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On the moxie and guile of Andrew Nembhard’s defense

Indiana’s rookie didn’t just sink the Lakers with his game-winner; he also did so with his defense — adding to what has become a building trend.

NBA: Indiana Pacers at Los Angeles Lakers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

In a game full of subtext, ranging from the trade rumors swirling around Russell Westbrook, Buddy Hield, and Myles Turner (that may have started back when dinosaurs still roamed the earth) to the bold (all too often rehashed) comments Bennedict Mathurin made last summer about the confidence he has his in game while calling out LeBron James, Andrew Nembhard was an afterthought, listed as questionable for Monday’s match-up against the Los Angeles Lakers after missing four-consecutive games with a bruised left knee.

And yet, long before he buried the Lakers with a triple at the buzzer, bringing cause for raucous celebration from anyone and everyone (including Kevin Pritchard!), he was also making contributions at the other end of the floor — just as he has been doing all season. After all, in addition to his game-winning shot, he also has a game-winning stop, putting the clamps on Tyler Herro in isolation, when the Miami Heat opted not to send screen help.

Still, not everything he does as a defender is always loud, although he typically says it (or, rather, squares it) with his chest.

Think back to when the Pacers chiseled what was a 20-point lead for the Sixers down to eight in the fourth quarter. Sure, James Harden reentered the game with 6:38 to play and proceeded to score eight-straight points, but he was shaded to his right and ultimately leveraged into a step-back two — by Nembhard, as a rookie.

Just as a reminder, this is what another rookie did for the Pacers in a similar situation last season. Granted, Isaiah Jackson isn’t a guard — he’s a switchy big; however, the difference in principle is still notable, as he not only opens his stance way too early but also does so in favor of Harden’s strong-hand (oof!). That’s a rookie making a rookie mistake.

By comparison, two games later, Nembhard yet again acted his age (22) as opposed to his level of experience, shutting off Bradley Beal’s driving lane and forcing another pull-up two with a solid contest as an early glimmer of what might be.

Meanwhile, in addition to sliding his feet to square contact to his chest effectively, he’s also demonstrated fortitude when defending up a position. Without Pascal Siakam available to create advantages, Scottie Barnes hasn’t quite taken the next step as far as consistent efficiency or reading the second level of the defense while on the move in the half-court, but he can still be a hammer in terms of preventing his defender from stepping up. Here, despite giving up size, Nembhard avoids turning into a punching bag, instead, staying outside the restricted area and negotiating an extra step into the help from his friends.

That willingness to absorb body blows pairs well with the mindfulness he brings as a help defender, whether zoning up the paint and taking charges from centers.

Or, teleporting over from the weak-side with verticality against guards.

When considered through the context of how often he draws assignments against top options and finishes games when the team has needed to apply pressure, there have been inklings of his overall potential as a defender throughout most of the start of the season, but never as complete of a vision as what happened against the Lakers on Monday night. When he was on the floor, he was predominantly matched with LeBron James, taking hits on bully drives like he did versus Scottie Barnes while also working to swim and front the post — sometimes, requiring multiple efforts on the same possession.

Just look at where LeBron starts his methodical back down here (on the domain extension of Crypto.com Arena!), and then count how many times he twists and turns before ultimately getting the ball knocked away.

Granted, LeBron was likely somewhat hampered after coming down awkwardly on his ankle during the first quarter and initially getting treatment on the bench before heading to the locker room, but Nembhard — who, by the way, hadn’t played in a over a week — still deserves credit for his moxie defending on-ball, which is to say nothing of his guile and activity when guarding away from it.

In that regard, look at everything he covered on this possession. After working to stay attached and in front of LeBron, notice how he steps up to take the ball on the 45 cut and baseline drive, as Oshae Brissett peels and switches onto the post. Then, when the ball squirts through the crowd of bodies, spot which player on the floor runs Austin Reaves off the line, resulting in a travelling violation.

Why, yes, it’s Andrew Nembhard, and it’s meaningful not only because he held up defending against the post, a drive, and the kick-out; but because he had the recognition to do so. The Pacers don’t often incorporate peel switching or “next” pick-and-roll defense, but on the rare occasions when they do, Nembhard is typically involved, making the read to fully commit and communicate the switch, as opposed to providing passive help.

Moreover, consider what happens if Jalen Smith is defending LeBron on that same play, as was the assignment to start the game. Would he be as nimble to wall off the drive, let alone sprint to the opposite corner? Better question: Would he have actually made the switch as the nearest help defender, or just stunted at the ball? Plus, because Nembhard is a guard, the Pacers didn’t give up a potential mismatch on the glass when Brissett peeled inside of the post. Overall, it’s difficult to come up with another player on the roster who would’ve had the insight and capability to do all of the above — at least not while also providing supplemental passing and playmaking (sorry, Aaron Nesmith).

And, that’s the thing with Nembhard. Much like his sensible game on offense, where he’s patient and crafty while staying controlled off two feet rather than bursting to the rim; he isn’t a quick-twitch athlete to recover when he gets beat on defense, either. Instead, he has the tendency to reach around for steals in rearview pursuit. That’s why, when he navigates screens at the point of attack, the Pacers typically late-switch and scram out the mismatch, with him chasing over and then veering into the roller. Still, what he lacks in quickness, he makes up for in brains and unsuspecting brawn — even, apparently, against the likes of LeBron James. In turn, that allows Tyrese Haliburton to do what he does, adding another 27 points and 14 assists to his massive tally of 60 points, 40 assists, and zero turnovers over the last threes games, while rarely having to defend the opposing team’s best player.

All of which is to say that, in what was tracking to be a night consumed by narratives, with Bennedict Mathurin outscoring LeBron, Russell Westbrook tallying as many made threes as Buddy Hield and Myles Turner combined, and Anthony Davis not being involved on offense as the Pacers erased a 17-point fourth-quarter deficit, Andrew Nembhard provided a far more meaningful plot, both with the drama of his buzzer-beating three and the through line of his budding defense.