The Indiana Pacers are not exactly known for their offense. While they sport the stingiest defensive unit in the league, Frank Vogel’s team ranks just 18th overall in offensive efficiency at 102.0 points per 100 possessions, per NBA.com. Over the last month or so, however, that number has taken a big jump. Since March 1st, the Pacers have scored 105.8 points per 100 possessions, a rate that would place them 8th in the league – just behind the Houston Rockets and just ahead of the Los Angeles Lakers – had it marked their season’s effort.
In last night’s game against the Los Angeles Clippers, we saw some of the reasons why Indiana’s offense has improved of late. Creative sets with lots of screening, crisp ball movement, a dedication to hunting the best possible shot, and of course, shotmaking.
Early in the game, Indiana has the ball out of bounds in an awkward spot near the corner. This is not exactly conducive to getting the ball in bounds.
They line up with Paul George taking the ball out of bounds, Lance Stephenson, Roy Hibbert and David West stacked near the elbow, and George Hill above the free throw line. Stephenson takes off on a decoy route, curling around a double screen from Hibbert and West and clearing out to the opposite corner.
Hibbert and West then wheel around and set another stacked screen for Hill, who flashes to the wing where George can inbound the ball.
As Hibbert heads toward the free throw line, West comes back toward the baseline and sets a pin-down screen for the inbounder, George. This lets George get some space between himself and his defender, freeing him up to catch the ball near the top of the key.
As George catches, Hibbert changes course and sets a pick on George’s man, Caron Butler. At first, it seems as though the Clips will be able to trap George as he comes around the screen. Butler fights over the top of Hibbert’s pick and DeAndre Jordan is closing the gap fast.
Not so much. George splits the trap, leaving both Butler and Jordan in the dust and drawing the attention of Blake Griffin. Griffin slides over to prevent what would surely be a rim-rattling dunk by George, but in doing so, has to abandon David West.
With Griffin fully committed to shutting off George’s drive, it’s up to Chris Paul (up top, guarding Hill) or Willie Green (bottom, guarding Stephenson) to slide over and handle West. Stephenson stays put, protecting against the corner 3, while Paul makes a rather lazy stab at George’s bounce pass on its way through the lane, and West winds up with a layup.
Leading 49-38 late in the second quarter, Hill brings the ball up the middle of the court court. George is stationed on the left wing, West at the left elbow, while Hibbert and Stephenson are stacked near the right side of the lane.
West quickly screens George’s man and George takes off on one of those “Crazy 8s” type routes we often see from the Golden State Warriors. He takes West’s screen high side and curls it around through the lane toward the baseline. It’s a good decoy.
West winds up with space to catch the ball at the elbow as George comes around a double pin-down screen from Hibbert and Stephenson on the right side of the court. As he comes off, West has two options: deliver him the ball if he’s open, or wheel around and get the ball back to Hill, who cuts through the lane and back to the left wing.
The Clippers cover the pin-downs well enough that George doesn’t wind up open enough for a shot, so West swings the ball back to George on the wing and kicks off a side pick-and-roll. The Clippers, as most teams try to do with side pick-and-rolls, down it, trying to force the ball-handler back toward the baseline.
Griffin jumps out on the high side of the screen, hoping to cut off Hill’s lane to the middle of the court and redirect him back toward his own defender. West, though, slips his screen toward the baseline, giving him a big head start on Griffin and some wide open space to work with. The back side of the Clipper defense is about to be compromised.
Because Griffin was left so far out of position by West’s slip, Jordan has to rotate over to the corner to contest a possible West jumper. This draws Paul off Stephenson in the corner to help on Hibbert, flashing to the near side post. Stephenson takes advantage of the chaos by cutting baseline before Griffin can hustle all the way across the court, and he gets a layup for his troubles.
As we move to the third quarter with the Indiana lead down to 6 points, we see the Pacers take advantage of another situation where the Clippers try to down a side pick-and-roll. After a whole lot of preliminary ball and player movement, Hill and West get into a side screen-roll position on the right side of the court.
Again, Griffin jumps out on the high side of the screen, hoping to redirect Hill away from the lane and back toward his defender. Again, West slips the screen and heads toward the open space along the baseline. This time, though, Jordan rotates over early, getting there in time to solidly defend West in the post.
But again, the back line of the Clipper defense is compromised. Jordan sticks on West and Butler rotates down into the lane to cover Hibbert flashing near the rim. This leaves Green on an island covering both Stephenson and George. He should be splitting the difference and making both passes difficult, but he’s cheating a little bit toward Stephenson as a means to cut off the easier pass.
