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On the duality of what makes the Pacers tick from three

And differentiating between early threes and quick threes.

Indiana Pacers v Houston Rockets Photo by Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

At the time, it was nothing more than a turnover — an inadvertent error born of the underdeveloped chemistry that should probably be expected from a team that was dramatically overhauled at the trade deadline. In retrospect, however, there was foreshadowing at play in what then seemed like just some insignificant little something. Occurring during only his second game with the Pacers, Tyrese Haliburton revealed both the trust he has in his teammates, as well as his desire to push the pace following made baskets, by advancing the ball ahead not with a hit-ahead pass but with a pass that very literally hit Terry Taylor in the back. Whoops!

Even so, there is meaning to parse and progress that can be measured from the snafu. At the most basic level, Taylor ended up in a tough spot because he didn’t fill the lane with his eyes back. In that way, playing with Haliburton’s inclusiveness requires being mindful, but the very need to be constantly ready as a receiver also functions like a dangling carrot, providing positive incentive to run with him. That said, as the outcome of that possession goes to show, there’s more to playing fast than just running fast — there also has to be coordination, which is where the Pacers have made strides with their strides.

The numbers back this up. At 11.1 seconds per possession, Indiana has the NBA’s second-fastest time to shoot, trailing only the Oklahoma City Thunder, according to advanced-stats website Inpredictable. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Pacers are currently the third-most aggressive group in transition, up from 21st after acquiring Haliburton last season, and they’ve attempted 9.7 percent of their shots as threes coming between 22 and 18 seconds on the shot-clock — the highest rate of any team since the 2017-18 Houston Rockets (9.8).

Stats as of December 13

For further perspective, consider this: To this point in the season, Haliburton and Hield have hoisted more early threes as a duo than that of eleven NBA teams (yes, TEAMS).

Moreover, in addition to erupting like geysers, those two have likewise been largely reliable, combining to knockdown 39.8 percent of their quick-trigger attempts.

As the league’s leading assist combination, this is each of them at their most them. Where Haliburton is conscientious, constantly peering over his shoulder to survey the lay of the court as he awaits the inbounds pass, Hield fires away from deep despite being vastly outnumbered, decisively shooting as though he prefers to ask forgiveness rather than risk delay and seek permission.

With the greenest of green lights, those shots may illicit some eye-rolls when they don’t fall, but the perception they create for the defense is almost more important than the result. Just look at the reaction, here, from the Raptors when Hield catches the ball. Because he presents himself like a loose cannon, he routinely draws extra attention, igniting a ring of fire around the arc for others even when he isn’t throwing flames toward the rim himself.

Again, look at how the mere threat of his shooting sparks an opportunity with an extra pass.

Still, while Haliburton’s commitment to doing the next right thing and Hield’s spacing have arguably been most central to generating motion in the open floor, the way in which they are gunning by running is a team-wide effort supported more by organization than chaos.

Filling lanes but not just filling space

Think back to when Terry Taylor was hit in the back, running the floor without staying cognizant of the ball. Now, look at how the Pacers run their routes while being aware of both the ball and Hield. Andrew Nembhard is particularly adept at this, as he will routinely sprint into a hostage screen when he recognizes that he is being flanked by the sharpshooter as opposed to just sprinting to a spot.

A similar effect also plays out at the top of the key, where the five-man will sometimes linger, pausing in-between running from rim-to-rim (if ahead of the break) or arc-to-arc (if trailing), to set what functions like a top-pin against a closeout.

In reverse, Hield returns the favor. When he’s covered as the trailer, he keeps moving, brushing against the grain of the defense to create a pocket of air for the ball-handler.

Furthermore, look at the opposite side of the floor, where Taylor is simultaneously setting a flare screen to occupy the nearest help defender. Needless to say, the Pacers don’t only manufacture early threes in bulk by chucking or with static spacing; they also do so by reshaping the defense, filling lanes with screens and cuts as well as their bodies.

Flip back

In addition to the activity of their spacing, another trend that shows up when generating these shots is how often the ball-handler penetrates in front of the trailer in search of early scoring opportunities before relying on a ball screen. It’s simple, but effective — as the act of flipping the ball from slot to slot allows the trailer to step into a shot against a shifted defense. Plus, because the ball-handler shovels the ball backward in stride with a live handle, the defense has to honor the drive.

Tellingly, much like the overall running identity of the team, Haliburton’s play-style (literally) drives the concept, but the same approach of attacking diagonally up the court also manifests by way of McConnell, Nembhard, and, sometimes, even Hield — who can be seen, here, faking the flip action to set himself up for three.

If the main option being the shot isn’t open, then this can flow into pick-and-roll for the trailer or a subsequent reversal with the defense scrambling.

Either way, when the opportunity isn’t there to pitch the ball ahead, then being aggressive in dribbling on the bias and pitching it back also leads to quick transition outcomes from deep.

On the bias

After all, just look at everything that is happening in this screenshot as Andrew Nembhard attacks diagonally up the floor. First of all, notice how Tyrese Haliburton is directing traffic when he doesn’t have the ball, ushering Indiana’s rookie ball-handler toward the weak-side with the defense loading up and flooding middle.

In turn, once Nembhard reaches the deep slot and sucks in the attention, that allows him to play a game of numbers against defenders with turned heads, leaping while telling lies with his eyes to place the ball behind Anthony Edwards and away from the shorter closeout.

Are the Pacers a factory for jump passes, who can say really? Regardless, it’s clearly a luxury to be able to play two guards who process the game so quickly at once, let alone when the team pushes the tempo, pierces the defense, and sprays out to three in four-guard iterations — including when Haliburton never touches the ball.

In fact, during the 348 minutes in which any four of Haliburton, Nembhard, Mathurin, Hield, Nesmith, McConnell, or Chris Duarte have been on the floor, the Pacers have played at light-speed, posting a pace (103.56) that bests even that of the league’s fastest team (103.1).

Here, although Smith and Turner are playing together, this possession is still emblematic of the elements that allow the team to work as a team in propelling themselves forward. With two defenders loading up ball-side, another glued to the corner, and the other two sinking toward the middle of the floor, Haliburton eyes the diagonal pass, taking advantage of the inverse gravity to further illuminate the wavelength he shares with Hield.

Of course, there is a duality to this. On Monday night, in what was the lowest scoring game between any two teams this season, the Pacers played at a slower pace, as they wrangled with Caleb Martin’s full-court pressure, a sample platter of zone, selective traps, and the necessity of moving Bam Adebayo around the floor as opposed to running into him like a brick wall. For the night, with Haliburton going 0-of-9 from the field and eventually being relegated more to off-ball actions to switch Adebayo onto the weak-side away from the play, Nembhard took on more touches. And yet, despite playing less frequently in the open floor, the Pacers still attempted 10 threes between 22 and 18 seconds on the shot-clock — which is more than they usually average per game (8.7).

And, therein lies the rub: They were doing what they do, but not being who they are. Rather than putting the defense on their heels, with advance passes, paint touches, and diagonal attacks, they were playing on their heels in response to the defense, hunting shots when finally not being hounded to avoid bringing Adebayo to the ball in the half-court — where they’ve scored the fewest points per play of any team in the league over the last 10 games. This, for example, isn’t quick; it’s hurried.

Right now, after finding themselves in becoming the former and losing themselves when succumbing to the latter, they are a team, for reasons both good and bad, that appears to be dependent upon both.