One quirk from the Nate McMillan’s Pacers to help the defense

Nate McMillan - Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Nate McMillan - Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports /

The Indiana Pacers have greatly struggled on defense in the last few years. In the previous three seasons (including the current campaign), the team has not been better than 17th among all teams in defensive rating.

This season, the Pacers’ defensive miscues are becoming more detrimental — magnified further during the team’s current seven-game losing streak. Head coach Rick Carlisle has repeatedly stressed the importance of the team improving defensively as a collective, but the results have been quite abysmal so far.

Of course, the personnel is now different. Still, Indiana has routinely been one of the best defensive teams in the association in the not-so-distant past when Nate McMillan, now manning the sidelines for the Atlanta Hawks, was still at the helm. In this piece, let’s take some bits from the Pacers’ defensive peak under the veteran coach that could give some insight on what the team needs to do to improve on the less glamorous end of the court.

Through the lens of Nate McMillan’s Pacers: How the 2022-23 Indiana Pacers can improve defensively?

The 2018-19 Indiana Pacers ranked third in defensive rating and were very good at limiting opportunities in the paint. One of McMillan’s (and then-assistant Dan Burke’s) longstanding defensive principles is aggressively tagging the pick-and-roll and jamming the lane to hinder the ball handler. Just look at how Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic, two players not known for their defense, made the Myles Turner block more possible just by occupying the lane.

In this play, Trae Young was open in the corner, but Thaddeus Young was in a good help position to make a seemingly easy pass look tougher due to his threat of anticipation. Ditto for Victor Oladipo, who’s appropriately stationed to intercept a potential pass to the other corner.

These two defensive tenets directly lead to two of the most abundant sources of points in the current NBA: at the rim and in the three-point line. The 2022-23 Pacers are 18th and 28th in those respective departments.

In comparison, the Pacers similarly tag the pick-and-roll here, and the weak side is ready to pack the lane, but TJ McConnell is late to rotate to the open wing shooter or pressure the pass. At the same time, Chris Duarte seemingly does the right thing, compensating and recovering to the open Jock Landale, but a lack of communication made the two double down on the big man and leave Duane Washington Jr. open for the easy three.

In a similar play, the Pacers correctly tag Jrue Holiday who now has to navigate over a  taller Aaron Nesmith to put up a shot. Bennedict Mathurin was in the right help position to back-up Nesmith (which he needed), but his passive stance on the pass allowed Holiday to easily swing the ball to the open Pat Connaughton, who calmly swished the trey.

Conversely, Myles Turner and Buddy Hield on the strong side were in correct angular positions and stationed properly to deter Holiday from passing.

What is this tiny bit important? Well, nowadays, defense is the art of making timely concessions. With how the offense is empowered in the game today, defenses have to be smarter than ever. Clearly, it’s much easier to take the right, calculated risks when players anticipate and communicate better. Alas, teams that fully embrace the small-ball —especially those that push the trend to its extremes like the Pacers — have to be scrappy on D.

While the 2022-23 Indiana Pacers don’t have the necessary physical assets to make their lives easier defensively, effort and communication are things within their control. Fortunately, these should eventually come with the ebbs and flows of a young team still finding their footing in the league.

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