It's not easy for the Indiana Pacers to score even when they are trying their hardest. They do not have the sort of great playmaking guard that makes things easier, and is presently in fashion in the NBA. They lack the shooting that almost everyone believes is necessary to run a competent offense against the strong-side zone defenses currently everywhere in the league. Their tallest player can be leveraged out of the valuable space near the rim by wider men. Their most well-known player is trusted to make plays more due to necessity than merit.
The Pacers survived, though, because they did indeed try their hardest. They set the cross-screens. They moved with a purpose. They fought for every inch of position. They executed after-timeout sequences and set plays as if they knew they had to convert them to get by. They shared the ball. They didn't care who scored or from where they shot. That was never enough to build a great offense, but it was always enough to build a good enough one to let their league-best defense do the rest. It was work, but it worked.
But what happens when that fight goes away? The margin for error is very, very slim, in this case and in general. Indiana doesn't have the natural gifts other teams do, and when their offensive effort and execution fall off even slightly they are... a lot like a lot of other teams.
We're seeing the results of that lull play out right now, and they aren't pretty. Indiana is 2-6 in its last eight games and has failed to break 90 points in all but one them. Since the All-Star break, only the woeful 76ers are scoring fewer points per 100 possessions. The defense remains solid, but this major offensive drop-off has caused Indiana to fall out of first place in the East despite Miami's own struggles.
The Pacers are responding to this malaise by pointing fingers. Roy Hibbert called his teammates "selfish" over the weekend, although that calling-out didn't inspire anything more than another meek loss to the Spurs. There's some truth to Hibbert's words, but there's also truth to the idea that Hibbert himself is being selfish in his own way. The Pacers are dealing with a chicken/egg dilemma: Lazy execution is causing selfish outcomes, but selfish motives may explain that lazy execution.
Either way, the Pacers have to work harder on the unglamorous elements of their half-court offense. The Pacers have failed in three critical areas: setting screens, throwing on-target passes and spacing the floor. They've also had too many situations where a player either didn't know the play being called or blatantly ignored it. We're talking about one of the five starters, not newcomers. Evan Turner is still learning the playbook. The rest of the Pacers don't have that excuse.
That Indiana struggles so badly to set screens is particularly disappointing given their personnel. This play is a prime example:
The Pacers are running dueling curls for George Hill and Rasual Butler to get open, but both Hibbert and Luis Scola whiff on easy screens. The Pacers must reset the play, and it ends as follows:
That's a bad shot by Stephenson, but he would not have been put in a position to take it if Hibbert and Scola had nailed their assignments.
It's not just Hibbert and Scola, either. Look at this Paul George non-pick to get Hill back open for the swing pass:
What seems like a small thing begins a chain reaction. Hill can't get open, which leads to Stephenson and Hibbert not being on the same page on an ad-libbed pick-and-roll and a poor shot. It's an error that goes unnoticed by most, but it disrupts the timing of the entire play.
David West, too, is bad at screening. He has to stay set longer to nail Jarrett Jack here; because he doesn't, he gives Cleveland's defense a chance to easily close out on him:
How can a team this tough be so bad at setting screens? Fixing this problem is Indiana's first task.
From there, the Pacers can work on making better passes. Indiana's always had a turnover problem, but it also has issues throwing good passes for easier shots. Any shooter will tell you that it's easier to make jumpers when the pass is on target and in their hip pocket. This begins as an open shot for Hill, but it's turns into a difficult one because George's pass is too slow and forces Hill to reach back to his right to catch it:
This is the moment where the execution needs to be better if Indiana is to make a deep playoff run:
Because it's not, the timing of every play is a beat off. This certainly applies to post entry passes, one of Indiana's biggest weaknesses. The big men have at least some reason to gripe, because the guards do such a poor job of delivering the ball when their man is pinned. Hill must feed Hibbert at this very instant and not a split-second later when Hibbert is pushed too far from the basket:
These seem like small things, but they lead to bigger problems, more grumbling and further lack of trust. Without proper screening, passing and timing, a selfish play like this one from Stephenson happens more often:
So do sequences like this, which feature the perfect storm of recent Pacers errors: bad screening, awful spacing and George trying to do too much:
These are the intermediary steps that any good offense must perfect in order to get good shot attempts. To skip those steps is to take a shortcut. Take that shortcut, and your offensive limitations will show. And given that this shortcut doesn't lead anywhere the Pacers want to go, it would be best to go back to taking the long route.
We're seeing those limitations more and more clearly across the board over recent weeks. George is still very inexperienced in pick-and-roll situations, lacking vision to see secondary passing options, struggling to finish around the basket and too often crossing over to his right when it's not necessary. Now that his torrid mid-range shooting has subsided, he's too ineffective to be carrying this much of a ball-handling burden. Hibbert loses position too easily in the post and has trouble creating good looks close to the hoop. West is in a shooting slump and has lost a half-step, so he's not converting those little leaners as effectively. Stephenson is aggressive, but picks his spots poorly and has trouble getting to the basket in half-court situations because teams play off him and go under ball screens.