That’s mostly a fine strategy, and one that weak side defenders in his position will often employ. Defenses are mostly fine with the post player throwing a cross court pass all the way to the opposite corner because 1. it’s an incredibly difficult pass to make and 2. they think they can recover quickly enough to contest that shot. But Griffin is drawn too far away, and he sprints back to the wrong guy. Even though he sees Butler on Hibbert in the lane, that’s who he decides he’s going to cover. The confusion is just enough to ensure that Butler is a second too slow contesting George’s corner 3.
Later on the third quarter, the Pacers start their set in a familiar way. Hill passes the ball to Stephenson on the right wing then cuts toward the free throw line. Stephenson can either enter the ball to Hibbert on the right block or throw it back to West at the top of the key.
Hibbert gets pushed slightly off his optimal position on the block by Jordan, so Stephenson swings it back around. Hill, who had seemingly been cutting through the lane, pivots and wheels back around toward the left wing, where George had been stationed. George flashes down into the mid post, with good position on Caron Butler.
Here, we’ll get another communication problem involving Griffin. With George in the post, Hill slides over to the top of the key to clear space, while West hits his man with a killer back screen. Griffin fails to call it out, and…
George winds up with a wide open spot-up 3. As you can see in the video, Griffin is too busy ball-watching and doesn’t even see that he’s about to collide with Paul, let alone know that West is screening him. If his head’s on a swivel, this breakdown probably doesn’t happen.
Still in the third quarter, we see the Pacers run one of my personal favorites, the tic-tac-toe play (first video). Hill brings the ball up the left side of the court. Hibbert and West stack themselves on the right side of the lane, and Stephenson takes a brush screen from George near the left elbow and heads to the baseline.
George then wheels around and sets a screen for Hill, kicking off a 1-3 side pick-and-roll. Once again, the Clippers try to down it and force Hill away from the middle and back toward his own defend
Meanwhile, on the back side, Hibbert sets a little down screen for West to free him up near the elbow. This is another way to beat the trap: flash a big man to the high post.
Hibbert’s screen and West flashing to the elbow occupies both Clipper bigs, meaning neither one of them is in position to help on George as he rolls to the rim. As Hill turns the corner on Butler, who didn’t do the greatest job of downing that I’ve ever seen, George starts knifing through the lane. Butler is two steps behind.
Hill makes the pass to West at the elbow while George continues his cut through the lane. Hibbert’s screen knocks Griffin off course, so Jordan has to step out and guard West at the elbow. Because Butler is still two steps behind George, it should be Green’s responsibility to cut off the pass in the lane. He waits a little too long to crash down, as Stephenson drew him a step or two out of the lane by flashing from the block to the corner. As a result, West hits George with the pass, and George gets a layup.
Still later in the third quarter, with the Pacer lead extended to 14 points, we see George’s skill as an off-ball playmaker. Stephenson takes the ball out of bounds an passes to Hill at the top of the key. West and George are stacked along the left sideline, while Hibbert and Stephenson mirror their alignment on the right side. Here, George has another one of those “Crazy 8” option cuts.
Rather than coming off the high side of West’s screen, he opts to go baseline, where he now has a single-double, or “floppy” (about half way down the page) option. This means he can choose from taking West’s single screen on the left side or the double screen from Hibbert and Stephenson on the right.
George chooses the double screen on the right side of the court. As he comes around the corner, Matt Barnes is in lock-and-trail position, but not quite on George’s hip enough to bother him.
So George curls all the way around Stephenson into the middle of the lane, leaving Barnes in his wake. This draws Ryan Hollins off of Hibbert, and since Stephenson again flashes from the block to the corner, Jamal Crawford is in no position to help on Hibbert near the rim. George reads the defense and makes a nice dumpoff pass to Hibbert for an easy hoop.
Indiana’s defense cratered in the 4th quarter as they allowed the Clippers to put up 41 points. They struggled to figure out how to beat both a zone defense (for a time) and, in a flashback to last year’s postseason series against the Miami Heat, a man fronting one of their post players. But they were so good for three quarters that it wound up not mattering. They held on for a three-point, skin-of-their-teeth victory, aided somewhat by an uncalled foul on a Matt Barnes putback with under 10 seconds remaining. Indiana will take it though, as the victory allowed them to keep pace with the New York Knicks for the second seed in the Eastern Conference.