Indiana Pacers Clutch Time Woes And General Issues
Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Indiana Pacers failed to close out another close game against the Chicago Bulls on Tuesday. Indiana's hopes of pulling out a win against Chicago were ended at the hands of Jimmy Butler once again. Butler ran a pick-and-slip at the top of the key that caused a defensive miscommunication between George Hill and Paul George. Paul George followed Butler for a small portion of his path to the basket, but then he went out to prevent Nikola Mirotic from getting an open three-pointer. George Hill made a bad read on the play and shadowed Butler to the basket, leaving plenty of space for Butler to pull-up in mid-range, which is exactly what ended up happening. This broken defensive play resulted in a 98-96 loss.

Analyzing The Late Game Struggles

This is just the latest example of poor late game execution by the Pacers. Lack of late game execution has evolved into a major problem for the Pacers. In fact, the Pacers are just 17-21 this season in games decided by three points or less with less than a minute remaining. Indiana's 21-losses in games decided by three points or less with less than a minute remaining leads the NBA. The Pacers are even worse in overtime games. This season, the Pacers have a 1-7 record in overtime games. Successful playoff teams simply don't have these problems. With that being said, the Pacers need to do whatever it is in their power to clean up their late game execution woes before the playoffs start.

Indiana has gone through many poor late game strategies in final shot scenarios. The most popular for the majority of the season has been to give the ball to Monta Ellis on the top of the key and to let him make something happen with about five seconds left on the clock. This is a poor strategy because the Pacers do not space the interior of the floor well at all. This causes a lot of potential pressure from help-defenders that would not happen if there was proper floor spacing. That results in Ellis's man knowing that Ellis will be going for a pull-up in mid-range or an off the dribble perimeter jump shot. Since the defender knows that Ellis won't have space to make a quality drive to the basket, the defender will have plenty of additional freedom to contest Ellis's jump shot. All of that makes for terrible play-making conditions.

Indiana has used a few other methods to try and create quality shot attempts in late game situations. Whether it was by using off-ball screens and using off-ball movement to free up space for an open catch-and-shoot jump shot, or using an on-ball screen to free up space for the ball handler to make a play, nothing has worked. The numbers back this up as well. Indiana has shot 0-of-13 in the final 10-seconds of games with a scoring differential of three points or less. They have also shot 6-of-30 in the final 30-seconds of games with a scoring differential of three points or less. This failure has plagued their overtime performance as well; Indiana has shot just 1-of-8 during the final 10-seconds of their overtime games. These numbers pair with the eye test to conclude that the Pacers need Frank Vogel to find better methods of creating quality shots in crunch time.

Indiana typically has problems with teams that do not allow them to get transition points and early offensive looks. If the Pacers are forced to work their half-court offense, they struggle. In late game situations, teams almost always have to generate a shot from running their half-court offense. This is probably why the Pacers have found problems closing out games and executing on final shot situations. It seems as if the Pacers will continue to struggle closing out games until they figure out how to fix their half-court offense. Indiana seems to have defensive problems against spread teams since their big men are not fast enough to defend their man, play help-defense, defend on-ball screens, and make defensive rotations in general. No team is perfect and the Pacers clearly are not the exception to that rule. All of these issues have plagued the Pacers on both sides of the floor in clutch time situations.

Analyzing The Offensive Problems

Based on observations, it appears that one of the biggest problems with the Pacers offense is that they simply do not move well or quickly without the basketball. If players do not get to the proper spots on the court when they do not have the ball in their hands, they are really crippling the capabilities of the player that do have the ball in their hands. With poor floor spacing, it becomes very difficult for players to create quality offense with their ball handling ability. Bad floor spacing is a cancerous bad habit because it does the defense a favor by requiring less distance to cover in order to stop lane penetration. When there is less space to cover for a defense, there are very limited attack seams for the play-makers to exploit.

This becomes very problematic for a team with a small collection of quality outside shooters. With poor ball movement, poor spacing, poor off-ball movement, and a poor offensive structure in general, it makes it difficult for key players to make plays happen for their team. It is hard for players to create offense for themselves in mid-range and at the basket when anything that they do will consistently result in at least one defender tightly contesting their shot, not to mention, when there is less space to cover for the help-defense, there is a great possibility that two or even three defenders will be pressuring them. This will result in low offensive efficiency and plenty of turnovers, these types of turnovers and missed shots generally result in perfect fast break opportunities for the opposing team. Not that this player is the one that does this the most, but I see times where Paul George is three or more steps inside the three-point line and is leaning on his man. That’s a problem, because George is showing the defense that he is not a threat to do anything at that moment. Very rarely is there a time where a Pacers player is spacing the floor with quality fundamentals and is in a ready position to shoot a catch-and-shoot jump shot.