There are other problems, of course. Evan Turner has fit in poorly on both ends. Scola has aged past the point of effectiveness. C.J. Watson's injury forces Donald Sloan into too much action. Stephenson's fast-break forays, which helped carry Indiana's offense in the first half of the season, have completely disappeared. Hill continues to play too passively and still cannot throw an entry pass to save his life.
But it all comes back to the failure to execute the essential wheel-greasers of any offensive possession. Again: It's not clear if the chicken (selfishness explains the lackadaisical execution) or the egg (the poor execution leaves George and Stephenson thinking they must do it themselves) is more on point in this situation. If anything, it's a combination of both.
But to get back on the map, Indiana must get back to nailing those details. It'll pay to simplify things, remove the guards' tendency to try to do too much and make the big men lay some wood on screens. It'll help if Indiana remembers that George is best catching and shooting off screens and off-ball movement like this instead of creating with the ball in his hands. It'll also help if West and Hibbert regain the passing chemistry they had last season.
It might be extra work for everyone involved to have to run a more structured system, but the past few weeks have shown that the Pacers don't have enough offensive talent to do it any other way.
UNDER THE MICROSCOPE
We take a look at one player each week that is either struggling or has displayed strong skill development.
There was a lot of talk about Monta Ellis this week, from Kirk Goldsberry's huge feature on Grantland to this smart take by fellow basketball statistician Jeff Fogle suggesting Goldsberry overstated his claims. (I agree with Fogle on this one.) Everyone agrees, though, that the Mavericks' infrastructure has provided Ellis the kind of system needed to be a much more efficient player and an essential part of a good team.
It's how they've done it that's particularly impressive. The Mavericks realize that Ellis' biggest strength is his speed and his biggest weakness is his jumper -- specifically, his tendency to launch inefficient long two-point shots. They also had a firm handle on one of Ellis' other hidden strengths -- the ability to find the first passing read on a pick-and-roll -- and more subtle weakness -- the inability to find the second and third passing reads on a pick-and-roll.
Thus, they've redefined Ellis' role. He's almost strictly a pick-and-roll player, and a very specific one at that.
Whenever they can, the Mavericks want to get Ellis going with a running start, so that he's already at full speed when he comes off the pick. They don't set screens on the ball, they set them below the ball. That way, Ellis runs into them. He's already attacking, which helps fend off his natural tendency to shoot long jumpers.
The positioning here is key. Look how far back Ellis is:
These are both coming off a common Mavericks set play in which they'll decoy a pick-and-roll involving Dirk Nowitzki on one side, then quickly swing it back for Ellis to run into a pick-and-roll on the other. Lots of NBA teams run a similar version, but few have their receiving guard catch it this far away from the hoop. With all that space, Ellis can build up a full head of steam, hit the low pick and be flying toward the rim.
But this also happens on more traditional pick-and-rolls. Notice how Ellis has started his move way outside the three-point line as his screener sets up inside the line on this sequence:
Ellis zipped into the lane and made a quick read to kick out to Vince Carter for the spot-up three. Thanks to the play design, his decision was easy: drive all the way or pass to Carter. The roll man isn't even involved in the play beyond springing Ellis free. The hard work of getting him into the lane was done by positioning him 35 feet from the hoop and setting that lower screen to flatten his man.
Considering that it's Ellis' first year in Dallas, it's amazing how well the Mavericks are able to time some of these picks. This is bad defense by the woeful Kings, but I'm still impressed by how well-positioned Brandan Wright is to nail Travis Outlaw despite Ellis starting his move before Wright was in his spot:
And Ellis has developed particularly great chemistry with Nowitzki, which is impressive even though Nowitzki makes everyone better. One of my favorite sequences: Ellis will throw a lob pass to Nowitzki instead of using him as a screen, then race to take a dribble handoff that'll thrust him right to the rim. Nowitzki's man is always reluctant to leave him, so Ellis has lanes to attack. This was the ideal execution of said play:
Thus, Dallas uses Monta Ellis in the way an Arena Football team uses its wide receivers, giving him a head start so he is in full sprint when the play begins. Several teams -- or your own eyes -- can tell you from experience that you're not beating Monta Ellis in a full sprint.
Credit Rick Carlisle and the rest of the Mavericks for executing this plan. Dallas didn't necessarily get a star, but they've molded the very best Monta Ellis possible. That's great coaching.
10 other observations from the week that was.
1. The Spurs ... what more is there is to say. This is one of the prettiest sequences I've ever seen:
It looks like a dribble handoff, but Tim Duncan, knowing that the Nuggets will try to deny Tony Parker the ball, instead throws it to Tiago Splitter in the low post. Parker moves so quickly around the perimeter that Randy Foye is unable to pinch too far down from the opposite side. Parker gets by Ty Lawson, who was initially overplaying for the dribble handoff, and Splitter times the bounce pass perfectly. No other team in the NBA can do this.
