Apr 24, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Jeff Teague (0) shows emotion after making a shot against the Indiana Pacers in the fourth quarter in game three of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena. The Hawks defeated the Pacers 98-85. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Why the Pacers' Defensive Adjustments Might Be Their Downfall

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At half time of last night’s game, Atlanta was shooting 2-for-16 from beyond the arc. The Pacers had closed out on shooters well, but mainly, the Hawks were just missing shots.

Despite this terrible shooting, they still held a one-point lead.

This wasn’t an issue, however, as we know the Pacers have the ability to turn it up a notch in the second half, as highlighted by their 31-13 third quarter in Game 2. All they had to do to steal back home-court advantage was contain the Hawks’ shooters for another half and make some shots on the other end.

It wasn’t to be — largely because the Hawks shot 10-for-18 from beyond the arc in the second half, and won the game by 13.

There were some lucky shots: Jeff Teague hit a prayer at the end of the shot clock from behind the arc (after stepping out of bounds_ Paul Millsap banked in another, and Kyle Korver had a 4-point play. That stuff happens, and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s the makes that were caused my miscommunications on defense that are the real cause for concern.

Take this play for example: Paul George is guarding Demarre Carroll, but gets hammered on a screen by Mike Scott (#32, being guarded by David West). He fall behind the play, as shown in the picture, which leaves Roy Hibbert (who is guarding the ballhandler Paul Millsap) closest to Carroll.

carroll 3 one

As Hibbert gets tangled with Carroll, West assumes he has switched onto him, and picks up Millsap while George stays with Scott. Unfortunately Roy doesn’t realize any of this, and tries to recover back to Millsap.

As a result, Carroll is wide open.

Paul George, on the left wing checking Scott, is pointing this out, hoping for somebody to switch onto Carroll.

carroll 3 two

Nobody picks him up, and Carroll knocks down the wide open 3 while West and Hibbert double team a guy without the ball (Millsap).

caroll 3 gif

After game two, Zach Lowe published a piece at Grantland about how the Pacers had completely altered their pick-and-roll defense to fit the Hawks style of play. (Read the breakdown in full, but essentially they’re switching everything.) It explains the big adjustment Vogel made in Game 2 — and the one that has completely uprooted the staunch defensive system Indiana has spent years mastering.

He wrote that instead of the usual method – the big staying back while the guard recovered as he came over the top of the screen – the Pacers had instead tried switching, but with the player originally defending the ball handler, also staying with him for an extra couple of steps.

It appears that’s how they try to defend this next play.

It begins with Shelvin Mack setting an on-ball screen for Mike Scott. C.J. Watson (who is a few steps behind the play, having already been screened) is guarding Mack, and Luis Scola is guarding Scott.

You can see here that C.J. is beginning to switch on to Scott.

mack 3 one

Scola stays with Scott for a few steps after the “switch.”

He may have been trying to defend this with the method Lowe wrote about: staying with the ball handler for a couple of steps before switching, or it may be a miscommunication, and Scola didn’t realize he was supposed to switch.

mack 3 two

It’s probably the latter, as Scola makes no attempt to switch onto Mack, leaving C.J. to try and get back to him. He isn’t able to, and Mack hits the 3. One guy thought they were switching while the other did not.

mack 3 gif

Regardless of the exact defensive approach that was supposed to be employed, this marks the second time a Hawk was left wide open because Pacer defenders were not on the same page about the strategy. It has now cost them at least 6 points — and in this case, extended a more-manageable 9-point deficit to 12.

There was more.

After a missed free throw and West gambling for a steal in the back court, we see the Pacers hustle to match up when the Hawks bring the ball over half court.

George Hill is clearly guarding Korver (on the right wing), and both David West and Paul George run to pick up Teague – perhaps it’s to double team and force it out of his hands, or it could be yet another miscommunication.

korver 3 one

Teague dribbles out of it easily, so Lance slides down to help, and prevent the easy path to the rim. For some reason, Hill also moves way out of position to help off KYLE KORVER of all people, one pass away.

korver 3 two

Obviously he is unable to recover in time, and Kyle gets a wide open look at a 3. Bang.

korver 3 gif

Indiana had three players (West, George, Stephenson) on the right wing to try to contain two players (Teague and Antic). Still, Hill felt the need to drop all the way into the paint as part of his responsibility, leaving an open corner shooter.

Not leaving corner shooters is something that has been an explicit priority for years in Frank Vogel’s defense. It worked remarkably last year against the Knicks and has been a key reason that Indiana led the league — by far — in opponent 3-point percentage (32.7%). They fell to 4th best in that category this year (allowing teams to shoot 34.5%), but they were 2nd in the league before the All-Star break with a near-identical perentage (32.9%).

Yet here is Hill, abandoning that.

And worst of all, he is doing it not to stop a legitimate threat (Teague penetration that was well contained), but just because it’s what “feels right” when you are learning normal rotations. The reason “staying home” in the corner is hard is because it is counter intuitive to what you first learn. Your instincts tell you to help on penetration threats first.

Vogel has spent much of the past few years trying to pound this habit out of his players. In order to protect the arc so well, the Pacers’ players have had to spend the past few seasons unlearning those instincts and instead staying close to corner shooters.

Here, Hill is just lost. He didn’t do what he was supposed to nor did he help his teammates (because they didn’t even need help). This is his fault, it must be recognized, but when you look at all the switching and new schematic approaches Vogel is inserting mid-series against a 38-44 team, it becomes easier to understand all the miscommunication and blown assignments.

Again, read Zach Lowe’s breakdown of the switching strategy that Vogel began to use in Game 2. He shows it all very well.

But more than understanding the Xs and Os principles, know this: Essentially the rationale behind the adjustment is that, since Roy Hibbert can’t cover perimeter shooters, Indiana will change it’s entire approach to defending so that it can mask this limitation. This is all being done so that Roy can stay on the court.

And the collateral damage is that the Pacers — once a precision unit that simply didn’t blow assignments — are completely losing shooters through routine screens.

These weren’t crafty, creative offense plays out-foxing the Pacers. This was the Indiana Pacers, a team that was historically elite defensively two months ago, looking like JV players trying to deal with picks.

Here, we documented three instances (there were more) of this miscommunication and confusion that lead directly to 9 points just when the Pacers needed stops the most. These weren’t crafty, creative offense plays out-foxing the Pacers. This was the Indiana Pacers, a team that was historically elite defensively two months ago, looking like JV players trying to deal with picks.

And it was all done so that Hibbert, in the midst of the worst play of his career, can stay on the court. For that “benefit,” Vogel is confusing his players and destroying the fabric of a defensive system that, let’s be honest, is all this team has. He is ripping apart the things that really matter — sound defensive principles — to preserve something that doesn’t: Which players are on the court.

Instead, Vogel needs to realize that he has more talent on his roster than the Hawks do. By using the right personnel — whether that is Ian Mahinmi or Luis Scola or Chris Copeland or Rasual Butler or Solomon Hill — in the place of the one guy who cannot do his job in the proven defensive system, he wouldn’t have to change things so drastically.

Instead, he has, and everything is unraveling.

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Tags: Frank Vogel Indiana Pacers Roy Hibbert

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