This is something that has plagued this Pacers since Frank Vogel took over. In some ways, it is the natural by product of being on the few teams left in the NBA that tries to focus its offense on two post players. These days, with all the length and mobility of modern front-court players, the midrange and interior are often just clogged.
A good offense is designed to open it up with player and ball movement, so there will naturally be more difficulty doing that when you have both David West and Roy Hibbert on the court together.
Still, there is no excuse for Indiana to lose focus on spacing. In fact, since the Pacers face inherent spacing challenges that, say, Miami does not, they should be even more vigilant than most.
They most certainly are not, however.
Bad spacing is too commonplace and on full display in this possession against Memphis.
Indiana enters the ball on the left wing and it never leaves that side of the court. Instead we just have a few clustered-together guys making token screens for one another and tossing the ball around. Perhaps this set could have at least gotten Hill a better look at a 3-pointer if either Paul George or Hibbert had made any effort to really screen Mike Conley.
But who wants to bother with that?
Instead, Hill just gets the ball on the left wing and, with 11 left on the shot clock, settles for a shot that any team should be able to get at basically any time: a contested three with nobody in rebounding position.
In Hill’s defense it might have been the best shot they would have found on the play anyway.
Just look at the crummy spacing as he attempts the shot.
George, Hibbert and West and essentially playing Twister at the free-throw line while Lance Stephenson chills on the other wing. He isn’t involved in the play enough to help anything but he continues to just stand there, just close enough that his defender can be involved. Truly awful. Get to the corner at least so the middle of the court can remain free for West to be a target at the high post or Hill to try to penetrate.
Here’s another example.
The Pacers try to get Hibbert a post up on an inbounds play vs. Chicago.
The first problem is that, per usual, Hibbert can’t get deep position. Joakim Noah, a defensive force in all respects, ensures that Roy catches the ball far away from the block. Still, Hibbert gets on balance and looks poised to back him down — until Paul George meanders his way into the fray to clog up everything.
How is this a play?
Call it bad spacing, bad execution or — maybe — just bad eyesight by George.
The result; Hibbert throws up some nonsense that Joakim puts into the stands.
I’ll spare you the homework of watching video of every time the Pacers get overly clustered. But here’s another screen shot from a loss to the Cavs during The Struggle, showing the problem in an inverse sense.
Here’s Paul George, about 40 feet from the hoop and maybe 50 feet from the ball just standing there with both hands up, calling for the ball while Hill and West actually try to get a two-man game going.
Yes, Paul, you are wide open — because you’re not even remotely involved in the play. I suppose standing there is better than standing in the way, but you’re letting the Cavs play 5-on-4 right now. Lance, too, isn’t particularly involved in the set (though he gets a bit more leeway since he fell down in the back court and took awhile to catch up to his teammates).
Here’s one more, that shows a sad truth: Even when the Pacers have good spacing, they can find ways to screw it up.
Everyone stays in their own zones, and Stephenson uses this to his advantage to attack the soft middle. Ian Mahinmi’s defender can’t step up earlier because Mahinmi would be wide open on the baseline. Eventually, he has to stop the Lance threat, though, and Stephenson makes the obvious pass. Indian should get a layup. Instead, Ian was TOO spread out, and stepped on the endline.
This is sloppy, but more forgivable. Why? Because JUST LOOK at how good spacing and proper execution can work when all five players on the court are focused and precise.
It almost doesn’t even require a breakdown.
Everyone is moving fluidly, and the simple motion around the perimeter in the beginning of the set forces the defenders to follow. Hill passes to Roy and moves to the corner just as Paul George leaves. At the same time, West replaces Hill. There remain four guys around the perimeter as Roy gives the ball to West.
There are two passes but the ball is essentially back exactly where it started. Still, the movement and attention to spacing keeps the middle open — which is exactly when a great back screen from George is able to free Lance for a cut to the hoop. The lane is open and it’s the easiest shot Lance will take all game.
Now that’s basketball.
This one is even prettier.
Indiana passes the ball four times around the perimeter — to the right wing then back around to the left wing — as Paul George makes his way into the lane, ostensibly to set a back pick on Roy’s man. Hill looks there, but the better option is about to come as George pops to the top of the key through a West screen.
Everyone does his job and, most importantly, does it at the right time.
Timing. It can be everything, and it’s the attention to it that makes offenses like the Spurs so unstoppable. The Pacers can do it. They really can. There is certainly a lack of creativity in the sets at times, but the sets are generally good enough that they can yield good looks when run precisely.
It’s so simple. And so beautiful.
And the key is the perfect timing of the high screen from Hibbert while initiating the pick and roll with Paul George. As soon as PG pops up and makes the catch, Roy is there to catch Shawn Marion — who can’t do anything about it even though he knew it was coming. The timing was just too good.
The other key here is the great spacing. Watch Hill race to this spot after making the initial pass. See West get all the way down to the baseline to keep the whole heart of the lane free. And look at Lance. He never moves an inch after the pick and roll starts.
So after George makes the good split and penetrates — which forces Dirk to step up to help and Monta to drop to West — Stephenson is standing all by himself. PG doesn’t force the shot. He simply makes an easy kick to Stephenson.
He is wide open. He hits the shot. All because of proper timing and spacing.
“Everything that we’re doing wrong is correctable,” said David West after the Pacers got embarrassed by the Hawks recently. It sounded pretty stupid about an hour after Indiana had its worst offensive half in history.
But he is right.
It’s a simple, simple game, even in this complex league. Be in the right place and do the right thing at precisely the right time, and there isn’t a defense in the world that can stop it.
If the Pacers can their focus, this offense can be potent. We have seen them do it, in doses, in recent weeks. They beat Miami and Detroit by doing it often enough. They looked good even in loses to the Raptors and Heat for all but small sections that proved to be their undoing. And they often looked downright superb running their offense in a win over the Thunder — arguably their most important victory of the year.
So the question is whether the bad habits have become too ingrained to correct or if Indiana can maintain its focus and precision for long enough in playoff games to continue to advance.