And this Manu Ginobili pass... how did he see the backdoor cut develop?
With a starting five that's regaining the chemistry it had last year, plus Manu, a rejuvenated and essential Boris Diaw, sharp-shooter Marco Belinelli and pesky Patty Mills off the bench, the Spurs have no weaknesses heading into the postseason. Their system kept them afloat as they dealt with injuries to Splitter, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. Now that they're all back, San Antonio is playing its best at the right time.
2. Arbitrary end date alert: Dion Waiters is shooting 55 percent in the restricted area since March 1, compared to just 48 percent prior to that. This was always Waiters' problem. He'd come barreling into the lane after a strong drive, but be too out of control to finish properly.
Waiters has certainly become more selective with his out-of-control dashes, but he's also displayed some finishing creativity he hadn't flashed in his career thus far. Look at this nifty layup underneath Amir Johnson's arm in last Tuesday's game against the Raptors:
3. A pet peeve with Paul Millsap, who is otherwise a splendid player: He'll often pass out of a situation where he should shoot. For example:
The cynic in me wonders if this is his way of preserving his field-goal percentage. More likely, he's just very unselfish.
4. The Bobcats have so many different ways to get Al Jefferson the ball in the post, and they execute the details beautifully, whether it's timely cross-screens or pinpoint entry passes. (The possible first-round opponent that was written about extensively up top should take notes). This is my favorite of the many sets they use:
Look at all that motion! The Bobcats initially bluff a Gary Neal zipper cut, swing it back to Cody Zeller (or Josh McRoberts, should he be in the game), have him enter the ball to Jefferson so he can cut through; the other three players can space out on the perimeter, and then Luke Ridnour slides towards Jefferson's side as he makes his move. Jefferson is able to split Brooklyn's double team here, but if not, he has Ridnour wide open for three. Nifty work by Steve Clifford.
5. It was a little weird seeing Rashard Lewis get key crunch-time minutes in last Wednesday's Heat-Pacers thriller, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him again if the two teams meet in the postseason. Indiana's defense is very conservative, something the Suns exploited using Channing Frye's ability to stretch the floor as a power forward. Lewis can do that in tandem with Chris Bosh and has more size than the forgotten Shane Battier to guard West on the other end.
6. As Paul Flannery brilliantly noted, Doc Rivers has been all about the details with the Clippers. Here's a small change in what would have otherwise been a boring high pick-and-roll last year:
It begins in a HORNS alignment (two bigs at the elbows, two wings in the corners), with Chris Paul going left off what appears to be a Jared Dudley screen. But instead, Dudley immediately veers right and heads to the corner. As this happens, DeAndre Jordan comes from the other side and sets a screen for Paul going right. Vince Carter must help Nowitzki defend Dudley's cut, so he sinks down, opening up an easy pass to Matt Barnes. Nowitzki is still recovering, so Dudley is open in the corner for a three.
Rarely will Dudley be this open, but it's still an excellent secondary trigger on the play and it often diverts attention from the biggest threat: Paul coming to the middle of the floor off a screen.
7. Russell Westbrook has always been prone to concentration lapses defensively, but without Thabo Sefolosha or Kendrick Perkins in there to anticipate and cover up his activity, they've become more costly. It's a small thing, but watch this botched pick-and-roll coverage:
Nick Collison jumps out to divert Jose Calderon's path, which he does decently if not perfectly. When this happens, Westbrook is supposed to duck underneath Collison and stay down so he can meet Calderon before he turns the corner. In this case, Westbrook slams into Collison, then stands too upright, preventing him from properly recovering. Calderon therefore has a clear angle to spot Samuel Dalembert open underneath the hoop.
8. LaMarcus Aldridge has the prettiest right-shoulder turnaround jumper in the league, but he definitely falls in love with it. I enjoy when he instead goes middle for a hook shot, like he does here:
Aldridge has shown he's capable of taking the punishment to get to this spot, so why doesn't he accept it more often?
9. John Wall's growth as a pick-and-roll player has a lot to do with Marcin Gortat's soft hands, nimble feet and well-timed screens. Gortat's skill has convinced Wall to slow down instead of always charging hard at the rim, and the result has often been excellent. Here's four minutes of the duo shredding teams:
10. This was by far the weirdest ATO call of the season. A three for Timofey Mozgov? Brian Shaw was right: the Grizzlies didn't see it coming:
Those with a keen eye that also read Doug Eberhardt's column should be able to note the similarities between that play and the second Mike D'Antoni set from the Lakers-Grizzlies game in this piece. Except ... there's a difference between freeing Jordan Farmar, a capable three-point shooter, and setting up this shot for your center:
I'll never forget this moment.