Mission Improbable: How do you score on the Indiana Pacers?

Christian Petersen

It's very difficult to score on the NBA's best defense, but a West Coast trip may have provided some clues for clubs who will have to face Indiana down the line.

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You've just been given a mission, a mission that's as difficult as any an NBA team will face. You've been asked to devise a plan to score on the Indiana Pacers.

The same Indiana Pacers that have constructed the league's best defense since the "No, we're actually serious, this is the end of the hand check" era. (I'll accept arguments for the 2007-08 Celtics, but that's it.) The same Indiana Pacers that have the NBA's likely Defensive Player of the Year patrolling the paint, perhaps their best wing defender hounding passing lanes and an air-tight scheme that mercilessly funnels opponents towards the least efficient shot in the game. The same Pacers that are currently 34-9, with six of those nine losses coming on road back-to-backs. Those guys. Enjoy your mission.

More Prada's Pictures

It's not going to be easy, of course. Scoring at the rim is a major challenge in and of itself with the king of verticality himself, Roy Hibbert, patrolling the paint. Even getting to the rim is a challenge because of Paul George, Lance Stephenson and George Hill, three perimeter defenders who rarely give an inch. Even moving the ball around is now difficult because George and Stephenson have their arms in passing lanes.

Nevertheless, this mission is not completely impossible. Indiana's defense was a little shaky on its most recent West Coast trip, particularly in last Wednesday's blowout loss in Phoenix. Almost every other team in the league will take "a little shaky" by Pacers standards, but for elite teams that have to face Indiana in the playoffs -- I'm looking at you, Miami -- this week could be instructive. Here are a few things that have worked for the Suns, Kings, Nuggets and the few other teams that have found some success against the Pacers.

1. PLAY FAST

This is a must. The Pacers' half-court defense is just too good, so the best chance to catch them is before they can get that half-court defense set.

That's obviously a tough task because the Pacers are generally very good at transition defense. Getting layups probably won't happen consistently unless the Pacers are having a bad night. Getting quick, open shots is not out of the question, though, provided everyone commits to running off misses and even makes.

This is an example of the latter:


Not everyone has Ty Lawson, of course. Also: Ian Mahinmi, in for Roy Hibbert, made a mistake jumping out, allowing Lawson to get to the rim.

But that's also the reason why you must push even off made shots. The Pacers almost never make mistakes when they have the chance to set up their alignment and lock in during a half-court situation. They are far more likely to make critical mistakes like failing to stop ball or match up when they don't have a chance to get in position.

And sometimes, it takes some time before those mistakes become a real problem for Indiana. Consider this sequence from Wednesday's game.


It begins with Goran Dragic running the ball up the right side, getting to his three-point line in three seconds. Gerald Green comes over to sort of screen for Dragic, but really, he's just trying to induce confusion. Because Dragic and Green are moving so quickly, Hill cannot get over to force Dragic baseline, which he'd normally do if this was a half-court set. Because of that, George must switch to prevent Dragic from getting to the middle of the lane.

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The switch works, but George is now in an unfamiliar position guarding a point guard. As such, once Miles Plumlee comes to screen for Dragic, George and Hibbert don't align their coverage properly. Hibbert is on Dragic's left expecting George to force him that way, but George is playing Dragic straight up, which allows Dragic to get middle.

Screenshot_2014-01-27_00

Hibbert must then travel a half-step more to cut off the drive, and Dragic takes advantage by sliding a pass to a rolling Plumlee. Hibbert's only option is to foul.

These are small mistakes by the Pacers, but they only happen because Dragic pushed the ball. Early offense breeds confusion, which leads to openings like this that can be exploited.

2. TRANSITION DRAG SCREENS

This type of transition attack has proven to be a useful way to get Indiana's defense confused. A "drag" screen is when a guard veers sideways, lets his big man catch up to him, then uses him to try to attack the rim. They have become increasingly popular over the past few years because the screener's man is rarely in proper position to step up and corral the play, giving ball handlers plenty of space to attack or pull up for a shot.

