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Analyzing the hidden layers of the Pacers’ defense

On an innovative defensive wrinkle and the challenges of defending with deception.

Cleveland Cavaliers v Indiana Pacers Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images

Picture this. It’s 17 months ago, the date is February 17, 2021, and the Pacers are playing on the road in Minnesota, surrendering a massive hole around Jarred Vanderbilt in the middle of their 2-3 zone. As Ricky Rubio runs baseline, Malcolm Brogdon is standing flat footed in the free throw line area, hindering Doug McDermott from bumping down to the corner with the swiftness necessary to contest. Meanwhile, Myles Turner is gesturing at Domantas Sabonis as if the opposite wing (huh?) should be chasing out.

Needless to say, it’s puzzling. Very puzzling.

Eight days later, with Jayson Tatum standing in place of Vanderbilt, there’s a tweak. Rather than living with whatever playmaking might come out of the high post, the Pacers bend the shape of their zone to the flash but still struggle to stay matched up. Out of the initial 2-3, Edmond Sumner cuts with Tatum. On the deflection, though, Jeremy Lamb takes Jaylen Brown, which leaves Aaron Holiday with no one and forces Turner to defend 2-on-1 against Tatum, resulting in an easy score as a product of the ongoing, albeit different, distortion.

Flip the calendar ahead by nine months, through the subsequent coaching change, and yet another adjustment has been made in attempt to defend that same spot on the floor. At first blush, as was so often the case during the prior season, it appears as though the Pacers are confused, simultaneously running incongruent schemes with half of the team in zone and the other half (unknowingly) in man. When taking a closer look, however, a pattern seems to emerge, revealing a clear and intentional trigger point. Beginning the possession in 2-3 zone, once the ball reaches the high-post, notice how the Pacers match up and stay in man for the remainder of the possession, concealing defense with defense.

That tactic of morphing from zone to man mid-play, as if to snare opponents into unwittingly springing a booby trap, reappeared in earnest following the trade deadline as a curveball for a team that was basically remade with scant opportunity to restructure a scheme that moved increasingly toward switching.

In that regard, the evolution of how the Pacers have approached defending the high post out of zone somewhat serves as a microcosm for the different forms the defense has taken on at-large in search of answers over the span of the last two seasons. What started and continued as practically hitting bingo with types of zone, eventually morphed into being more adaptable with pick-and-roll coverages. All of which seemed to be in an effort to show different looks, mask for on-ball leaks, and accommodate whichever of vastly different bigs was on the floor. In some ways, the culmination of all of those reinventions, along with getting younger and weathering injuries, was to lean on being tricky as a salve for what, as the worst defensive team in the league, they at times lacked in being principled. After all, if you can’t readily manufacture stops, there’s some logic behind attempting to gain an edge by at least catching opponents off guard and potentially draining clock, right?

Well, for one, they have a few tells, as observant eyes will notice that their signal for zone is almost always a raised fist. From there, if they also plan on switching from zone to man on high post catches, with the center matching up with the offensive big, someone will typically yell out “flash” or “flash five” as the defensive play-call, like so.

Furthermore, in addition to the likelihood that rival teams have also managed to crack that code, the numbers don’t exactly reinforce the wrinkle as being disruptive. According to Synergy’s game logs, the Pacers ran 155 possessions of zone following the trade deadline. Of those possessions, which were searched for and tracked by hand, 34 saw the ball go into the high post, with opponents going on to score points 55 percent of the time.

via Synergy Game Breakdowns

After reviewing all of those possessions, here’s what can be surmised from the film as the pros and cons of attempting to defend with deception.

Pro: Inefficient twos

Without the clearance level necessary to filter Synergy’s tracking data for a specific date range, there’s no way to lookup the efficiency of how many points per possession Indiana’s opponents scored against zone in games after the trade deadline, let alone on possessions in which the team switched from zone to man based on the position of the ball. Instead, the game breakdowns only keep a raw tally of whether points were (or weren’t) scored on half-court possessions against zone — not how many points were scored or from where they were scored. As in, did the buckets come at the free throw line or as twos or threes?

