Seven minutes before Ja Morant placed himself in the pantheon of in-game dunks, cocking the ball back so hard as to expect to hear ratcheting sounds emanating from his shoulder and spine, Isaiah Jackson rose up to what seemed like infinity and beyond to throw down a lob that was soon overshadowed by the violence that was inflicted on Jalen Smith.
WATCH THIS JA MORANT DUNK pic.twitter.com/9dLjrDR9nK— InsideHoops.com (@InsideHoops) January 15, 2023
For the night, which will surely be remembered more for the Ja-dropping highlight than the rest of the basketball that was played, both teams combined for 18 made dunks. For frame of reference, that’s only six shy of how many dunks Myles Turner attempted in 42 games last season, which isn’t intended to throw shade at Turner (he’s already completed 42 this season — marking a career best!) as much as to point out how much hops were going down (or, rather, up). In fact, the opening play for the Pacers was a lob set for Aaron Nesmith.
If that looks familiar, it’s because that isn’t the first time the Pacers have opened a game or a quarter with that particular play. For example, here they are running it against the Sixers.
Two games later, they turned to that same play again coming out of halftime against the Wizards — and that’s where, based on what happened just before Isaiah Jackson tested the limits of his catch radius versus the Grizzlies on Saturday, things get interesting.
Take a look. When Kristaps Porzingis sags back to take away the lob, notice how Nesmith wheels out behind an exit screen from Smith, who then spaces to the opposite corner, allowing the offense to flow into spread pick-and-roll between Haliburton and Turner.
So what, right? Well, here’s a detail you may have missed in the background of Jackson’s vertical pop. Before he threw down that dunk, the Pacers concealed what became a lob with the lob play for Nesmith. But, spot the difference. This time, after giving up the lob to Nesmith at the start of the game, Jaren Jackson Jr. isn’t about to get fooled by the same place twice. So, instead of chasing over the off-ball screen, he slides under.
Watch where Nesmith goes next, though. Rather than circling out behind an exit screen from Hield, like he did against the Wizards, he moseys over to the opposite corner.
Meanwhile, Isaiah Jackson steps out from the elbow to fake as though the Pacers are running “wide” or a flat away screen for Mathurin, who then rejects the action and flips around to be the stack-screener for what will become Spain pick-and-roll.
On a side note, what else is notable about this is that Buddy Hield isn’t involved. On the night, his streak of 55 games with a made three was broken, as he finished 0-of-3 from deep, while also tying his fewest number of attempts in a game this season. Granted, it was the second night of a back-to-back and Haliburton, who has recorded more assists to Hield than any other combination of players in the NBA, wasn’t playing. Still, by top-locking with Ziaire Williams as his primary defender, Memphis was able to mute some of the impact of Hield’s motion despite some of Indiana’s best efforts to counter.
For example, even after engaging in this screen-the-screener dance with Nesmith, Hield still has to sprint on the underside of the stagger to shave himself free of Williams. Then, when he turned the ball downhill out of what is normally a ball screen or quick flip, he created further separation from Williams only to be met at the basket by Jaren.
In all likelihood, that coverage is why Hield is merely holding space during the lop play, with Mathurin instead operating as the stack-screener. Plus, remember that Nesmith is dotting the opposite corner. Taken altogether, this is a shining example of the impact that spacing can have around a common action. Now, when Andrew Nembhard dribbles off the ball screen, he’s doing so in the direction of Nesmith, which means Jaren is going to be less likely to roam from the ball-side corner. As a result, because Nesmith didn’t wheel around behind Hield (a la the Wizards game), Williams is now the low-man responsible for deciding whether to tag Isaiah Jackson or stay home on the shooter.
Turns out, in keeping with his blanketing coverage, Williams never takes his eyes off Hield.
All of which is to say that, for a game that turned out to be more compelling for the dunks than the game, this particular dunk — summarizing the way in which the Pacers aim to optimize spacing and often appear as though they are about to repeat something that suddenly, at the last second, becomes something different — also had a compelling game within the game.