Today, Indiana is still a little old school in that it was starting two big men most of the season in All-Star Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner – albeit a more progressive pairing given Turner’s floor-spacing shot. But with Sabonis away from the Orlando Campus with plantar fasciitis, it’s now the Pacers’ turn to downsize in the wake of an injury and rediscover who they are and how they do things.
For the fourth time this decade, HEAT-Pacers is on deck. Let’s take a top-to-bottom look.
Not Quite New-School
Without Sabonis in Orlando and wing Jeremy Lamb out since earlier in the year with a significant knee injury, Nate McMillan’s move has been to start three guards in Aaron Holiday, Victor Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon, with wing T.J. Warren joining Turner in the frontcourt. It is, effectively, as small a regular starting lineup as the franchise as ever used.
And yet these Pacers aren’t exactly revolutionizing the game.
Before the NBA season was shut down in March the Pacers took 15.9 percent of their shots between the paint and the arc, a mark that trailed only the similarly retro San Antonio Spurs. Slotting another guard in place of Sabonis has dropped that number about three percent, with their three-point rate rising by about as much, but among the 22 teams in Orlando they still took those much-maligned long-two’s at the fifth-highest rate during seeding games.
This is not where we go into detail about the longest shots worth the least amount of points, perhaps the most-discussed topic in the league over the past decade. There’s a time and a place for those shots, particularly late in games when your probability of getting any points takes precedence over big-picture efficiency, but even more so when you have the players who can make those shots. Indiana has those players.
Curiously, the Pacers also have the players to make threes as well. Like the Spurs, they’re one of the better jump-shooting teams in the league that just doesn’t generate many looks from deep. Given Miami’s defense tends to allow threes at high-volume, Indiana could generate more opportunities should they push to do so.
The math does catch up to you, especially when you need to win four games instead of one game in the middle of a long regular season. And especially when you’re going up against the league’s most prolific shooting team in Miami.
If the Pacers want to take these shots, barring late-game situations, the HEAT won’t have much reason to defend them any differently. Drop back a bit to give the ballhandler a shooting pocket, stay close enough to contest, pinch in help to deter drives and if the shot goes in, it goes in.
There may come a game where Indiana hits enough of these to pace the offense, it’s even likely, but it’ll still mean they aren’t taking other shots. Especially if Miami is still managing a good contest.
After years of staying mostly inside the arc, Turner will make these tougher to defend thanks to his increased willingness and ability to pop out to the arc. But the spacing has to be right and the Pacers won’t want to rely on a steady diet of threes from a 34.4 percent shooter.
Of course, Miami will have another option. One they’ve been gearing up for.
Flip The Switch
When the HEAT traded for Andre Iguodala, Jae Crowder and Solomon Hill in February, they acquired switchable, defensive-minded wings for a roster specifically lacking depth in that area. With Meyers Leonard held out by an ankle injury at that time, Erik Spoelstra played the cards he had and started playing smaller, switch-friendly lineups. Before the trade deadline the HEAT ranked No. 24 in the league in switch frequency in pick-and-rolls. Since the deal with Memphis, they’ve vaulted all the way up to No. 6, exchanging perimeter matchups from one player to the next as often as the wing-heavy LA Clippers.
Then the season shut down and Leonard had plenty of time to heal up. Given that the starting lineup with Bam Adebayo playing alongside the floor-spacing Leonard was one of the best in the entire league, it made sense that once everyone was available again Spoelstra would return to the tried-and-true while keeping his deeper defensive flexibility in his back pocket. That didn’t happen. As soon as the bubble was up and running, Crowder was the starter at the second forward spot.
“A lot of [playoff] games are going to be played in the halfcourt,” Adebayo said. “You have to be able to switch to just cancel out schemes that they may have against our defense.”
Part of the equation, one imagines, simply has to do with the team’s depth. Coaches typically narrow their rotation to eight or nine players in the postseason, and a short rotation wouldn’t make it easy to play three centers now that Kelly Olynyk was playing better coming off his own knee injury the offseason before. That’s a difficult dance even during the regular season. In the playoffs, it’s a dance that can trip you up before the music even starts. Spoelstra simply adjusted before a costly postseason loss forced the change.
Whatever the process to getting here, here is that Miami now has lineups that can switch as regularly as any team that isn’t named the Houston Rockets. In Adebayo, they might have the best switching big in the league.
Why does switching matter in this series? The Pacers were No. 22 among all teams against the switch during the regular season. Without Sabonis during the seeding games, they were No. 20 out of the 22 invited teams. As one of the most isolation-adverse teams around, Indiana just doesn’t have the personnel to consistently attack switches if the offense flattens out. At least on paper. Turner, for all his length, produced an inefficient 0.83 points per post-up against guards. TJ Warren, scorching hot before the HEAT shut him down a week ago, can offer some trouble in that area but with him Miami can make help readily available when he puts the ball on the floor and force a player averaging 1.5 assists a game to find the open shooters around him. Can Warren sling the ball to the weakside corner if Miami is packing the paint in front of him?
Which brings us to Oladipo, who wanted nothing to do with an Adebayo switch here.
As promising a young All-Star as there was in the league two years ago, Oladipo was just a handful of games into his return from a ruptured quad tendon that kept him out over a year before the league was suspended in March. Just as Gordon Hayward endured for Boston last season, we’re likely still in the midst of Oladipo’s get-back-to-normal stretch. Oladipo has the talent to win a game outright yet thus far he’s been relatively inefficient everywhere but on pull-up two-point jumpers. You can never fault a player for returning slowly after such a difficult injury. That doesn’t change the case being that late-game possessions may come down to his ability to create offense in one-on-one situations. In 49 isolations since returning, Oladipo has produced 0.64 points per possession he either used or created an assist opportunity with.