In this case, because the defense is matching up when the offensive big catches the ball, there’s a tendency for the offense to stall out, as zone tactics — such as spacing and ball movement — suddenly need to be replaced by screening and cutting in order to shake loose potential outlets. As a result, there’s a number of possessions where the big either ends up hoisting a mid-range two or has to put the ball on the floor to make a play.

Granted, those types of shots aren’t representative of every possession that was logged as points, and given the lack of physicality on the roster, there were also situations where the player matching up on the catch got trucked by the offensive big steamrolling to the basket. Still, when the defense gets beat by contested, two-point jump-shots from the center position, the Pacers are probably willing to live with that, despite what the unprocessed data appears to say.

Con: Baseline Runner

Of course, not all twos are created equal. Just because the Pacers might be accepting of some swishes from mid-range doesn’t mean that giving up shots at the rim is palatable.

For example, take a look at this possession against Cleveland and notice how the problem isn’t the high post touch, which never actually occurs, but rather the threat of the high post touch. Because the center is responsible for matching with the player flashing on the catch, Goga Bitadze is defending up in expectation of Evan Mobley receiving the pass, when he should be staying lower than the lowest man.

That said, the problem there is two-fold. If Tyrese Haliburton had been defending Mobley to a touch to at least create the illusion of a guarded catch, with Smith positioned to take first wing pass, then Bitadze could stay back, only surging up to match on the flight of the pass, as everyone else would then insulate him by switching from zone to man.

Instead, the result is a point-blank layup for Kevin Love.

In essence, there’s potential for the big to skip steps, anticipating what the scheme might call for rather than reacting to what the scheme is actually demanding in the moment.

Con: Dogmatism

Along those same lines, there are certain instances where rules are meant to be broken. Basketball is dynamic, which means the guidelines of who should be doing what aren’t always as simple in real-time as stipulations seem to suggest.

In this instance, consider the conundrum facing Oshae Brissett. Given that T.J. McConnell didn’t sink to deny the high post catch, Brissett is effectively defending a spot on the floor, whereas Terry Taylor is actively guarding Nicolas Claxton in the read spot. Once the initial breakdown occurs, Brissett has to make a choice. Logically, given that he is guarding no one, he should match on the catch as the nearest player. By rule, however, Taylor is responsible as the center for defending up, with everyone else switching from zone to man.

In the end, rather than departing from the scheme to make the necessary and less dangerous read in the moment, Brissett plays by the rules, effectively executing a swap with Taylor that allows the offense to move the ball faster than they can trade places.

The moral of that story? Blind adherence to rules and responsibilities shouldn’t come at the expense of players being prepared to react accordingly to what’s being seen on the floor.

Con: Mismatches

That becomes even more important when opponents start to counter-punch. In that regard, once teams recognize that the trigger for the change is the position of the ball rather than the position of players or number of passes, a common attack strategy is to flash a player other than the offensive big to the high post.

This is particularly effective with a guard so as to force a mismatch within the zone. Just look at the impact, here, with Rajon Rondo dispatched to potentially quarterback from the middle. Turns out, with Haliburton in position to deny, Rondo never actually got a touch on this possession, but his presence still makes an impact in two ways. First of all, Haliburton isn’t just denying to a touch and creating the illusion of a guarded catch (as he should’ve been previously against Mobley); he’s fully lodged himself into the core of Rondo’s body, effectively screening himself while also lengthening his contest out to Osman. Secondly, if Rondo had touched the ball in this same scenario, Goga would’ve had to defend up against a guard, with Chris Duarte matching up from zone to man against Kevin Love.

Although there aren’t repercussions on the block, the aftermath of that particular mismatch still ends up being felt on the glass, when Duarte gets caught looking over his shoulder.

Likewise, consider what happened when the Sixers moved to flashing Tobias Harris instead of Joel Embiid against Indiana’s small-ball lineup. Thanks to some terrific bluffing from Terry Taylor, Harris ends up launching one of those shots that the Pacers are probably willing to live with; however, at the same time, Embiid basically turned Buddy Hield into a shrinking violet under the basket, which ... uh. .. doesn’t exactly seem ideal.

