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How Indiana’s rookies refocused attention in win over Clippers

On what happens when unexpected performers suddenly put on a show.

Los Angeles Clippers v Indiana Pacers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

With both teams down by multiple starters, and LA on the second night of a back-to-back, completing a stretch of 11 games in 11 different cities over 18 days, the stage was set for Indiana’s fresh-cut rookie class to enjoy the spoils of what steadily became escalated, and oftentimes exhausted, coverage against Caris LeVert. And yet, in filling the gaps around the attention paid to the herky-jerky driver, the contributions of first-round pick Isaiah Jackson and two-way players Duane Washington Jr. and Terry Taylor, who combined for 57 points, also subtlety had an impact on reshaping the defense, particularly as the game progressed.

Break from the pressure

For example, consider this alignment from the second quarter and notice how Taylor is standing in the dunker spot along the baseline.

Beyond creating extra opportunities at the basket, whether on dump-off passes and spacing on drives or offensive rebounds, consider the distance between Chris Duarte in the left corner and Torrey Craig on the right wing. That’s a wider entry point for LeVert to drive into than what would be the case if the Pacers were playing five-out, with Taylor’s check potentially available to pinch-in while being able to close a narrower gap.

Now, compare that to what happened in OKC, where with everyone standing outside the three-point line, Oshae Brisett’s defender is already waiting to turn LeVert in the lane without the benefit of a release valve under the basket.

Granted, it’s probably fair to ask why Oshae didn’t receive the ball on the draw-and-dish, but LeVert doesn’t often locate the corners, where he’s recorded less than 10 percent of his assists this season, compared to 50 percent at the rim. In that regard, for a player who all too often plays with his head down, as well as for a team that, as Chris Paul ruthlessly pointed out in Phoenix, “can’t f—-ing shoot,” there was clear utility to simultaneously widening the gap on the perimeter while also positioning Taylor’s nose for the ball as a preferred, last-second means of escape for LeVert, even if multiple efforts were required.

State of denial

That said, with the Pacers shooting 5-of-7 from three in the fourth quarter and making 16 of their 24 long-range shots for the game, Duane Washington’s Jr.’s heater, in which the Ohio State alum knocked down four triples in roughly four minutes, also allowed Taylor to break pressure as a pivot point.

Just take a look at these clips. After sprinting to the corner in transition and casually rising up and away from his defender, watch what happened on the 21-year-old’s final make. With the Clippers switching everything, Justise Winslow is expecting to receive Justin Holiday coming off the hand-off, when Washington instead passes the ball to Taylor and relocates, opening a pocket of air.

In response, watch what happened a few possessions later. Right off the top, Nicolas Batum is denying Washington the ball far away from the hoop, which triggers what looks like might develop into a potential three-man backdoor action with Taylor flashing to the elbow.

Instead, likely because of what happened previously when Washington orbited into the relocation three, Winslow starts to switch out, cheating the hand-off just enough for Taylor to flip those expectations against him with a play-action keeper and jaunt to the basket.

Given that Indiana entered Monday’s win shooting 32.9 percent against a Clippers team that holds opponents to the third-stingiest mark in the league (33.1%), that’s the value of accruing credible spacing, even if only in-game.

Center of attention

Repeatedly demonstrating his vertical pop, Isaiah Jackson shined in a finishing role, as LeVert went from drawing the attention of Serge Ibaka in the paint to being blitzed after halftime. Free to shake loose from an overcommitted defense as well as cracks in the zone, the 20-year-old big man flashed his potential, whether leaping off two feet, adjusting his body in midair, or converting putbacks with a lightning-quick second jump.

And yet, with all due respect to some of the eye-popping acrobatics, this was arguably his most impressive moment. For point of reference, look at what happened in the first half, when LeVert, as he so often does, rejected the screen on his right to attack moving to his left before ultimately jailing his defender. With Justin Holiday leaking out in the opposite direction, watch Marcus Morris, who in opting to stay attached to Torrey Craig in the corner, barely moves a muscle as Jackson rumbles down the lane.

Now, compare that to the second half, when after scoring 24 points, Indiana’s bouncy rookie caught yet another lob, only this time, after diving behind the switch with Bledsoe actually releasing from Duarte as an extra defender.

Through 18 games played and without need of dabbling into many of the set plays that could be deployed or improvised with he and Sabonis on the floor together, as occurred during preseason, Jackson has already converted as many shots classified as alley-oop dunks in 180 minutes of action (8) as the Pacers did as a team last season (8).

All of which is to say that, while there will certainly be stiffer tests than that which was administered by the road weary and depleted Clippers on Monday night, Indiana’s non-Duarte rookies each deserve credit for the way in which they reacted to how the defense responded to them as unexpected performers.