Breaking down the Pacers’ Game 2 meltdown loss to the Celtics

Two playoff games with a disastrous quarter in each. What went wrong for the Indiana Pacers in the 4th quarter of Game 2?

Entering the fourth quarter, the Indiana Pacers held a 79-68 lead over the Boston Celtics. They seemed to have broken the hex which cursed the third quarter, scoring 29 (the same amount of points they scored in the second half of game one) and building an 11 point cushion in the third frame. Indy seemed primed to return home to Banker’s Life with the series knotted up, still with some hope that they could upset the mighty Celtics.

A 16-0 Boston run in the fourth quarter put that hope on life support. Indiana now trailed the Celtics 86-82. From that point on, the squads traded blows and the score remained tight.

But the final score reads 99-91, an eight-point defeat, vastly dwindling hopes of winning the series for Indiana. What went wrong? Let’s dive into the anatomy of one of the most embarrassing late-game meltdowns I can recall.

As we begin our journey back into the nightmare realm, the clock reads 3:08. Kyrie Irving has just sunk one of two free throws, giving the Celtics an 87-85 lead. Atop the key, Darren Collison passes to Myles Turner, who flows into a dribble handoff with Wesley Matthews.

On the baseline, Bojan Bogdanovic ostensibly is cross screening for Thaddeus Young but instead slips the screen. The slip bamboozled Gordon Hayward, who is now three steps behind a sprinting Bojan Bogdanovic running off of a pindown, which is, by all means, a death sentence. Bogey splashes the three, Pacers lead 88-87:

Kyrie Irving has destroyed the Pacers up to this point, finishing with 37 on the night and multiple heart-shattering daggers. The Pacers had been switching mostly everything in this game, but abandoned that tactic and elected to hedge Kyrie in order to take the ball out of his hands.

That is applicable on the next possession, as Matthews and Bogdanovic go to Kyrie while Gordon Hayward slips the screen he set for Irving. Bogdanovic doesn’t have the foot speed to recover and Hayward nails a wide open step back two. 89-88 Celtics:

The Indiana Pacers call “zipper fist,” a zipper cut into pick and roll. Bojan Bogdanovic starts on the block, then zipper cuts to the top of the key. I’m not sure why the Pacers even bothered with this, though. Pre-pick and roll motion is crucial to generate offensive flow and make the PNR more effective.

However, Turner doesn’t even set a screen for Bogdanovic and they jump straight into a stationary pick and roll. After hitting that last three, Bogdanovic was beginning to feel himself. Nate McMillan decides to let him isolate against Al Horford after he and Hayward switch the pick and roll.

This was a questionable decision for multiple reasons. First, Horford is the best switch big man in the NBA. Most perimeter players, Bogdanovic included, do not have an advantage against Horford one-on-one.

Second, though Bogdanovic is a capable perimeter creator, he is best moving off the ball, where his lethal shooting has massive gravity. Bojan Bogdanovic is a below average isolation scorer, due to his lack of athleticism and below average handle.

On the season, he averaged 0.76 points per possession on isolations, in the 32nd percentile. But on this play, Bogdanovic was in big head mode, as he drains a tightly contested step back triple in Horford’s eye. 91-89 Pacers:

Myles Turner’s improvement defending on the perimeter has elevated him to a level on defense, one that provides immeasurable value for the Pacers. In this game, Turner was fantastic on defense, protecting the rim and defending the perimeter. On this possession, Matthews and Collison contain Kyrie Irving’s drive.

Gordon Hayward looks to cut to the middle, but Bojan Bogdanovic takes it away. Boston swings the ball to Jaylen Brown and Indiana rotates well, leading to a one on one matchup between Brown and Turner. Turner’s newfound agility wins this round, sliding with Brown and pressuring his layup, forcing a miss:

Indy calls the exact same useless zipper fist, all resulting in another Bogdanovic isolation, this time against Hayward. Again, I question this call. After two clutch threes on back to back possessions, Bogdanovic was undoubtedly “on fire.” Getting him the ball is a good idea.

However, vanilla isolations for a poor isolation scorer are, once again, a poor idea. Bogdanovic seems to believe the rim has a 10-foot diameter, as he contorts himself in midair and throws up a boneheaded reverse layup in heavy traffic.

He clearly had no intentions of passing on this play, missing two wide-open shooters spotting up on the three-point line. A golden opportunity for Indiana to put this game out of reach squandered.

On Boston’s next possession, Jayson Tatum fires a quick corner three early in the shot clock which falls short. Indiana brings up the ball. Before this next play, I want you to guess what the Pacers are going to run here. Ignoring the fact you have likely (unfortunately) watched this before, if you guessed another zipper fist, you would be wrong!

