The New York Knicks attempted just 11 three-pointers during Game 3 against the Indiana Pacers. In the regular season, they never once attempted fewer than 19 in any game. If you ask the Knicks, they say that it is their fault they aren’t getting as many good three-point looks as they grew accustomed to having in the regular season.
“Honestly, I think we’re doing it to ourselves,” said Knicks center Tyson Chandler. “I watched the tape myself and there’s open looks. We have to be willing passers. You have to sacrifice yourself sometimes for the betterment of the team, for the betterment of your teammates.”
There may be some truth to that. But the Pacers have also tailored their defensive strategy towards not allowing the Knicks to get clean looks from behind the arc.
“We’re following our plan,” said Indiana coach Frank Vogel at practice yesterday. “We’re trying to limit them from the three-point line, and I don’t think they’re really passing up open threes … They’re just not getting open threes.”
This isn’t new.
It is a game plan that is more important against the Knicks — the team that set an all-time NBA record for three-point attempts per game this season — but it is the same strategy the Pacers have employed all year: Don’t leave three-point shooters.
No team was better at it.
Indiana’s opponents shot just 32.7% from three-point range this season. The second-best three-point defense, the Memphis Grizzlies, yielded 33.8%, a significantly higher total. League average was 35.9%. (The Phoenix Suns were the worst in the NBA at 38.8%.)
It’s hard to overstate how impressive allowing just 32.7% is. Essentially, the Pacers make every team’s three-point attack as accurate as Dahntay Jones.
How do they do it specifically?
“It involves rotations, when to help, when not to help — and then when we do help, having the right coverages and rotations and knowing who their best shooters are.”
That’s the whole key: Knowing when to help and when to stay home.
It is a tough balance, but it is one that the Pacers’ starters have begun to master.
This was especially evident in Game 3.
In this clip from early in Game 3, the Knicks run a crafty play to get Ray Felton the ball on the left wing. He gets free on a screen from Tyson Chandler, who then turns and rolls dangerously towards the hoop. It’s clever action that mimics a pick-and-roll but is disguised as Felton pops out from the paint and then instantly attacks.
It takes George Hill out of the play momentarily. Thus, Roy Hibbert is forced to step up and deter Felton from getting a layup. He does so well enough that Ray decides not to shoot or toss the lob to Chandler.
As this is beginning, however, you can see that Paul George and David West are more focused on preventing their men — all the way on the other side of the court — from getting open behind the three-point line than they are on the more-immediate threat of Felton and Chandler.
In this situation, all of the basketball instincts that Paul George has learned over the past two decades he has spent playing this game tell him to rotate to Chandler. He is a giant, hulk of a man barreling to the rim and he looks to be pretty open. Felton probably could have tossed that lob. And as Felton continues to dribble around in the paint, those same instincts should be telling George to come help his teammates prevent Ray from scoring.
You can see him hedge that way.
But he doesn’t commit. He instead relies on the smaller George Hill to finally recover and contest the close shot. George’s priority, as you can tell by him raising his arms to prevent a possible kick out, is to stay with Carmelo Anthony.
It is counterintuitive to the way you would think defense should be played. Why would you rather have a player take a shot eight feet from the hoop than 24 feet from the hoop? Well, that 24-foot shot is worth one more point and, as league-wide numbers have shown for years now, the two shots probably have about the same likelihood of going in regardless of distance.
The Knicks, for example, shot 39.4% from between five and nine feet this season and 38.0% on above-the-break three-pointers, according to NBA.com.
When you add the 7’2″ Roy Hibbert protecting the rim into the equation, the choice becomes clear: The Pacers overwhelmingly prefer Ray Felton to take a contested eight-foot shot than for Carmelo Anthony (or anyone else) to take an open three-pointer.
While this play shows the strength of Indiana’s strategy, it also shows a vulnerability.
David West doesn’t remain as disciplined here. His instincts to protect the paint are even stronger than George’s. He often creeps further than he should on weakside help. Felton probably could have found Iman Shumpert for an open three here as West struggled to make up the distance and close out.
He is in no man’s land: Too far away to help on Felton, but too close to the paint to bother Shumpert from catching and shooting if a pass is made.
Then again, it would be a tough pass to make. Despite Shumpert relocating off the baseline to create a better angle, West is still manning the passing lane. He has been active and deflecting balls all postseason, so his position here may have been fine.
But if I’m Mike Woodson, I would prefer the kick out in this situation — even if the first pass isn’t crisp enough to get Shumpert the shot. There is still plenty of time on the shot clock, so there could be a swing to Carmelo and then over to Pablo Prigioni on the left wing. That is the type of ball movement that can decimate any defense playing any strategy.
Instead, they get fading one-hander from Felton with Hill contesting and Hibbert manning the inside rebounding real estate.
Here is a clip of Paul George doing the same thing in the second half.
Raymond Felton gets some separation in the pick-and-roll and probes for a driving angle on the right side. Paul George is standing right there. Normally, the wing defender there would provide some help.