The best drag screens happen when the ball handler and screener are so in sync that neither has to slow down for the other to catch up. It looks like a fast break and quacks like a fast break, so it is a fast break. But it is also choreographed like a half-court play, with both players running with the knowledge that they'll unleash this method of attack on the defense.

It's easy to see why this can be such a useful play against the Pacers. Indiana's pick-and-roll defense is so stingy because of Hibbert, and drag screens often negate or at least lessen the big man's impact. This is especially true when we're talking about a double drag screen, like here in the Kings game.


That's a tough finish by Marcus Thornton, no doubt, but the Kings weren't getting a better look if they slowed down. In this case, Aaron Gray ends up setting a more traditional screen, while Jason Thompson quickly cuts in front of Thornton as the drag man. The first screen keeps Hibbert out of the play, and the second screen gets Thornton matched up in space against the slower Luis Scola. One quick move and Thornton gets close to the rim for a runner.

The Pacers know these kinds of plays make them vulnerable and are certainly committed to putting Hibbert in good positions to be ready for them, but they still can be beat this way. But a well-executed drag screen seemingly comes out of nowhere, and even the Pacers can get confused if they don't expect the screen to get there.

3. ATTACK UP THE SIDE

One theme that became obvious while watching tape: Teams often had more success coming up the side of the court against the Pacers than they did going down the middle. Mike D'Antoni's old Suns teams loved doing this in early-offense situations because it often caught the defense napping, or at least retreating back to the positions they'd take if the ball was coming down the middle of the floor. Eventually, a whole new subset of plays were born, some involving as many as three players in various pick-and-roll and dribble pitch sequences.

Of course, attacking up the side can be effective even when simple. Here, the Nuggets draw a fourth foul on Hibbert after a Randy Foye screen springs Ty Lawson.


Notice Hibbert's positioning as Foye comes to set his screen on Lawson. The whole thing happens on his blind side, preventing him from pre-rotating and stopping Lawson's drive up the right side. By the time Hibbert gets there, Lawson is at the rim and it's easy for him to drop it off to a cutting Timofey Mozgov, who gets fouled.

Screenshot_2014-01-27_01

Attacking up the side also allows teams to catch Hibbert too deep in the paint to help out. Roy's natural inclination is to run straight under the basket, which is normally appropriate, but occasionally forces him to try to cover too much ground if the pick is set before he can step up. Take this Suns possession, for example.


Ignore the shot, because a player who's not Gerald Green could have split the George/Scola coverage, driven to the hoop, drawn Hibbert and found an open teammate instead of shooting a corner three. The important thing is the Suns created a good opportunity by timing a Green/Channing Frye pick-and-roll up the sidelines before George and Scola can properly defend it and before Hibbert started to venture out from underneath the hoop.

Here's a similarly complex sideline attack from Monday's game against the Warriors.


Not every team has a passing big man like David Lee or a shooting guard like Klay Thompson. Still, you can imagine some combination of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Shane Battier successfully pulling off something similar to those last two clips in a playoff series.

4. ATTACK WEST, NOT HIBBERT

There are differing theories on this one. In the past, teams would run a lot of pick-and-roll involving Hibbert because it might coax him away from the rim. The Pacers always yield space in these situations because they'd prefer to keep Hibbert as close to the basket as possible, so clever point guards and sweet shooters could find something by exploiting that tendency.

But this may no longer be the way to go. Hibbert has improved his lateral mobility and, by employing a series of fakes and jabs, is able to thwart a guard's momentum without coming out too high. He knows when guards like to change speeds or pull up and will time his lunges appropriately. Notice how he jabs at Thornton here, preventing him from pulling up and giving George just enough time to fight over the screen.