Not only that, but the off-ball players aren’t even filling spots beyond the 3-point line, as previously mentioned, this makes it easier for the help-defense since they have a shorter distance to go in order to stop drives and steal passes. The worst aspect of the team’s floor spacing would be from the interior. There are times when the Pacers have two big men just hovering on both blocks. This eliminates any legitimate possibility of having a quality drive to the basket without being met by a wall of defenders. Indiana’s big men need to occupy more of their spacing in the short corner and mid-range so that the team’s perimeter play-makers can not only get to the basket, but can set-up the big men for easy shots around the basket. Myles Turner, Jordan Hill, and Lavoy Allen are all quality mid-range shooters. There is no reason why the team can’t utilize the weak-side short corner or weak-side mid-range to free up plenty of space for the strong side to make plays. With the speed and ability that the top play-makers on the team have, Indiana could even utilize the strong-side short corner and mid-range if they were to do it correctly. Indiana has a few great play-makers on their roster (Paul George, Monta Ellis, and Ty Lawson), so they will almost always be able to make something happen if they are given the space to do so.

It is important that the Pacers not only use off-ball movement to give the player with the ball a quality situation to attack his man, but it is important that they are using off-ball movement to also generate easy shot attempts. Since the All-Star break, the Pacers appear to be doing a better job at getting quality shot attempts from moving without the ball, but there is still substantial improvement to be made. Indiana doesn’t utilize back-door cuts as much as they should. There are seams and opportunities for the team to exploit the opposing defense, but instead, the perimeter players tend to just stand there and wait for the ball to come to them. That could be fine if the players that are waiting off the ball are in a ready position to catch-and-shoot, but they typically literally just stand there and wait for the ball to come to them after a broken play.

Also, it seems that the Pacers really neglect opportunities to use off-ball screens in diverse ways. Practically the only way that the Pacers use off-ball screens is when the team is trying to create space for an open catch-and-shoot jump shot. There are plenty of other ways to use off-ball screens to generate quality shots, they don’t have to be exclusively for jump shots. This is especially the case when teams adapt to the strategy that the Pacers use with their off-ball screens. Whether it is with a single screen or a double screen, the screen typically happens when the focus of the screen is somewhere along the baseline or near the paint. That is great to do, but it shouldn’t be the only sequence of off-ball screening done by an offense. Indiana should look to use off-ball screens to set-up more than just catch-and-shoot jump shots.

Another strategy that works for good teams is to use off-ball screening to generate switches by the defense. Switches will often times give the offense miss-matches to exploit with individual offense. Since Indiana has quality perimeter play-makers, it would make plenty of sense to try and exploit the defense with their play-making ability from the perimeter. Indiana’s offense lacks proper timing and complexity, so it is no surprise that they do not properly utilize back screens and away screens. Back screening and away screening action forces a defense to pay for cheating on their principles, and in return, that opens up attacking seams for Indiana’s play-makers. A strategy with a diversified screening approach would really help the Pacers out since their opponents cheat on their defensive principles all in similar ways.

Another problem that the Pacers have is that they do not have quality ball movement in their half-court offense. It is difficult to generate opportunities for quality passes that exploit holes in the defense when you do not have a diversified approach that creates holes in the defense. Slow off-ball movement and bad spacing positioning makes it difficult to not only move the ball quickly, but to even find a teammate in a position to do something substantial with the ball once they receive it. At some point, an offense is going to have to force a defender to be out of position in order to attack. Whether that is from winning a 1-on-1 match-up, moving without the ball, setting a screen, or an offensive set, somebody will have to beat a defender at some point, or else you will end up taking difficult and contested shots. This has caused situations where they resort to throwing the ball to Paul George or Monta Ellis to take difficult “bail out” shots to beat the shot clock. Of course, poor off-ball movement isn't the only reason why the Pacers end up taking a significant amount of bad shots, but it is a big factor in that outcome.

The best teams in the NBA have advanced offenses where they utilize timed cuts and they actually cut hard. With the combination of a diversified cutting approach in off-ball movement and a diversified off-ball screening strategy, the best teams in the NBA are able to get quality shots and score at an efficient rate. Quicker and more calculated off-ball movement could help the Pacers mask their defficiency in perimeter shooting as well. Paul George, George Hill, and C.J. Miles have basically been the only above average shooters on the Pacers this season. Opposing teams don't respect Indiana's complimentary players in off-ball situations, besides George Hill and C.J. Miles, but if you get those players moving, then the play-makers would not have to make plays against a set defense. The result would be open seams in the defense that are quality situations for the play-makers to attack with their ball handling ability. These problematic tendencies have been prevalent during Frank Vogel’s tenure as head coach, which has led to a low scoring and inefficient team offense. At some point, Frank Vogel is going to have to formulate and implement a half-court offense that utilizes good habits and generates quality shot attempts on a consistent basis.

