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Lessons from the playoffs for the Pacers

On self-scouting through the lens of what’s trending amid the heightened intensity of the postseason.

Indiana Pacers v Orlando Magic Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Unfiltered access to game-strategy is rare. For the most part, what gets released from mic’d up segments typically ranges from inspirational huddles, such as Pelicans head coach Willie Green passionately encouraging his team to “freaking fight” headed into the fourth quarter against Phoenix, to some form of bland platitude. At best, T.J. McConnell has some good-natured fun at the expense of his former team; at worst, the viewing audience is treated to what sounds Joel Embiid makes while getting fouled or the eventual birth of narratives regarding the supposed overconfidence of Karl-Anthony Towns.

That’s why this player-to-player interaction between Donovan Mitchell and Royce O’Neal, in which the curtain momentarily gets pulled back on how teams feel out and adjust to changes in coverage, is a gem — and, perhaps, also of some tactical benefit to the Pacers in spite of what has been a somewhat tenuous start to the playoffs for the Jazz.

“They switched, I want to see what they do,” Mitchell can be heard telling O’Neal of how the Mavericks were defending guard-to-guard screens. “If they do that again, keep setting it. If we flip, save that for the second half.”

As described, Jalen Brunson can be seen switching out to Mitchell when O’Neal was the screener during the first quarter of Game 1.

After halftime, however, watch how the screener runs across where he is going to screen and then flips sides, putting words to action.

Granted, with multiple Jazz players being chased off the line, the way in which Dallas has put the 3-point arc on lockdown is arguably what stands out most about that possession. After all, Utah led the league in percentage of shots attempted as threes during the regular season and currently ranks 12th among playoff teams. Still, imagine what may have happened if Mitchell had actually used the screening technique for which he requested.

As Reggie Bullock demonstrates in swarming the ball with Bertans, the Mavericks sprinkle in switch-to-blitz coverage against mismatches. Of course, without the benefit of hindsight, it’s possible that Mitchell didn’t anticipate drawing an extra body after Bullock pointed for the switch with his leg already in front of the screener, but he could’ve forced Bertans under the pick or into recovering with the ball moving away by immediately going with a left-to-right cross over the pick instead of hunting the weaker defender head-on.

Turns out, along with the return of their turnstile perimeter defense (shoutout to old pal Bojan Bogdanovic for defending 94-feet in Game 4, though!), going away from and making things more difficult against favorable match-ups has been somewhat of a recurring theme for the Jazz in this series. Even so, other teams have shown how that same maneuver can be implemented and of benefit with more success. For example, when Jimmy Butler went off for 45 points in Miami’s Game 2 win over Atlanta, notice how he pushed the lead to five with a late pivot from Kyle Lowry on the screen.

To be fair, as is evidenced by the non-existent help-side coverage, Atlanta’s defense clearly isn’t on par with that of Dallas; however, the way in which Butler attacked, barely teasing left and then crossing hard right, shows the difficulty of beating the ball-handler to a spot from the opposite side when the stronger defender gets pinned behind and ultimately needs to roll out from the screen. In the end, that’s all it took for Butler to get the step and turn the corner against Trae Young. Well, maybe not all. Tyler Herro also deserves some credit for the gravity cut, replacing himself in the same spot he left in the strong-side corner so as to open driving space while also making it more difficult for Kevin Huerter to plug the gap as Butler bulldozed downhill. Those types of small edges matter in the playoffs and few teams make use of simple but clever movement when the ball moves as well as Miami.

As it applies to the Pacers, consider the potential outcome, here, if Duane Washington Jr. had flipped the screen after Isaiah Livers switched rather than slipping away into space.

With Detroit trading assignments, would Killian Hayes be able to scurry around the screen and potentially surge out in time to stop the pull-up three from Buddy Hield? And wouldn’t that be preferable to requiring a second screen that squeezed the ball out of his hands, as well as those of Isaiah Jackson?

On Saturday, Dallas stopped switching against the flip, instead, sending Dorian Finney-Smith under as the original on-ball defender. That adjustment, though, put Luka in the somewhat unnatural position of defending the screener, serving as the primary helper despite being a guard. Consumed by the ball-screen and worrying more about the threat of Mitchell than that of O’Neal, notice how he gets slammed by the subsequent flare.

In essence, from flipping the angle, with Dallas switching, to weaving in a flare, once the Mavericks started to defend the same action straight-up, the playoffs are a constant game of reactions, showcasing the importance of making plays as much as running them.

Another trendy way that teams are causing confusion for opponents with guard screens is by coming up out of the corner and pre-emptively twisting the angle on what looks like pistol action. In Philadelphia, Pascal Siakam can be seen shifting his weight toward the sideline in anticipation of denying a wing hand-off, only to be screened by Tyrese Maxey.

As a result, James Harden has a head of steam to power around Fred VanVleet’s circuitous route on the switch, causing Chris Boucher to help too far off Danny Green in the corner.

Generally speaking, the advantage to switching these types of actions is negating the ball-handler’s ability to dribble off the pick into space. By flipping or changing angles (along with expectations), the offense undermines those gains, still generating the preferred matchup while also oftentimes forcing the lesser or shorter-limbed defender to circle around multiple players in order to catch up with the ball and deter penetration.

That said, guards aren’t just manipulating screens for each other; they can also be seen hooking back to provide layers to common actions that look like something else until the very last second. For example, the Pacers routinely deploy Euro-Ball screens, or empty hand-offs preceded by 45-cuts, into their offense as a means to facilitate continuity. When the connecting or trailing big is capable of pulling the trigger from deep, however, slashing behind the action from the wing also serves to take away the stunt, opening a shot out of the pop without need of flowing into the hand-off.

But, what about non-shooters and rim-rollers? For that, head back to Dallas, where Jordan Clarkson demonstrates how the 45-cutter can also reverse course to set a back-screen for the hand-off operator, either drawing late help or potentially putting a guard in position to defend against vertical pop in the event of a switch.

In many cases, because no one is filling the corner, this general set-up has the potential to produce a scoring touch for the big independent of that added wrinkle, but look at what happened to the Pacers in Atlanta when Trae Young called for the switch on the initial cut and then denied the hand-off screen.

Rather than Terry Taylor rolling to the rim, Oshae Brissett is off-balance on a wild drive, of which he finished at just a 38 percent clip this season. That’s where a wrinkle would be useful to get to the next option. To that point, if Oshae drags out the action and holds for a beat rather than speeding toward the rim like a Nascar driver, Taylor could set a pindown for Washington to cut into a three as the inverse of how the Jazz screened for Gobert.

For a peek at what that looks like in motion, particularly if Chris Duarte can hone his ability to shoot coming off screens, checkout Desmond Bane in Minnesota.

In both instances, when opponents think they know what’s coming, there’s an art to being prepared to punish that knowledge by presenting nearly, but not exactly, the same thing.

All of which is to say that, though the Pacers are currently on the outside looking in on playoff contention, there can still be value in looking inward from the outside, self-scouting and, perhaps, borrowing from what tactics, including constant tweaks to various types of guard screens, that appear to become more valuable in the postseason.