It’s like George almost makes a point not to. He just turns around to face Felton, not to stop Ray from scoring but to prevent any possible passing angle for him to get the ball to Anthony behind the arc.
Here is Paul George again, refusing to leave Carmelo, even as Shumpert blows by West for a layup.
Here is another example of Indiana’s focus on staying near three-point shooters.
Now, no NBA team is going to be particularly worried about Tyson Chandler’s post game. There aren’t many (any?) coaches who would send a double team at the offensively challenged former Defensive Player of the Year. Especially if they had Roy Hibbert guarding him.
But here, Chandler establishes incredibly deep post position. He has both feet in the paint and Hibbert on his back.
Still, no Pacers rush to the paint. They stay home, only giving some token help as they realize Chandler is going up with the shot. Really, moving into position to get the rebound is the only thing that pulls them away from the four Knicks standing around the arc.
This is the Hibbert factor. Especially with Tyson, but also on penetration, the other Pacers are fine with not rushing to help on a ball handler attacking at the rim. They know the big fella adds a last line of defense. His ability to protect the hoop means that even layups are tough to convert, so the percentages still favor staying home on the shooters.
“Our best three-point-line defense is Roy Hibbert,” said Vogel. “What he gives us at the rim allows us to stay home on three-point shooters in the pick-and-roll game and push up on them when there are long closeouts.”
Chandler is seeing the result of that. With Indina’s defenders hugging New York’s shooters around the arc and Hibbert (and David West, when New York doesn’t play four smalls) rarely leaving the paint, there is always resistance inside. The only soft spot is the midrange, an area where Knicks players not named Carmelo become non-threatening.
“They’ve been really packing the paint and allowing us to take the free-throw-line jump shot [while] running us off threes,” said Chandler. “What we’re not doing a good job of right now is the draw-and-kick game, and that’s what we’ve been great at throughout the season. We’ve seen glimpses of it throughout the playoffs. When we’re at our best, we get in the paint and we find the open scorer.”
This clip shows one of the most extreme examples of an Indiana defender staying home no matter what. The Knicks run Pablo Prigioni through a maze of screens, which concludes with him taking a dribble handoff from from Amar’e Stoudemire. D.J. Augustin, who is chasing Pablo, gets completely taken out of the play by the crafty action.
Prigioni has a full head of steam and an open lane to the hoop.
Lance Stephenson (guarding Jason Kidd on the wing), Sam Young (guarding Shumpert near the baseline on the perimeter) and David West (guarding Kenyon Martin near the hoop) are all in normal help position. In a typical defensive rotation, Stephenson would be the one to slide over to stop Prigioni’s penetration.
But he doesn’t. Lance hedges towards Pablo, but decides to stay with Kidd. Prigioni is not a feared penetrator, so Stephenson is confident to leave the assignment to David West, who steps up in the paint to thwart the threat.
Naturally, this leaves his man, Martin, open.
Wide open. Right next to the hoop.
Again, a normal rotation in this situation says that Young should dive down to cut off a possible pass to Martin. There are two attacking threats in the paint, so the first inclination should be to shut both of those off.
Young doesn’t do that. He is too concerned about Shumpert in the corner.
Rather than rotating to help stop what is essentially a 2-on-1 against West, he is worried about a pass that may never happen to a shooter in the corner who might not ever make — or even take — the shot.
It’s a decision that costs the Pacers two points.
Prigioni makes the easy pass to Martin for an even easier dunk.
In the end, Sam Young did a great job at preventing the theoretical three-pointer, but not so much when it came to stopping the actual, real-life dunk.
While it’s easy to blame Young here, he was just doing what he thought was right. He was just sticking to the plan.
He just prioritized the two threats improperly.
And that is the dilemma Indiana’s defenders face: How do you know when to abandon the Stay Home Always philosophy and just make the common-sense help?
David West articulated the struggle well.
“One thing we just can’t get caught in is feeling like we have to stay at home, not help on penetration, help on post-ups and help on iso’s,” said West. “We have to do both. I thought we did a good job [in Game 3] of guarding against both: guarding the three-point line and being in help position, not allowing our guys to be iso’d.”
It’s tough to do against dynamic ball-handlers like Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith.
But it might be the most critical strategic factor in Game 4.
For the Knicks part, that will be the goal: Making the Pacers choose wrong. To do so, New York will have rely on the ball movement that Chandler didn’t see enough of in Game 3. They will have to penetrate and kick out. They will have to force the Pacers’ defenders to make a choice between helping and staying home — and they will have to do so precisely enough and with enough conviction that Indiana’s players choose poorly.
If they can do that and get Indiana guessing wrong often enough, then Carmelo could have a field day at the same time that the Knicks’ role players rain threes all night. If New York can’t do that, then the Pacers suffocating defense will likely make this another low-scoring game followed by another off day where the Knicks’ players sound increasingly frustrated.
This whole series could hinge on these difficult, split-second decisions that each Pacer defender will have to make countless times during Game 4.
Help or stay home?