The Possession Game
Without Sabonis, whether he was simply off the floor or out entirely due to injury, the Pacers have the worst rebounding rates on both sides of the ball. Even lower than a Houston team that has abandoned the use of players over 6-foot-7.
It’s what it is. Nobody wants to see injuries for their opponent under any circumstances, but this may be the HEAT’s single greatest area of advantage over the next two weeks. Rebounding variance is a thing – some games all those jumpers bounce a little longer than others – but it’s an advantage that may lead to multiple nights like last Monday where Miami took 14 more shots than their opponent thanks to 13 offensive rebounds. When you’re as efficient as the HEAT typically are, with all their shooters, and with Indiana taking their share of long two’s, the math is again in Miami’s favor. More possession, more potent possessions.
Chasing offensive boards hasn’t been a huge part of Miami’s identity this season, ranking No. 23 in that area, but that tends to be more of a philosophical choice more than anything else as coaches prefer to have players get back and defend in transition. Granted there were some personnel changes, but a year ago the HEAT ranked No. 6.
“There’s some layers to it,” Spoelstra said. “We want our guys being aggressive and we do want our guys that have a knack for the ball to continue to attack the rim. Offensive rebounding is one of those ways. We’ve worked on that actually since training camp. Even though we’re not one of the elite offensive rebounding teams, I think we do have some good habits.”
Sidenote: Spoelstra also mentioned that a weird hiccup in the team’s offensive rebounding is that they’ve been so good at shooting threes, Miami’s rebounders have to weigh the odds in real time if the shot even has a chance of missing. Why crash if Duncan Robinson seemingly never misses?
If the HEAT want to pound the glass a little more often they have the personnel, especially with hyper-athletes Adebayo and Derrick Jones Jr., to do so. Even if they don’t always come up with the ball, the more bodies Indiana has to commit to securing the miss, the fewer opportunities they’ll have to score in the open floor.
You’ll notice a theme by now that most everything we’re discussing is related in some way to the trickle-down effect an injury like Sabonis’ will cause. There’s no way around it. Coupled with the absence of Lamb, who was having his most productive season, Indiana’s depth is depleted.
With Warren on the floor in Orlando making every jumper that left his hand, Indiana has been plus-14.3 per 100 possessions.
When Warren has sat (165 minutes), the Pacers have been -13.6 per 100 possessions as their offensive rating plummets below 100 – basketball’s version of the Mendoza Line.
Last week it was the bench defense that was the issue, as Goran Dragic ran one pick-and-roll after another right at Doug McDermott. McDermott’s man, Jones Jr, reaped the benefits.
That’s the benefit of Kelly Olynyk. Indiana’s backup center, JaKarr Sampson, is the only size on the floor that Olynyk wouldn’t immediately try to seal off for an easy post-up. So with Olynyk’s shooting pulling Sampson out of the paint, it comes to the Pacers’ collection of guards and wings to be physical enough in pick-and-rolls to impede Jones Jr’s progress and disrupt timing.
Jones Jr’s status has yet to be determined after taking a scary hit on Friday, and there may even be games where he doesn’t play much should Indiana find a way to change things up. But bench vs. bench, the Pacers don’t have the length or athleticism to stop a lob headed his way if Dragic or Tyler Herro gets a passing angle. All that said, Justin Holiday and Doug McDermott will each get hot at some point. If they get hot in the same game, that’s enough to turn the tide.
The Big Question
If it sounds like Miami has things going in their favor heading into Game 1, they do. That tends to happen when similarly talented teams match up and one team is missing an All-Star. But Nate McMillan’s teams deserve respect because Nate McMillan’s teams play hard and defend.
Miami is not without its own questions to answer. We’ll learn quickly who the HEAT plan on starting at point guard, whether its longtime starter Kendrick Nunn or veteran Goran Dragic, but it’ll be more interesting to see who finishes. The HEAT played to an 8-1 overtime record that covered up some of the team’s late-game shortcomings – they were minus-31.2 per 100 possessions in clutch games that did not go to overtime, worst in the league – and playoff games often emulate the slowdown, half-court nature of those final minutes.
As Adebayo noted, Miami is today much better suited for those possession-by-possession minutes with their more flexible defensive lineups. Still, given the nature of the team’s roster with many players whose strengths tend to lean heavily one way or the other on the offense-defense spectrum, it remains unclear who those final five will be.
“It depends what kind of lineup they’re putting out there and how we match up with them,” Dragic said. “Probably we know at least 3-4 pieces that are going to be in there at the end of the game. From there on we’ll see what’s appropriate.”
Regardless of what the complete lineup looks like, it’ll be worth keeping an eye on what Miami ends up running in those just-find-points minutes. As potent as the team’s dribble handoffs are, the Toronto Raptors recently showed you can switch those and reduce possessions to individual efforts barring defensive breakdowns (which Adebayo is adept at manufacturing with a slipped screen or fake handoff). Whether its Butler, Dragic, Adebayo or anyone else, the team that was the least-efficient isolation offense of the postseason squads will have to grind out points in big moments. Butler’s ability to get to the charity stripe may be the key there.
This is HEAT-Pacers after all. There are going to be close games. Miami may carry a number of advantages into Tuesday’s game, one of which we haven’t mentioned is that they should consistently be the more physical side, but this remains this roster’s first foray together into the postseason. There’s no more revealing time on the NBA schedule. They’ll be learning about themselves, what their true strengths and weaknesses are in high-leverage situations, the same as everyone else. Learning doesn’t preclude you from winning, but there’s no skipping steps.