Roy Hibbert and the Pacers' "Ground Game"

Big 5

 

Editor’s Note: The original version of this post was updated to include a few video clips of Tuesday night’s game against Sacramento.

NBA fans are getting more and more acquainted with The Five – the unreal starting lineup that has been dominating the league for almost two years now. Over the last 16 months, Pacers’ fans have been treated with an level of basketball by their starters that has been so ridiculously good, we have almost taken them for granted.

In fact, when I thought I started seeing some decline a few weeks ago, our own Tim Donahue laughed at me, asserting that the sample size of this blip of merely good rather than great play was too small to mean anything substantial.

However, something has been happening to The Five this year, and as the season progresses, the results are getting clearer and clearer:

The Five is no longer dominating teams at the beginnings of games.

Not that there should be much to worry about. The Pacers currently sit atop the league at 30-7 with only one home loss and the best point differential in the entire Association. Paul George and Roy Hibbert are certain All Stars, and one could easily make strong cases for both Lance Stephenson and David West to be included as well.

Still, the Pacers haven’t necessarily been stepping on their opponents’ throats to start games anymore. Often times, it’s not until The Five’s second extended run to end the first half, or even their opening 7 minutes of madness to break the game open in the third quarter that they really start imposing their will on their opponents.

But what has changed? Are the Pacers simply squarely on the radars of opposing teams now, causing them to start games playing at an unsustainable energy level? I’m sure that contributes to the issue at least a little bit. But there is a real, tangible reason for why the Pacers seem to be starting slowly this season – and it’s all a part of their plan.

Numbers for The Five: 2013-14 Season

   Off. Rating        Def. Rating        eFG%        TS%       Pace   
First Quarter

93.8         

92.4          

46.4%    

49.2%  

93.99   

Second Quarter

111.8         

101.9         

56.4%    

60.2%  

97.46   

Third Quarter

113.3         

84.8          

60%       

62.6%  

93.28   

Fourth Quarter

102.1         

99.7          

40.8%     

50.4%  

89.2    

Defensively, we know what the Pacers are – one of the five to ten greatest team defenses in basketball history. The distance between Indiana and everyone else defensively is about the same as the distance between LeBron James and every other basketball player on earth (it’s pretty large…).

The offense is a different story entirely. While Paul George and Lance Stephenson have improved tremendously, the Pacers’ offensive efficiency currently sits at 102.0 – a mark that lands them 18th, right at league average.

Interestingly enough, though, they aren’t always average. In the second and third quarters, the Pacers’ offense doesn’t just improve, it sky rockets. On the season, The Five’s second quarter efficiency mark sits at 111.8 – a number that would lead first place Portland by more than a point. They’ve been even better in the third quarter of games, posting a ridiculous 113.3 number that shows just how good they can be offensively.

But again, it’s the first quarter that remains a problem. On the year, The Five’s offensive efficiency sits at 93.8 in the first quarter of games. It’s almost impossible to state how low that number is, but I will just say that the lowly Milwaukee Bucks are even laughing at it.

Since Christmas, these numbers have become exaggerated. The last nine games are incredibly relevant because of Danny Granger’s return.  With #33 back in the fold, the probably playoff rotation has begun to round into shape.

Numbers for The Five: Last Nine Games

   Off. Rating        Def. Rating        eFG%        TS%       Pace   
First Quarter

88.7

93.4

44.6%

46.6%

92.47

Second Quarter

122.7

106.8

71.2%

68.7%

97.58

Third Quarter

113.4

88.5

 59.1%

63.2%

91.36

Fourth Quarter

85.8

100.4

37.1%

44.1%

 83.57

A closer look at some advanced numbers indicates the root cause of the problem – namely that the Pacers have a completely different offensive strategy in the first quarter than they do for the rest of the game.

Numbers for The Five: Last Nine Games Advanced Stats

  %FGA (2PT)  

  %PTS (2PT)  

  %PTS (2PT-MR)  

  %PTS (PITP)  

  FGM (%AST)  

  FGM (%UAST)  

First Quarter

84.8%

80.7%

23.9%

56.9%

56.3%

43.8%

Second Quarter

69.2%

47.8%

4.3%

43.5%

62.5%

37.5%

Third Quarter

82.8%

66.7%

23.6%

43.1%

61.8%

38.2%

Fourth Quarter

74.2%

62.5%

25.0%

37.5%

36.4%

63.6%

The first thing you might notice is that The Five has been opening games by scoring a far higher percentage of their points from inside the 3-pt. line. In fact, they score almost twice as high of a percentage from inside the arc in the first quarter as they do in the second. The “Points in the Paint” stat is even more interesting. After opening games by scoring almost 2/3 of the time near the basket, The Five gradually moves further and further away, dropping the percentage on each successive quarter.

The Pacers clearly are opening up games with a plan – to establish their physicality and size early. In a way, the Pacers have adopted a football-esque approach to the game. Football teams often open up games by trying to establish the running game. Many times, the running game is inefficient early on while the opposing defense is fresh and healthy. But as the game wears on, the defense will wear down. Usually, an established running game will open up the rest of the playbook as well.

No place is this more clear than the shot distribution of individuals. It’s not a surprise, after taking the above stats into consideration, that Roy Hibbert has led the team with 5 shot attempts a game in the first quarter since Christmas. Paul George and David West are second and third with 4.4 and 3.3 FGA respectively.

As the game wears on, the shot distribution starts to even out. Danny Granger actually leads the Pacers with shot attempts in the second quarter and then David West and Paul George shoot it five times apiece in the third. Once the Pacers get to the fourth where it’s time to close out the game, West and Hibbert fall to sixth and seventh in shots attempted.

Obviously, the fourth quarter stats are a little skewed. Both West and Hibbert typically sit to start the fourth, and many of the starters have been able to rest for long stretches during “crunch time” lately as the Pacers have blown several teams out.

But those first quarter numbers still jump out at you. Frank Vogel and the Pacers have decided to send a message to opposing teams and that message is clear: We are going to pound you tonight.

In this case, Vogel’s strategy has actually led to a slight decrease in overall efficiency in The Five’s first quarter play. As he’s done that, The Five has actually lost a little ground on some of the other five-man units in the NBA from where they were a year ago.

But it’s hard to say the trade-off hasn’t been worth it. The bench has undoubtedly benefited as Scola, Mahimni, Granger, and Watson have been able to attack more worn down units. The more tired Hibbert makes his man, the more space is left for George and Stephenson to start attacking later on. When the Pacers are able to establish their running game, everything else falls into place.

For those of you that are still unconvinced, just look at the two recent games when Hibbert was rendered ineffective – the games in Atlanta and Toronto. In Atlanta, Hibbert finished the first quarter with zero points while being lit up by Pero Antic; a week earlier, he was only able to play 21 minutes in Toronto because of foul trouble.

Great things happen, though, when he is able to assert himself early. Look no further than Tuesday night’s utter demolition of the improving Sacramento Kings. After a 3-point play on the first touch of the game, Hibbert was able to find George Hill and Paul George for easy layups on the next two plays. As Boogie Cousins appeared to be completely lost and outmatched defensively, the entire Pacers’ squad was able to score easier and easier.

You already knew the Big Fella ran the show on defense, but don’t underestimate his value on offense. Even when he’s missing baby hooks and clumsily catching the ball on dives to the basket, it’s all part of a much larger plan that winds up benefiting the Pacers in unique ways.

Don’t fret the slow starts. Enjoy watching Indy’s one of a kind ground and pound game.

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Tags: Early Hibbert

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