Or, how about when Tatum bailed out Jalen Smith by settling for a catch-and-hold three after dragging him out to sea?

For those reasons, switching from zone to man mid-play isn’t a one-size-fits-all wrinkle that can be applied universally. Consider, for example, the prudence that had to be exercised during the team’s regular season finale against the Nets. During that game, the Pacers ran 28 possessions of zone, but the way in which the zone was set varied depending upon who was on the floor for Brooklyn. Here, notice what T.J. McConnell appears to be calling out prior to the start of this possession in the third quarter: “No flash.”

Using context clues from the rest of the game, that’s most likely because Kevin Durant was on the floor. On those possessions, rather than matching with the offensive big on the flash (as they were against certain lineups without Durant), they wanted to keep Isaiah Jackson back so they could maintain the option to double the all-world scorer in the short-corner if need be without stranding Buddy Hield on an island.

As might be expected, because switching from zone to man doesn’t make sense for every lineup nor against every lineup, the need to be selective can be a lot to keep track of.

Con: Reaction Speed

And, therein lies the rub: The possibility for lag, as it pertains to what transpires at the precise moment in which the change in coverage is triggered, can too often exist for the defense as well as the offense.

Here, the trouble begins early, as Brogdon and Haliburton are both guarding the ball, when the former should be sinking to deny or shifted over to the wing. As a result, when OKC sets off the trap for the match-ups, Haliburton ends up chasing a ghost and then isn’t ready to guard even when he gets back in position.

A few possessions later, history repeats itself, as Brogdon compounds the overload by once again taking the ball instead of bumping over to Tre Mann. In turn, Haliburton ends up chasing another ghost before eventually finding a match-up on the opposite side of the floor, as certainly isn’t intended.

Moreover, once the regimented lines of zone fade to man, delays in negotiation with regard to who is matching up with who can also further exacerbate the ongoing issues with on-ball containment that the plain, run-of-the-mill zone may have more naturally protected against.

Plus, there is also potential for snags to occur in body positioning and stance when going from defending the top line of 2-3 to suddenly matching up with a shooter fading to the corner. Granted, Duane needs to snap his head, here, to maintain vision of both the ball and his man, but he also didn’t have a “man” to defend a few milliseconds earlier.

Generally speaking, scramble situations can be illuminating as to the processing speed of defenders, so implementing a scheme that effectively necessitates scrambling out of one coverage to the next is basically a flashing beacon.

Con: Putting a hat on a hat

Further adding to any potential short-circuits in processing are those possessions where the Pacers appear to also be concealing another, entirely different hidden layer.

Rather than raising a clenched fist, when Brogdon spreads his arms apart, here, with both hands closed, that’s to signal for 1-3-1 zone.

By comparison to earlier in the season, however, when the Pacers actually played 1-3-1 zone against both the Blazers and Clippers, look at what happens on all of these possessions after one or two passes. Yep, rather than staying in 1-3-1 zone, they fall back into 2-3 zone.

And not just any 2-3 zone. Some of those possessions, with 2-3 disguised as 1-3-1, also either featured the zone to man wrinkle layered within or occurred in a game where the zone to man wrinkle was also separately deployed, which feels a little bit like putting a hat on a hat or not abiding by the fashion advice to look in the mirror and take off at least one accessory before leaving the house.

All of which is to say that, next season for the Pacers — not unlike the end of last season for the Pacers — isn’t trending to be about optimizing winning in the playoffs as much as growing young talent. In that play context, they have room to be experimental, further testing out innovative wrinkles; however, from knowing what reads to make within the coverage to determining when and how to get out of the coverage, they need to demonstrate improved habits while defending with deception. After going through multiple reinventions at both the macro and micro-level, including the multitude of tweaks that have been deployed to defend just one spot on the floor, deception can’t and shouldn’t be a proxy for defense.