There’s under two minutes to play in a close road game and Malcolm Brogdon is at the controls, dribbling off consecutive ball-screens from his big men. And yet, even as his defender darts over both picks, with Domantas Sabonis diving to the rim and Myles Turner popping out for a potential three-point opportunity, neither he nor the screeners involved ends up being more open than T.J. McConnell, who is left alone standing in the corner.
For several reasons, that sequence stands in direct contrast to what already has been evident for the Pacers over the last four games since acquiring Tyrese Haliburton. Just look at this possession from the 21-year-old’s debut and spot the many differences.
Right off the top, rather than two bigs, notice the impact of swapping in Buddy Hield as the first screener with Jalen Smith instead chilling outside the action. In addition to generating a switch between Dean Wade and Isaac Okoro, take stock of where the former is standing as Haliburton turns the corner. See how Wade has his entire body planted outside the free throw circle, positioning himself nearer to Hield?
Now, look at the way in which Kyle Kuzma is keeping at least one foot in the paint, even at the risk of straying from Turner, who at this point, had scored 38 points on 19 shots.
On the season, Hield has shot a career-worst 36.6 percent from three, but over 65 percent of his attempts have been contested, compared to 32 percent for Turner; and for better or worse, he doesn’t blush at shooting from way downtown, launching over six attempts per game from 25 to 29 feet out — good for sixth in the league. Accordingly, because longer shots oftentimes require longer closeouts, Wade’s choice between drifting toward the roller and staying home, with Hield stationed further behind the 3-point line, is more exaggerated in the opposite direction that what was the case for Kuzma earlier in the season.
Likewise, whereas Raul Neto essentially had carte blanche to roam into the lane with McConnell as his check...
Chris Duarte is commanding more attention, lowering the potential of a late tag, with the dual benefit of being more accurate and comfortable in keeping a three a three from the left corner.
Granted, LeVert isn’t the most active help defender (to say the least), but the overall upgrade in credible spacing, along with the threat of Haliburton’s floater, played a significant role in why, as opposed to funneling the ball to McConnell as a non-shooter, Isaiah Jackson ends up catching and throwing down a lob with a head of steam.
That said, double drags are a common and relatively simple action, so even with stronger sources of ancillary gravity, Haliburton’s deceptive playmaking has still been critical to making the play (also known as “77,” which Carlisle routinely signals for from the sidelines by holding up seven fingers) more serpentine, especially for a depleted roster.
For example, just consider the myriad of ways in which the sophomore talent manipulated double drags across three separate possessions in the same quarter against Milwaukee. Again, Buddy Hield is holding space — only, this time, in the weak-side corner, with Terry Taylor and Goga Bitadze acting as the “screeners.” In that regard, given that Bitadze isn’t exactly known for setting picks that stick, notice how he dives out of the ball-screen early and instead circles behind Giannis as the would-be tagger, essentially functioning like a momentary top-pin for Taylor.
In retrospect, it isn’t entirely clear if that particular route from Goga was by design or originally intentioned to be veer action that never happened for Hield, but all Haliburton has to do is read Giannis. Armed with soft touch, as soon as the reigning Finals MVP stays with Taylor, what looks like a floater, drawing the focus of Portis, becomes a late-lob pass.
A few minutes later, with the same principle actors involved, Giannis adjusts to stick with Goga at the same time as Portis retreats to take away the lob, which allows Haliburton to glide to the basket. Except Haliburton doesn’t just glide to the basket, he actively plays a part in clearing his own way — not only reaping the benefits of the defense’s reaction to that which he previously made possible, but also with a pointed look toward the ball-side corner, shifting Grayson Allen back in the direction of Oshae.
Of course, while floaters and early/late lobs are his specialty, he can also make reads all over the floor, even when the floor is cramped. Here, with Ibaka hanging back in the lane and Lance replacing Buddy in the weak-side corner, Haliburton unleashes a bounce pass to Tristan Thompson, who unlike Goga, ends up being greeted by three defenders in the lane.
Then, rather than watching as the big man attempts to muscle through multiple bodies, the 21-year-old point guard relocates into open space and uses a pass-fake to further shake himself loose from deep.
Providing a release valve for the release valve to draw-and-dish, that’s the difference between never even attempting to make this pass in nearly the same scenario and generating a paint-touch three.
In that way, credit Terry Taylor for reading the defense and recognizing that Korey Kispert wasn’t positioned to switch down the line with Kyle Kuzma already prepared to jump out, but there’s also incentive to slip hard to the basket, as opposed to just standing there or not screening at all, when the ball actually finds energy.
Plus, consider how most of these possessions are ending, rather than beginning, with at least 15 seconds remaining on the shot-clock. In most cases, double drags originate in semi-transition, but Haliburton doesn’t often walk the ball up; more typically, he aims to jump-start the offense quickly, clapping for faster outlets and immediately heading downhill once he catches those passes. According to Cleaning the Glass, the Pacers rank 12th in transition frequency over the last four games, compared to 26th on the season — a noticeable jump, given the recent track record among many of Carlisle’s teams in Dallas.
To be fair, a lot of that can be attributed to filling lanes with advanced passes, and the pace has tended to slow down in the fourth quarter for reasons likely ranging from defensive adjustments to heavy minutes, but the overall dynamic between Carlisle and letting go of the reins will be worth monitoring over the final 20 games of the season, especially with Malcolm Brogdon expected to return to action.
All of which is to say that, for a team that already ranked among the top-five in both player and ball movement, Haliburton’s debut hasn’t so much been about increasing the overall volume of passes, as impacting what types of connections, more often resulting in direct scoring opportunities via potential assists (+7.1 per game), have been made. Moreover, despite averaging 20 points and 11 dimes over his first four games, Haliburton still has room to grow, particularly with regard to forcing defenders to commit rather than jump-passing. Nonetheless, as reflected through the before-and-after of double drags, the combination of extra acreage mixed with a feel that can’t be taught is allowing him to better his teammates, even while also working to better his own game.