathurin, not only in putting words to action but also in seeking out what action to take.

“With the youth of the team, there’s been an emphasis on teaching the entire summer,” Carlisle said following the team’s second practice during training camp. “Young players need a lot of work on reads and reading situations. A lot of guys just come into the gym and they want to work on their shooting or their ball handling or those kinds of things. Developing those skills without also working on the reads that happen during the course of competition isn’t as effective.”

Just as Mathurin continued to play through the final buzzer on Wednesday, he also extended the length of the huddle, gaining insight that ultimately added dimension to a play where others have been robotic. So, yeah, it may not have been the same as the transparency at EuroBasket, but there’s still something to be learned from how he learned.