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On the magic touch of the Pacers’ guard screens

And the impact of not making much of an impact.

NBA: Washington Wizards at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

In the sense of creating open shots with minimal dribbling, the most effective ball screens are normally thought of as being bone-crushing, peeling defenders loose with a mean streak as opposed to a gentle whisper. And yet, for the Pacers, who no longer have the option of drawing from the optimized angles and subtle techniques of the space Domantas Sabonis would carve open while standing still, many of their actions and reads are sparked not by hard-hitting contact at the center position but rather merely a touch from a guard.

After all, even with Tyrese Haliburton dribbling toward the sideline with his hand shaped to look like the letter “C” as the signal for what is about to transpire, the entry is often inconspicuous. With similar intent to that of a prankster ding-dong ditching, one of several possible screeners — be it Buddy Hield, Chris Duarte, T.J. McConnell, Bennedict Mathurin, or Andrew Nembhard — will stealthily approach from out of the corner and lightly press on the back of the on-ball defender like a doorbell before abruptly turning and running away.

From there, although the literal impact of the screen is borderline negligible, the figurative impact of what happens next is immense, as Haliburton’s decision-making blends with the designed flow of the offense to spur a multitude of potential outcomes.

Attack the switch pocket

Generally speaking, Haliburton isn’t particularly shifty and doesn’t often waste his time trying to drive at switches in isolation, but he has become more aggressive this season at hunting his own shot during the split-second window when one defender hands the ball-handler off to the next. Just look at this possession against the Miami Heat. With Caleb Martin disconnecting too early before Kyle Lowry can connect with the ball, Haliburton weaponizes his range, rising above the open gap in-between the switch.

So far on the season, Haliburton has shot 43 percent from outside 25 feet while attempting nearly twice as many deep threes per game (6.0), including those from as far out as 34 feet, as he did after being traded to the Pacers last season (3.8). In essence, that extended shot distance is allowing him to pull up over the top, beating the switch by being a step ahead of the switch, as well as a step or two away from the switch.

Plus, watch how the touch screen generates uncertainty in the defense. Because Nembhard slips toward the basket, Haliburton is able to fake as though he is going to throw an overhead pass, creating a two on the roller advantage as well as an open three.

Overall, as has largely been the case with Indiana’s seventh-ranked offense during the early portion of the season, the initial trigger is a smart and simple design augmented by Haliburton’s manipulation.

Outside-In Role Reversal

Oh hey, remember that subtle pass fake? Look at what that opened up later in the same half. With Jamal Murray springing toward Haliburton in a show of “I’m not falling for that again!”, Nembhard screens below and stays below the switch, establishing position for just your run-of-the-mill high-low pass, naturally, delivered from a center to a guard.

Somehow, the same technique worked yet again in the second half, even against a different type of defense, as Buddy Hield screened the top of the zone and received a similar triangle pass for an easy score at the rim.

The big takeaway, here, as well as from several other examples, is that the Pacers don’t just go through the motions with the touch screen operating like excess filler.

Confusion Advantages

Instead, no advantage goes to waste. If one defender stays and the other gets thrown for a loop while attempting to switch, then Haliburton attacks the confusion advantage and kick-starts the team’s weak-side cutting principles, as the player at the wing will automatically knife to the basket when the ball is penetrated along the baseline.

Meanwhile, a similar effect plays out when the defense stays home but the on-ball defender doesn’t stay square. In that event, Haliburton drives, and if his defender gets back in front, he can stop on a dime and do stuff like this.

In total, Denver had five different breakdowns against this action while trying multiple types of coverage. That, from Bones Hyland, was probably the most valiant effort and Haliburton still ended up staring down their bench after being leveraged into a pull-up two.

That’s tough.

Flow game

And wait, there’s more. In all honesty, that could be the tagline for this offense: “And wait, there’s more.” Because, oftentimes, there is more. Remember, there’s a reason why Haliburton signals for this play by flashing up the letter “C” with his hand. That could be a reference to “corner,” perhaps, But more than likely, it has to do with what happens on the second side of the floor. In that way, although the Pacers don’t often treat the touch screen like an afterthought, it also isn’t the stopping point — meaning they have a means for advancing to the next action.

In most cases, if the opposing team defends against the touch screen, the ball will get swung to the five-man at the top of the key, leading to what is commonly referred to as “Chicago” action (or a pindown connected to a hand-off). Notably, “Chicago” starts with the same letter that Haliburton uses as a hand signal. Here, despite the fact that Duarte takes off way too far from the basket to finish, the offense nevertheless has seamless continuity.

As is probably expected, the end product also looks a little different when Mathurin is the player exploding out of the corner with his defender trailing. In that scenario, the hand-off is sometimes preceded by a 45-cut as opposed to a pindown, which creates an empty side for Mathurin to make easier reads without anyone from the blind side tagging the roller.

Here, although Buddy Hield retreats back out to the weak-side corner, Mathurin still manages to power his way to the rim without ever giving a consideration to passing.

Complex actions

In addition to providing set-up for getting the ball to the second side, touches of touch screens also show up in some of the more complex plays that the Pacers run to create favorable switches. For example, think back to this possession against Washington. For most of the game, the Wizards were checking Haliburton with length. In order to remove that obstacle at the point of attack, look at how Terry Taylor cuts from wing to wing to open space, while at the same time, Jalen Smith screens Duarte into the touch screen so as to force his defender to lag on the switch.

Taken altogether, that allows Haliburton to go to work against a smaller defender.

On the flip side, when the defense doesn’t switch, look at how the Pacers flow naturally from the touch screen into an uphill dribble hand-off for Buddy Hield that leads to a dunk when both defenders commit to the ball — as they so often do.

Not only does the offense continue even when the play stops, Kristaps Porzingis has to slide in and out multiple times from the ball-side corner. Due to logistics, that wouldn’t happen if Jalen Smith, as the five-man, was the screener instead of Chris Duarte.

All of which is to say that, from creating confusion and triggering other actions to providing means for Haliburton to attack switches, whether with his shot or by downsizing the length of his defender, the touch screens set by Indiana’s guards are leaving an imprint on the offense even without making much of an impression against defenders.