The Pacers bust out a double staggered screen for Bogdanovic, which the Celtics switch. Al Horford ends up on Bogdanovic again with 10 seconds on the shot clock. I’ve lamented enough about Bogdanovic isolations against Horford at this point. Al concedes zero airspace to Bogdanovic on the shot and blocks his shot.

Wes Matthews looked like he wanted to set a flare screen for Darren Collison, but Bogdanovic was not looking to pass, again:

Jaylen Brown snags the rebound and pushes up the floor. When Myles Turner inexplicably helps off of the corner, Brown whizzes the pass out to Tatum, who drills the wide open three. 92-91 Celtics.

Indiana finally goes away from the Bogdanovic isolation trainwreck; it took Nate McMillan three possessions too many to figure out that was a bad idea. It’s the same pick and roll, but this time Bogdanovic swings to Turner when Horford hedges.

Turner has a wide-open three here, but decides to flow into a dribble handoff, which leads to an egregious Matthews three, whose green light is far, far too green. I understand Turner’s confidence may have been low after airballing a three earlier in the quarter, but he must shoot this ball. Indy can’t ask for a better look than an open three from a 39% three-point shooter:

On the biggest possession of the game, Boston goes back to the well, running the Kyrie-Tatum pick and slip. Tatum abuses Bogdanovic closing out on the catch, beating him middle. Darren Collision should not be helping here, as Tatum is driving right into the vicinity of Young.

Even if Young steps up, Tatum is a questionable playmaker, so a dump off to Horford in traffic may have been to difficult a pass to execute. Collision bails Tatum out, though, leaving Hayward wide open on the back door cut. 94-91 Celtics:

If there were any time for Nate McMillan to steal some of Brad Stevens’ after timeout play godliness, now was the time.

There is no way Wesley Matthews though Marcus Morris was on the Pacers and passed to him for that reason, so I’m not putting the blame all on him. This play is the collective fault of McMillan, Myles Turner, Matthews and Bojan Bogdanovic.

At this point, you probably expect me to excoriate McMillan for an awful play call. Heck, I expected that too before reviewing the tape. In fact, McMillan made a fantastic call, or at least I think.

The reason being the concept of this play comes seems to originate from a masterful end game ATO by the one and only Brad Stevens. Recognize this shot?

The cross-screen action between Avery Bradley and Jordan Crawford is a facade, as is them running off of Jeff Green and Kelly Olynyk at the elbow. Olynyk flares (or tries, LeBron isn’t ready to guard Green anyways because almost no coach would have the guts to dial up a pass this risky) for Green, who buries the corner three for the win.

Now, check the alignment of the infamous game two ATO. It is a tighter box than Boston’s alignment but the intended shooter is on the strong side elbow (Bogdanovic, Green) and his screener is stationed on the weak side elbow (Turner, Olynyk).

The pre-flare wrinkles are different, as Bogdanovic screens for Collision and Turner screens for McDermott.

In principle, I like this version better than Stevens’ iteration, since Bogdanovic screening before his flare gives him more space to run. However, there is a caveat: in this play, nobody sets screens. Bogdanovic doesn’t screen for Collision, Turner doesn’t screen for McDermott and Turner doesn’t set the crucial flare for Bogdanovic.

I have no idea why nobody screened, so I’ll chalk it up to poor coaching direction. It looks like Matthews was expecting Bogdanovic to flare off of Turner to the wing, rather than the corner, as the pass sails right to the spot where Bogdanovic would have been if the play ran correctly.

It is also possible Bogdanovic was supposed to curl off of Turner to the corner, like the Green shot, but ran too wide. Based on Matthews’ visceral reaction after the play, I am confident the idea was some sort of weak side lead pass, though it is all hypothesizing. Anyways, McMillan deserves credit here. A beautiful play ruined, and with it, the Pacers’ season:

Boston hit its free throws and walked away with the 99-91 victory, taking a commanding two-game lead heading to Indiana. The main takeaway here is the ineffectiveness of Nate McMillan’s end game play calling.

Revisit the first clip, that beautiful cross screen slipped into a pin down for the three. Where was that on the next three possessions? McMillan has to know his personnel and has to know isolating Bogdanovic three possessions in a row with no off-ball movement is asking for disaster. It’s not like McMillan can’t call effective end of game plays.

The perfect call for the situation–having Bogdanovic slip a ball screen–already existed in McMillan’s playbook. That play netted Bogdanovic a wide-open three late against the Knicks (We miss you, Vic!):

Now, Bogdanovic himself is not absolved of blame, as he has to have the intuition to make the right play in clutch moments. He had wide open shooters on that missed reverse who he wilfully ignored.

This game provides a cautionary tale of how poor playcalling and poor execution can doom a team, and, subsequently, doom the fate of an entire season.