Below is a video that shows great examples of how to utilize offensive movement, screening, etc:

Analyzing The Defensive Problems

The Pacers have an array of defensive issues that they are currently facing as a team. Perhaps the largest problem would be their bad habit of not boxing out and being frail in rebounding situations. Teams have gotten far too many second chance opportunities because of these bad habits. Whether these offensive rebounds result in easy put-backs or simply an additional possession, Indiana is put at a major disadvantage since the opposing team gets easier shot attempts while the Pacers have to work for their shots. This issue is amplified because of the lack of quality structure and results that come from the Pacers half-court offense, so the shots that the Pacers get from their offense are far more difficult than the shots that the opposing team gets. This isn’t a hard task to execute, but it is a hard habit to break. It appears that making this a point in practice could help, however, it might be too late in the season to fix it.

The Pacers don’t have enough size or strength to rely on sheer force in rebounding situations, so the solution is to box out and be engaged with quality fundamentals. In past few games, the Pacers have displayed concerning spurts where there is a clear lack of effort as a team. Whether it is standing around in help-defense and the opposing team gets a pass executed that they really shouldn't have been able to do, or three Pacers players watch the ball come off the rim in a rebounding situation and allow an offense rebound, or even if a big man simply gets "frozen" in a pick-and-roll and allows the ball handler to blow right by him, The offensive side of the ball has had a lack of effort as well. There has been lazy screening, slow and pointless cuts that only hurt the offense, standing around on the perimeter as oppossed to doing some meaningful off-ball movement, etc. Effort has been an issue lately and that can't be the case this close to the playoffs. Now is the time for a committed effort to winning and making noise in the playoffs.

Frank Vogel made a few adjustments to the team’s rotation to cover up some of their deficiencies. Myles Turner was moved to the backup center position, Lavoy Allen has been promoted to the starting power forward position, Solomon Hill is now the backup power forward, and Jordan Hill is now out of the rotation. It appears that Solomon Hill will be on the floor at power forward when the team needs speed and then Lavoy Allen when the team needs size and traditional big man skills. Having a player with more speed like Solomon Hill at power forward could help with defending 4-out, 1-in in offenses. Also, this should help with pick-and-roll defense, help-defense, rebounding, and fast break defense. These are all areas that the team has really struggled with, particularly when facing small ball teams with at least one jump shooting big man. It helps that Solomon Hill prides himself on energy and being a defensive stopper. Energy and effort is a contagious thing, the hope is that Hill will spark and inspire his teammates to give the same effort that he does.

With Myles Turner at center, the team will now have a legitimate rim protector and weak side clean up guy. This is something that Jordan Hill cannot do well at all, which is largely why the team has moved him out of the rotation. These changes should help Myles Turner since he won’t have to use his speed nearly as often as he would at power forward. The only concern is if Myles Turner has to defend the post against bigger players, however, it is rare that a backup center will have a lethal enough post game for that to be a legitimate concern. It is unlikely that Turner would find himself on the floor at the same time as a physically imposing center with a post-game anyways, because those are rare players and they are almost always starters. Frank Vogel would certainly be careful about how he uses Turner and would likely favor playing Mahinmi over him in those situations. Turner has struggled when defending stretch big men when he has played the power forward position. But it is good that the center position has far less effective jump shooting players.

Also, centers are almost always the slowest players on the court, so Turner will have an easier situation in terms of defending his assignment on the perimeter and in the pick-and-roll. Another issue that could happen from these rotation changes would be Lavoy Allen’s ability to defend when they are facing a quality shooting big man with size. Allen doesn’t have great mobility so he could struggle defending players on the perimeter, making defensive rotations in time, defending the pick-and-roll, but on a positive note, it is not often that the team will have to face a stretch four that is too physically imposing to use Solomon Hill to effectively defend.

Having more speed in their front court is something that the Pacers genuinely need. George Hill, Monta Ellis, C.J. Miles, and Rodney Stuckey have all struggled to stop dribble penetration from the perimeter and defending the pick-and-roll. This causes problems for the front-court players since they have to determine whether or not they need to seal off the ball handler, or if they need to stay on their own man to prevent an easy dump off pass resulting in a likely score. So having a player like Solomon Hill with good speed at the power forward position will help with the team’s ability to play help-defense and recover from their mistakes on the perimeter. However, the team will not be getting this from Lavoy Allen since he is a traditional power forward that does not have great mobility.

