The Extra Pass: Indiana’s Strange Success

7 Comments

The Extra Pass is a new daily column that’s designed to give you a better look at a theme, team, player or scheme that could use another glance. Today, we swing our attention to Indiana, where the Pacers are putting together one strange season.

I wish there were a more aesthetically pleasing comparison available, but the Indiana Pacers are the cockroaches of the NBA. They are an ugly team, scattered about on the offensive end, waiting for the shot clock to tick down to the skinnier numbers so they can rush to the rim for scraps. There is very little sex appeal or sophistication here — just resiliency.

You chop off their head, and they live for 35 games and counting. Last year’s leading scorer Danny Granger hasn’t played a single minute.

You take away what they’re looking for, and they find something else. 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert is shooting 40 percent from the field and averages less than 10 points a game.

You eliminate the new addition to their ranks, and they still keep coming. Gerald Green has an 8.2 PER, good for fifth worst in the league of players who average more than 20 minutes a night.

The Pacers are 29th in offensive efficiency, 28th in field goal percentage and 29th in points per game. They should be finished already, planning their trip to Secaucus, New Jersey to watch lottery balls bounce around with the rest of the inept offensive teams in the league.

But instead, the Pacers are 21-14, fourth in the Eastern Conference, and just three games back of a Miami Heat team they vanquished last night. Three games out of first place. The Indiana Pacers. With all that going on.

How?

The best defense can be a slow offense

The Pacers have evolved in the best way– they know that they’re terrible offensively without Granger (and with Hibbert missing layups), so they’ve adapted by helping themselves on the other end. The offense, as brutal as it may be, serves a purpose for the defense by playing purposefully slow.

The Pacers play at the league’s 25th slowest pace, but they also rank 10th in offensive rebounding percentage. The victory over Miami was a wonderful example of how these two things work together. The Pacers absolutely bled the clock with the lead, and combined with their 22 offensive rebounds, they made that 8-10 points feel like 18-20 instead. The opportunities for Miami to come back in the fourth quarter were extremely limited.

Of course, taking the air out of the ball, so to speak, would mean nothing if the Pacers weren’t defending the way they are. For as every bit as bad as they’ve been offensively, the Pacers have been even better defensively.

It starts inside

Hibbert has used his own struggles at the rim as a way to exact revenge on his opponents, blocking the third most shots in the league (2.7 a game) and altering countless others. From 9-feet and in, the Pacers hold their opponents to the league’s lowest shooting percentage.

Although Hibbert isn’t fleet of foot, he’s a space eater for a defense that rarely gambles (26th in turnover percentage). The Pacers as a whole are very conservative defensively — their guards like to go under screens, and their big men rarely hedge or trap on pick-and-rolls. As a result, the Pacers are rarely scrambling to recover or asking their bigs to make lightning quick rotations.

And although he’s not noted as a defensive force, David West uses that thick chest of his as the wall to Hibbert’s sentry tower arms — opposing power forwards notch a PER of 12.2 against West, and the Pacers are about 2.4 points better defensively per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor (and a whopping net 13.5 points overall).

Thanks to West and Hibbert, and the crazy size of Paul George, the Pacers are also the 6th best defensive rebounding team in the league. Opposing teams go one-and-done offensively quite a bit.

Length on the perimeter

Another thing the Pacers do extraordinarily well defensively is defend the 3-point line. The average team this year shoots around 35.7 percent from behind the arc, but the Pacers hold their opponents to a stingy 31.6 percent shooting. That’s the top number in the league, and the length of guys like George Hill (who owns a ridiculous 6-foot-9 wingspan), Lance Stephenson (6-foot-10 wingspan) and Paul George (near 7-foot-wingspan) play into that heavily. According to Synergy Sports, the Pacers are the number one defense in the league defending against spot-up jumpers — a testament to the ability of their wings to get a hand up and contest every shot.

Coach of the Year?

