Playoff Capsule: Indiana Pacers

The Indiana Pacers, losers of four of their last five games, are limping into the playoffs. This season was an incredible success, built on the back of the best defense in the league. But their offense, inconsistent all season, has looked especially shaky lately. They still harbor aspirations of an extended playoff run, but they’ll have a lot of questions to answer about their ability to put points on the board.

If you haven’t seen much of the Pacers’ this season, here are a few things you should know about their approach at both ends of the floor.

Paul George – Still Better Off The Ball

In Danny Granger’s absence Paul George has taken on a much larger offensive role for the Pacers this season. This meant a lot more responsibility for creating shots and a lot more time with the ball in his hands, both in isolations and in pick-and-rolls. The quiet truth is that behind his noisy Most Improved Player campaign is that he hasn’t been particularly effective in either capacity. If you exclude his transition possessions this season, we find that he’s shooting just 39.4% in half-court possessions, per mySynergySports. In terms of scoring, George is still at his most efficient when he’s working off the ball – usually as a cutter or spot up shooter.

One way the Pacers have found to get him the ball in an opportunity to create, without the defensive pressure of a straight isolation or pick-and-roll, is to have him curl off screens to the free throw line. In most of their base sets George is stationed in one of the corners or somewhere along the baseline. As the ball comes across half-court he’ll get a screen right on the baseline or just below the elbow from either Roy Hibbert or David West. Either scenario allows him to catch the ball at the free throw line, with momentum, and a half-step on his defender. From there it’s usually a single step to the basket for a layup.

Here are a few examples:

David West – Offensive Fulcrum

West has had an incredible season and his versatile skill set is often the offensive fulcrum around which the Pacers’ offense is balanced. He was best known for his pick-and-pop game in New Orleans but this season isolations and post-ups have become his tools of choice. His size and strength allows him to take advantage of mismatches with smaller players, a powerful weapon against teams who try to gain an advantage with small-ball lineups. Against traditional post defenders West has shown a remarkable ability to create quality looks by facing up and taking his man off the dribble. Finally West has become an incredibly proficient passer, around the basket and from the top of the key. As defenses pay more attention to him in both the low and high posts, space opens up for spot-up shooters and cutters. The Pacers struggle to consistently create good looks in the half-court but West is one of the few options they can consistently rely on.

Here are a few examples:

Lance Stephenson – One Man Fastbreak

With all the challenges they face creating easy scoring opportunities in the half court, transition opportunities are a huge pressure release for the Pacers. You won’t find them among the league leaders in pace or fastbreak points, because they run very selectively. The key to that selectivity is often Lance Stephenson

Stephenson is an absolute freight train in the open-court capable of bulldozing his way to the basket or creating an opening for a teammate. He often creates a fastbreak out of nothing, taking a defensive rebound and sprinting past three or four defenders. He is the engine for the Pacers’ transition game – they average 8.9 fastbreak points per 48 minutes when he’s on the bench, and 13.9 when he’s on the floor. Regardless of the opponent, his ability to create transition offense with athleticism, physicality and pure will are going to be key to the Pacers’ chances.

Here are a few examples:

Defending The Pick-and-Roll

The most pressing issue for the Pacers in the playoffs is finding consistently efficient offense. But no matter how bad things get they’ll have one of the league’s best defenses of the past decade to fall back on. Their defense excels in many areas, but the foundation is forcing difficult shots. On the season the Pacers have forced their opponents into 2288 long two-pointers, the highest mark in the league. Their pick-and-roll approach is one of their key tools for forcing opponents into bad shots.

The Pacers’ bigs are almost always focused on containing penetration. In some cases this means hedging hard, in others it means backing off, but the first priority is always keeping opposing point guards out of the lane. This often leaves the screener open for a mid-range jumpshot, which to them is an acceptable loss. The Pacers are much more comfortable giving up an 18-footer to an opposing big, even a skilled shooter like Al Horford, than allowing the interior to be exposed. The wings also do a great job of knowing personnel and staying at home on shooters in the corner rather than rotating to that open big. The strategy may lead to some wide open jumpers, but the Pacers have picked their poison. Sticking to this plan consistently allows them to dictate the action as much as any defense in the league.

Here are a few examples:

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