With that being said, the effectiveness of the rotation changes will rely on how quickly Frank Vogel adjusts to what type of power forward the opposing team is using. These rotation changes will not help the perimeter players stay in front of their assignments on the perimeter, so not all of the problems will be solved from these adjustments. But, Myles Turner and Solomon Hill will be able to help in team defensive rotations to help the team recover from their defensive deficiencies. It will be interesting to see how often Solomon Hill will see time on the floor since he is the only player that fits the description of a small ball power forward. If nobody else is used as a small ball power forward, it appears that there is a great opportunity for Solomon Hill to receive a significant amount of minutes off the bench. The rest of the defensive problems will have to be addressed during the off-season since there is no way to fix them at this point of the season. To be fair, there really wasn’t much that the Pacers could have done in the off-season to improve in those areas. But for now, the team should look for Lavoy Allen and Solomon Hill to lead by example with their effort. Both players play with great effort, so hopefully their energy is contagious and the rest of the team follows their example.

First Game After Rotation Changes

Indiana managed to pull away late from the Philadelphia 76ers with 115-102 being the final score. It appears that the bench changes went as planned. The unit played with great speed and had an effective offense, in fact, the bench scored 61 points. The entire bench had quality performances on both sides of the ball. C.J. Miles had a game high 25 points Rodney Stuckey had 17 points, Myles Turner had 8 points, Solomon Hill had 6 points, and Ty Lawson had 5 points. The unit played with a cohesive style that showed potential. Lawson was an engine that helped the offense go. His play-making setup quality shot attempts for his teammates and it really helped the flow of the offense. Both units played a good all around game besides one area, perimeter defense. Philadelphia deserves credit for making some tough jump shots, but they were able to get open on a good number of their attempts as well. Philadelphia made 16 3-pointers as a team. Thinking about it, it is impressive for the Pacers to have managed to win by 13 points after allowing so many 3-pointers.

The Pacers had an efficient offense night despite their leader (Paul George) shooting 5-of-15 from the field. Indiana shot 44-of-84 (52.4%) from the field, 36-of-61 (59.0%) on 2-point field goals, 8-of-23 (34.8%) on 3-point field goals, and 19-of-23 (82.6%) from the free throw line. Indiana was incredibly efficient as a team in every area besides their 3-point shooting, which is great to see for a team that just made changes to their rotation. Indiana had quality ball movement and it showed in their assists numbers as they had 27 assists on the night. The Pacers did a solid job of taking care of the ball as they had 13 turnovers. With it all said and done, the Pacers scored 115 points as a team and they did efficiently. It is safe to say that their star will get back on track when he recovers from ankle problems. The Pacers dominated the paint as they had 52 points in the paint. Indiana did a great job of getting into the paint with lane penetration and ball movement, but the best part about it was that they actually executed once they got into the paint. But of course, they faced a team with 9-wins on the season, but regardless, this game showed that the team has offensive potential.

Indiana's defense was effective, but as previously mentioned, Philadelphia managed to make a concerning amount of perimeter jumpers. Philadelphia was held to shooting 34-of-83 (41.0%) from the field, 18-of-46 (39.1%) on 2-point field goals, 16-of-37 (43.2%) from the perimeter, and 16-of-46 (39.1%) from the free throw line. The 76ers had 16 turnovers and 9 of them were steals by the Pacers. Indiana was effective with their speed as they had 18 fast break points, which was a large contributor to their 23 points off turnovers. The rotation changes still left the Pacers with some shot blocking, they had 4 blocks on the night. But the biggest difference was the fact that the Pacers won the rebounding battle. Indiana had 42 defensive rebounds and 6 offensive rebounds, meanwhile, Philadelphia had 30 defensive rebounds and 8 offensive rebounds. Indiana has had a problem with allowing double-digit offensive rebounds, but they did a better job of boxing out and playing with energy.

Believe it or not, but the starting lineup played relatively well. Monta Ellis had an efficient 12 points, six assists, two rebounds, and one steal. George Hill had an effecient night overall, he had 11 points, 4 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 steal. Ian Mahinmi had a great game with his 12 rebounds, nine points, one steal, and one block. Paul George struggled with his efficiency scoring the ball, but he ended up with 20 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, and one steal. George has been dealing with complications from his ankle injury, so his lack of elevation on his shot and reduced athleticism is likely a result of this problem. George has been dealing with this issue since the game against the Brooklyn Nets. The effectiveness of the starting lineup will most certainly increase as George is able to get healthy from his ankle issue. Lavoy Allen didn't get the opportunity to play much since the 76ers went to a smaller lineup, but the unit did not play well with him on the floor. Look for the team to continue to build around this rotation for at least the next few games. As mentioned earlier, the starting lineup should increase in effectiveness as Paul George gets closer to being healthy.

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