There’s a reason Frank Vogel just got a contract extension, folks. The Pacers have a lot of plus individual defenders, but no one in their right mind expected them to have the league’s most efficient defense 35 games in. This is a core that has benefitted a great deal from playing together, and give Vogel credit for allowing Indiana’s starting five (Hill-Stephenson-George-West-Hibbert) to play the second most minutes together of any unit in the league — even if Indiana’s bench has been a question mark ever since he grabbed the big seat. If Tom Thibodeau can win a Coach of the Year for the defense he brought to Chicago, Vogel should at least be seriously considered if this keeps up.

Thank you, David

And here’s the reason why it might not keep up. Indiana’s Dr. Jekyl defense and Mr. Hyde offense is unlike anything we’ve seen, but a very soft schedule certainly has played into that a bit. Indiana’s strength of schedule is dead last in the league, and their SRS, a rating that factors point differential into that equation, is just 15th. Although more recent wins against  Memphis, Milwaukee and Miami are impressive, their wins prior to that came against sub .500 clubs almost exclusively. Some regression should be expected as the quality of opponents spikes back up.

But even with that said, it’s tough to deny the staying power of the league’s most resilient team to date. Things can’t possibly get worse offensively, especially since Stephenson has made such a positive impact lately. With Granger targeting a February return, there is hope on the horizon.

It’s not often we see a contender so painfully one-dimensional, but if this defense holds on to the distinction of being the best in the league, the Pacers will be awfully hard to ignore any longer.

Kyrie Irving rubs salt in wound, gets 42nd point with behind-the-back ball fake (VIDEO)

Leave a comment

Kyrie Irving was awesome Tuesday night.

Unless you are a Boston Celtics fan, in which case it was hard to watch him carve up and embarrass your team for a career-best 42 points. He did a lot of that damage after rolling his ankle.

Particularly embarrassing was the final play of the game, when he drove past Marcus Smart and Kelly Olynyk, then went with the behind-the-back ball fake that burned Jae Crowder and opened up a lane for an uncontested layup.

Check out Irving’s entire night here.

Utah Utes forward Kyle Kuzma reportedly rising up draft boards

Getty Images
Leave a comment

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Kyle Kuzma wasn’t sure how things would play out when he announced plans in late March to test the NBA draft. The Utah Utes junior forward was well aware of the doubters and didn’t immediately hire an agent to keep open the option to return for his senior year.

A month later, Kuzma has hired an agent and is rising up the pre-draft rankings after a superb NBA combine and strong individual workouts. He’s considered an early to mid second round pick.

“I just got more confident, I’m not going to lie, throughout the whole process,” Kuzma said Tuesday. “Working out every day with the NBA ball and just imagining yourself down the road. Once I declared with an agent prior to the combine, people’s ears raised up. But I just knew it in my heart it was the right decision for me. Everything’s really falling in line right now. It’s looking good.”

The Flint, Michigan, native had a pre-draft workout with the Utah Jazz on Tuesday and continued to show evaluators an ability to shoot the ball from NBA 3-point range. Kuzma was named first-team All-Pac-12 after a 2016-17 season during which he averaged 16.4 points, 9.3 rebounds. The 6-foot-9, 223-pounder has a versatile game that allows him to handle the ball on the perimeter as a playmaker with good size, but he shot just 32.1 percent from behind the arc last season.

Kuzma turned heads with 20 points and four-for-five shooting on 3-pointers in his lone 5-on-5 scrimmage at the combine.

“I changed my jump shot up a little bit,” Kuzma said. “Being more fluid and more comfortable shooting the ball from the NBA 3. I feel like I’m more comfortable shooting from that 3 than from college 3 right now. A lot of people were surprised, but I really wasn’t. I put a lot of work into my game every single day.”

Kuzma had another quality workout Tuesday, according to Jazz vice president of player personnel Walt Perrin, and continued to shoot the ball well. Perrin said Kuzma was by far the best player at the six-man workout and that he wished he could have brought Kuzma in to face a more talented group.

The versatility of Kuzma’s game is a positive even though he falls into a tweener category – a little slight to be a true power forward and not quite quick enough to be a pure small forward. That may not matter in today’s NBA.

“We’re going more and more toward positionless players,” Perrin said. “You look at Golden State … they don’t have guys that play certain positions. They have the best players on their team playing. … We’ve gone to nobody posting up, basically, to everybody being able to put the ball on the floor and create shots on the perimeter, penetrate and kick to guys wide open in the corner for threes.