Hibbertretreat

That's why it seems more teams are trying to exploit David West (and Scola, when he's in) instead. Both of those players are slower laterally, whether they jump all the way out to hard-hedge a screen -- as they are sometimes asked to do -- or if they drop back. It's certainly less of a big deal if either is beat than it would be on other teams because the Pacers can still rely on Hibbert to protect the basket, but there's a moment of vulnerability that Pacers opponents are learning how to attack. When West cannot divert the ball handler, opportunities like this are the result.


George makes a nice play to recover and cut off the drive, but Dragic still got an open shot out of the sequence. Teams are starting to realize that they can at least get to Hibbert and maybe create an open look if they involve West in the pick-and-roll.

5. GO AWAY FROM THE PLAY

Misdirection is always a great strategy, and it's especially useful against the Pacers because it prevents them from loading up their defense. Teams found plenty of success recently by acting like a pick-and-roll was coming on one side, then having the ball handler decline the screen and attack the other way.

It helps having guys as quick as Lawson or as crafty as Dragic pulling the move off, but Miami certainly has those kinds of playmakers as well. LeBron could easily run a side pick-and-roll, then attack the baseline instead of coming back to the middle of the floor. Wade is especially adept at getting to the rim by going away from ball screens.

I would also expect to see sets like this from the Heat, assuming they face Indiana in the playoffs as expected.


The Kings didn't get any points out of this, but that has more to do with their personnel than the play execution. A big man with better touch than Jason Thompson will score there, and a second big man more skilled than Aaron Gray can score on a putback. All in all, it was a successful way to move Hibbert around, even if the outcome wasn't ideal.

Here's another interesting misdirection play the Suns used successfully that bears watching.


That's Frye running in and out of the paint as Dragic drives, occupying West's attention and preventing him from helping out as Dragic drove. Again: Someone like Battier would be very effective at doing a similar thing.

6. GET A GUY WHO CAN DO THIS

If all else fails, clone Kenneth Faried and have him run down Indiana's throats.

Fariedcoast

***

Look, it's very difficult. Indiana's the best for a reason, and a team could try all these tactics and still be stifled.

But given the Pacers' half-court stinginess, the only solution is to change the terms of engagement. Running is a must. So is creating confusion as the Pacers are scrambling to find their assignments, whether it's on the break, in secondary transition or in half-court situations.

Committing to this type of game plan on every possession is impossible. Committing to doing it as often as possible, even if it means hauling ass downcourt when your body doesn't want to, is doable. As the Suns and, to a lesser extent, the Kings and Nuggets showed, Indiana can be vulnerable in an open-court game.

It's not definitive, but these are the Pacers. At the very least, it's something for the Heat to consider.

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Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

UNDER THE MICROSCOPE

We take a look at one player each week who is either struggling or has displayed strong skill development.

Anthony Davis is very close to being one of the very best defensive players in the league. That's scary considering he's yet to turn 21.

The Pelicans' defense is a mess, but don't blame Davis for that. He's outstanding on that end; the rest of the club, especially since Jrue Holiday got injured, is not. The coaching staff doesn't help.

But the glimpses of Davis' potential that we witnessed at times last year have become more numerous. If you read my notes on Pelicans games, you'll see several lines that just say "ARMS" and a timestamp. Those refer to times when Davis' wingspan makes what is normally a simple offensive play complicated. Sometimes, for example, something as basic as throwing an entry pass becomes a problem.

Davissteal

Davissteal2

Those long arms also come in handy in other areas, especially when combined with his quick feet. Wings who are normally able to lull big men to sleep and get jumpers off aren't against Davis.



If Davis does get in trouble, it's often for things that can be blamed on the Pelicans' scheme instead. Monty Williams has his big man hedge hard on pick-and-rolls, a somewhat outdated practice that only really lives on in its purest form in Miami and possibly Oklahoma City. The only way that strategy works effectively is if everyone is in sync and the defense is athletic enough to push teams to get out of their comfort zone. If not, one small error in the chain of rotations makes everyone look bad.

