The Indiana Pacers are viewed by many as the only team that has a something close to a chance against Miami in the Eastern Conference Playoffs, and it all starts with their rock solid defense. Indiana’s is the number one unit in the NBA on a point per possession basis, per NBA.com, ranking significantly better (2.1 points per 100 possessions) than Memphis, the second best team. The Pacers allow the lowest at the rim shooting percentage in the league and the second fewest corner three attempts. Their style and defensive swagger is a throwback to teams of the late-90s, while the schemes are cutting edge.
It all starts with personnel. Indiana’s starting lineup has played the most minutes of any five-man unit in the league and posted an incredible defensive efficiency of 94.4. As a reference point, the best team defensive rating posted in a season since the dawn of the three point era is 94.1 by the 2003-04 Spurs. Outside of Lance Stephenson, every player in the starting lineup is a plus player, and even Stephenson–prone to savvy off ball cuts–can recover with his athleticism. While the bench doesn’t feature as adept defenders on the perimeter, backup center Ian Mahinmi has been a mistake-nullifying rock along the back line.
Some of the time, Indiana can get stops with their personnel alone. Here’s an example of stelar individual defense from Paul George.
What’s the one sure fire way to stop a player from scoring on you? Well, don’t let them get the ball. That’s the most basic form of defense–ball denial.
In one of its most important forms, teams deny the ball from getting to the pick and roll roll man. Called stunting, a defender on the wing or in the corner crashes down onto the dive man while this man’s defender is denying penetration from the ball handler. This is often poorly executed–if done too late, the roller gets the ball and finishes or passes to the open perimeter man. If done too early, the wing/corner man gets the ball straight from the pick and roll ball handler and has an open three. While the corner man gets the ball in the situation in the above video, Gerald Green times it perfectly so that he can both deny the entry pass to the roller and recover quickly to contest the perimeter shot by the outlet man.
Another form of ball denial is fronting the post. The defender positions himself in front of the player he’s guarding rather than behind, in an effort to stop an entry pass from happening at all. If the man entering the ball to the post tries to lob it over the fronting defender, he has to deal with the seven-plus foot Roy Hibbert hanging around the basket. (Side note: the Pacers’ offense struggles with fronting defenses. Miami essentially nullified Indiana’s size advantage during the playoffs last year with fronting. This is how you beat the front)
George and point guard George Hill can bother perimeter players with their athleticism and Hibbert can do the same with his length inside. Of course, you can’t just rely on players using physical advantages to consistently make stops on the perimeter or in the lane; which brings us to the Pacers’ complex defensive schemes.
For every one of his missed layups (3rd worst at the rim percentage in the league), Roy Hibbert has forced three opponent misses.
As the primary pick and roll big man defender, Hibbert isn’t an aggressive hedger, preferring to hang back and zone off the paint. He can use his length to contest if the ball handler pulls up for a jumper. And really, that’s the ultimate shot to force: a fade away midrange jumper being contested by seven footer.
While I showed an example of them doing just this above, the Pacers are also loathe to rotate off shooters in the corner. Rather, they’re content with letting guards turn the corner and get into the lane–giving up contested floaters rather than open threes. In most defensive schemes one of the defenders in the corner will rotate into the middle, but the Pacers realize the value of the corner three and completely smother it.
Central to all this success is Hibbert. While his offensive regression has been disturbing and the thing that has caught most fans eye’s, his defensive improvements outweigh his steps back on the other end. Just having a player like Hibbert (and to a lesser extent, Mahinmi) protecting the rim allows Indiana to do a lot of the things they do.
The Pacers playing this way on defense is almost a given at this point; they’ve been doing it long enough that it’s no longer a trend, but a trait. Now the only question is whether or not the offense can step up to take them where they want to go in the playoffs. Will they be able integrate Danny Granger? Will they be able to successfully space the floor? Or will Miami just swarm them again? The answers to these questions will likely decide Indiana’s fate in the playoffs.