“The guys on the floor have to be able to guard their so-called position. And I think we’re looking more and more at that in terms of he can have an advantage on offense, but where is his disadvantage or advantage defensively?”

The Utes were well represented at the workout with forward David Collette joining the group.

The 6-foot-8, 220-pounder hasn’t hired an agent and is expected to return to school. Perrin couldn’t discuss Collette because of that, and he couldn’t talk to the media, but Kuzma said the rising senior showed off a newly refined midrange jump shot. The Utes will rely heavily on Collette as the lone returning starter, who averaged 13.6 points and 5.1 rebounds last season.

Utah will lose its best player to the NBA draft for a third consecutive season as Kuzma follows Jakob Poeltl and Delon Wright. The process has kept Kuzma smiling as he met childhood idol Magic Johnson, watched his stock rise and is on the verge of playing basketball for a living.

“I feel like you’ve got to be two feet in with everything you do,” Kuzma said. “I definitely looked at the pros and cons, but my heart was in getting to this level and trying to prove people wrong again like I’ve done my entire life.”

Celtics’ coach knows the difference in this series: LeBron James and Kyrie Irving

Getty Images
3 Comments

For 24 minutes Tuesday night, Boston showed Game 3 was not a fluke.

“I thought we played as well as we have played these entire playoffs in the first half,” Celtics coach Brad Steven said. “We were really good defensively. Offensively I thought we moved, and cut, and played together.

“Then, for whatever reason, all those things became a little bit more difficult. That’s what great teams do, they make it really hard on you.”

Whatever reason? What was the difference in this game?

Kyrie Irving and LeBron James, would be your two answers,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said.

Those two Cleveland All-Stars took over Game 4 Tuesday night for stretches — Irving in the third when he had 21, LeBron in the fourth — and for the game they combined for 76 points on 49 shots.

LeBron and Irving were they reason Cleveland won Game 4 Tuesday night, and they have been the difference in this series — Boston is a good team, but the Cavaliers have the two best players in this series (one could argue Kevin Love makes three) and the Celtics have no answer.

The Cavaliers are a championship team. However, they are not one that is not about the system, not one where their success is about franchise culture.

The Cavaliers are great because they have one of the game’s all-time great players, surrounded by a couple other All-Stars. They thrive by forcing teams to switch mismatches then going at right at them — Irving and LeBron were sixth and seventh in the NBA this season in percentage of isolation plays for them. Cleveland doesn’t run a motion offense like the Golden State team it will see in the finals, the Cavaliers are simple but efficient.

The mindset is straightforward: We have the better players, just try to stop us.

Boston had little success in this series playing that way — when Isaiah Thomas tried to pick apart the athletic Cavaliers defenders off the pick-and-roll both he and the Celtics struggled. Thomas had an offensive rating of 83 points per 100 possessions in this series before he was sidelined with an injury.

Without him, Boston had to rely on a more balanced, egalitarian offense — move the ball, move without the ball, find the open man, and trust him. The Celtics’ improved defense without Thomas was forcing more turnovers, and the Celtics were gang rebounding well. The result was a 123.4 points per 100 offensive rating in Game 3, then a decent 106.7 in Game 4 (despite the rough second half).

It just wasn’t enough.

Because the Cavaliers have LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. Two of the elite players in the NBA.

And in the NBA, talent wins out.

Charles Barkley tells Shaq he had to ride the coattails of Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade (VIDEO)

Twitter
14 Comments

Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley can sometimes get into it on TNT’s programming surrounding NBA games, but Tuesday night after the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Boston Celtics in Game 4, 112-99, was something different.

The two got testy — even more so than usual — as Barkley and Shaq traded insults.

Most notably, O’Neal went after the fact that Barkley only once made the NBA Finals, while Chuck told Shaq he had to ride the coattails of Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade to get his rings.

It felt at least partially real, especially if you watch Ernie Johnson’s reaction during the back-and-forth.

Via Twitter:

Game 4 was more interesting, but a 30 minute special where Chuck and Shaq actually do move the furniture and throw down might draw more viewers than these playoffs.