Teams have become smarter at using that defense's pressure against them, as even Miami has discovered this year. This is a prime example from Sunday's Pelicans-Magic game. Davis will jump out high thinking that Jameer Nelson is turning the corner, as he's supposed to do in the Pelicans' scheme.

Screenshot_2014-01-28_11

But Nelson doesn't want to go right. Instead, this is all a decoy to swing the ball back the other way, where all the action is.

Screenshot_2014-01-28_11

Big Baby has come off the double screen and rolled right into Jeff Withey's path, preventing him from helping on Davis' man, Tobias Harris. Meanwhile, should Eric Gordon rotate to Harris, Victor Oladipo is wide open in the corner.

The Magic ultimately get a bucket here from Harris, but is this at all Davis' fault? What if Davis was instead asked to pressure the initial double screen, but not jump in front of it? What if he was instead told not to pressure it at all and instead drop back to contain Nelson? It'd certainly be easier for him to recover and not look bad.

Davis is not perfect, of course. He still occasionally falls for pump fakes and can be a beat late when helping on off-ball action. His lack of strength, which often hinders him offensively, also hurts him against bulkier players. And even though I question the wisdom of Williams' scheme, Davis could be executing it better and preventing something like this from happening as often as it does.


But he's also only 20 years old. It's only a matter of time before he owns multiple Defensive Player of the Year awards.

LEFTOVERS

10 other observations from the week that was.

  1. It's long past time to change the narrative on Blake Griffin. He's leading the Clippers to a 9-3 record without Chris Paul, and you don't do that by just being a dunker. One skill that's taken for granted: His ability to read double teams in the post. Watch how he opens up ball movement on the perimeter by faking a pass to a different cutter to get Patrick Patterson off the man he really wanted to find, Jared Dudley.
  2. I'm hard on Kyrie Irving, probably too hard given his talent and the poor job the Cavaliers have done surrounding him. But when people wonder if he's the kind of guy who can lift his teammates in addition to just getting his, they're talking about shots like this.
  3. Mirza Teletovic has emerged as a major piece for the Nets now that he has a coaching staff that trusts him and puts him in positions to succeed. One such way is as a wing shooter on Chin Spread, a popular pick-and-roll play around the league that begins with a big man backscreening one cutter, then immediately turning to the ball and setting another screen. It's hard to help off Teletovic when you have to account for all that motion.
  4. I'd appreciate Kevin Love a little more if we didn't see lazy transition defense like this as often from him.
  5. The Jazz continue to improve after a brutal start, which has to thrill general manager Dennis Lindsey. Utah closed its Saturday win over Washington with the Kiddie Five of Trey Burke, Alec Burks, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors on the floor, something we haven't seen much this season. Favors' rim protection skills in particular have been activated since the Jazz stopped making him hedge hard on pick-and-rolls. If Favors and Kanter can protect the rim like this consistently, watch out.
  6. Jonas Valanciunas' timidity is getting frustrating. There is no reason to keep pump faking when you have Ryan Hollins pinned like this.
  7. James Johnson has been a huge addition for the Grizzlies, thanks to his swarming defense and athleticism. I really like how the Grizzlies have started to run dribble-drive plays for him by getting him the ball 30 feet from the hoop with a running start, allowing him to use his speed. This one didn't work, but there's potential here.
  8. It's so interesting to watch how the Thunder's length makes every Spurs shot a little bit tougher, forcing them to work a little bit harder to score and therefore sapping their defensive energy. San Antonio is banged up, sure, but Wednesday's road win by the Thunder without Russell Westbrook underscored just how brutal a matchup it was for the Spurs.
  9. Here's evidence that Brandan Wright is the NBA's best screen slipper.
  10. Yeah, yeah, Josh Smith's shot selection has been appalling, but this might be the most insulting possession he's had this year. There are two minutes left in a tight game that the Pistons could close out by locking in defensively, and Smith doesn't care to even try to defend this pick-and-roll. How does Maurice Cheeks live with this?

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