The national TV audience watching Game 1 of the second-round NBA Playoff series between the Indiana Pacers and New York Knicks witnessed a tremendous defensive performance by Indiana. Using Roy Hibbert as their anchor, the Pacers cut off the three-point line, baited the Knicks into mid-range jumpers and let Hibbert swallow up everything in the paint. Hibbert blocked five shots, altered several more and controlled the game.
But anyone who watched the Pacers this season knows this kind of performance is not out of the ordinary. Indiana ended the year allowing the fewest points per 100 possessions, and while every good defensive team has a series of ethos that stay consistent, the Pacers, more than any other team, rely on a series of schemes that rarely change significantly. The contrast between Boston, a team that beats you up at the point of attack, and Indiana, who funnels players into their huge interior defenders, was too much for New York to overcome in Game 1. The fix against Boston was to run more traditional pick and rolls; the fix against Indiana may be to run fewer.
We're going to take a look at the Pacers' philosophy, shout out the brilliance of Hibbert and think about how the Knicks can adjust as the series moves forward.
Indiana's known as a team that defends the pick and roll "soft," which is NBA verbiage for hanging back on high ball screens. (Weirdly enough, this terminology got Roy Hibbert and John Wall in a mini-beef for a day after Wall said he took mid-range jumpers confidently because the Pacers' bigs "were playing soft" on the pick and roll. Hibbert, likely egged on by a misunderstood reporter, though Wall was calling him soft and responded with a jab at the Wizards). When a guard comes off a high pick and roll, the Pacers will have Hibbert hang way back in the lane, baiting the player to take a mid-range jumper. This yields space to good pull-up jump shooters and can be problematic with crafty point guards that manipulate that space well, but it also ensures they'll never turn the corner on two defenders and create easy looks for teammates.
Every defense has to give up something, and the Pacers will live with these shots.
Here's video of all those shots.
Clearly, Indiana will play the percentages with New York raining mid-range jumpers, but this tactic works best if the perimeter defenders do their part fighting through the ball screens. They know Hibbert is there to thwart any dribble penetration, but the degree to which a mid-range shot is open depends on those perimeter defenders. Those Pacers players struggled at times in the Atlanta series, but performed very well in Sunday's Game 1.
Here, Paul George fights over the top of a Anthony/Tyson Chandler screen so effectively that the Knicks must reset the play.
And here, George Hill takes the punishment from Chandler and stays connected to Felton. This allows Hill and Hibbert to box Felton in at the top of the key in a way that limits his options.
If the ball-handler eludes his man, drives anyway and challenges Hibbert at the rim, that's fine by Indiana too. Hibbert will use his 7'2 frame and fantastic defensive instincts to challenge without fouling. Game 1 was littered with so many examples of Hibbert doing this to Carmelo Anthony, Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith. It all contributed to this shot chart for New York:
With Hibbert controlling the paint, the Knicks could not get anything out of the pick and rolls they ran. Teams often try involving Hibbert in these plays because they know his foot speed isn't great, but when Hibbert is contesting shots at the rim like he did in Game 1, it doesn't work.
So what can the Knicks do? There's a schematic fix and an individual fix.
Going forward, the Knicks need to put Hibbert on the move more in unconventional places. They cannot just run high pick and roll and allow him to camp out in that sweet spot in the paint. They have to get him moving with misdirection and attack from angles rather than up top.
One play that worked well when run was the snug pick and roll. This is when a guard will dribble inside the three-point line from the wing, back into the post, then come out towards the middle while rubbing off a screen. (Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp made this play popular with the mid-90s Sonics). By starting the play inside the three-point line, they force Hibbert to meet the ball-handler sooner and can catch the other Pacers players sinking too far into the lane.
Here's an example where the Knicks got J.R. Smith an open three. Notice how high Hibbert comes out to contest this snug pick and roll between Anthony and Kenyon Martin.
Because Hibbert is out so high, George has sunk into the lane to protect the rim. As we roll this forward, that leaves Smith wide open for three.
That's a breakdown by George, but it was caused in part by Hibbert being far away from the basket.
Here's a closer snug pick and roll from the fourth quarter. Smith dribbles all the way down to the paint and allows Martin to rub off him going to the rim.
Because the play starts so close to the hoop, Hibbert must jump out to trap Smith.
George, helping on Anthony, must decide to rotate to Martin or stay with his man. If he rotates to Martin, Tyler Hansbrough will come down to help on Anthony, but that would leave Jason Kidd open for three. It's a pick-your-poison scenario.
George ends up staying where he is and Martin gets a dunk.
Here are the two successful snug pick and rolls in real time:
There are additional ways the Knicks can adjust, all of which are highlighted in this excellent Posting and Toasting piece.
But no schematic fix is the silver bullet for solving Indiana's defense. The Knicks will have to deal with Hibbert at the rim throughout this series, and they need to finish better than they did in Game 1. Doing that requires manipulating space more effectively. The Pacers' scheme depends on perfect angles and pristine timing. If Hibbert is a step too high, he's vulnerable to hesitation dribbles and quick drives around him. If he's a step too low, the Knicks will get wide-open mid-range shots. That's better than wide-open layups, but even a mid-range shot needs to be contested in some way. Improved manipulation of these angles will lead to better shot opportunities.
That means the Knicks' guards need to study Hibbert's tendencies. Rather than complain about officiating, they need to plug in some video and try to find vulnerabilities in Hibbert's shot contesting. There's always some way to go up effectively; it's up to the Knicks to figure that out.
Keep in mind: this was just Game 1, and there will be many adjustments made. The Pacers succeeded by being who they are. It's on the Knicks to adjust now that they're used to it.