The Extra Pass: Fixing Pacers offense not simple, easy

17 Comments

The Indiana Pacers are a mess.

A second place in the conference mess. The team’s month-long swoon — one that has gone from “oh, these stretches happen to every team” to “maybe we should really be worried here” — finally caught up with them when the Pacers’ loss to the Spurs Monday night allowed the Miami Heat to pass the Pacers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

A team that looked like a legit title contender the first months of the season has been 8-10 since March 1 and in the past couple weeks their game has smelled like organic fertilizer. The most points the Indiana Pacers have scored in their last five games is 84 (their lone win in that stretch, vs. Miami). Against the Spurs Monday night the Spurs put up 77 points on 37.7 percent shooting. It wasn’t pretty.

While the Pacers’ vaunted defense has slipped (102.1 points per 100 possessions in their last five games, 11 more than they surrendered on average in first 30 games of the season) it is their offense that has been painful to watch. In the first 30 games of the season they were scoring 103 points per 100 possessions, which wasn’t exceptional (would be 18th in the NBA for the season), but with their defense it was enough.

In their last five games the Pacers have scored just 85.8 points per 100 possessions. They are pointing fingers at each other over it.

The rut their offense is in, the problems in their game, are just not ones easily fixed. Here’s a short list.

• Lack of elite ball handling/shot creation. Against the Spurs 22.9 percent of the Pacers’ shots came from the pick-and-roll ball handler (the largest single way they generated shots), and they shot 5-of-14 on those and turned the ball over on 22.7 percent of those plays (stats via Synergy Sports). Because a lot of guys with questionable handles have the ball in their hands, when the defensive pressure picks up — as it did against the Spurs — they struggle. And that defensive pressure is only going to get more intense as we get into the playoffs.

• Early in the season the Pacers adjusted for that lack of ball handling by creating shots through good ball movement, spacing and moving better off the ball. Those days are gone. Their offense is often stagnant and too often guys seem to overload the strong side and not space the floor to create driving lanes. When they cut it seems to be going through the motions, not with a purpose. The Spurs in particular also did not really respect the three point shooting of the Pacers and packed the lane at points.

• The Pacer really miss C.J. Watson — the solid, veteran point guard has played just 8 minutes since March 4 due to a combination of elbow and hamstring issues. With him leading the way the Pacers bench had been a strong suit early in the season (or at least not the black hole it had been last season) and Watson was a key reason. He could be back within the next week and if so that would be a big boost — he can provide some of the ball handling they need, help stabalize the offense. He could also lead a bench where Luis Scola and Evan Turner have not looked good of late.

• The Pacers screen setting and use of screens has been unimpressive. The number of screens set where the guy setting the pick doesn’t make contact with the defender (because he rolls out too early or because the ball handler leaves space to get through) is entirely too high.

• Their slow pace of play lets the defense get set, so they get no easy baskets in transition.

• When Roy Hibbert talks about selfish players, he is talking about Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner. As Tom Haberstroh of ESPN pointed out on twitter, in the 149 minutes Turner and Hibbert had played together since the trade deadline move to bring Turner to Indiana, he has gotten one assist passing to Hibbert. One.

• Turner has not been a fit, he played less than 7 minutes against the Spurs. Meanwhile, Danny Granger has thrived in Los Angeles given more freedom in an offense and as he got his legs back under him (although he is out injured, and you have to wonder if he can stay healthy).

• The Pacers are not working inside out with Hibbert, not getting him the rock when he does establish position. That said, he’s grown frustrated and is now part of the problem, not the solution.

The list could go on, but you get the idea.

Indiana had made their offense work thanks to Paul George playing at an elite level, Lance Stephenson not being selfish (is it just me that thinks after the All-Star Game, and in a contract year, he has looked out for his numbers a lot more?) and some solid bench play. No more.

It’s not that they can’t get back to sharing the ball, spacing the floor, to hitting some of the jumpers they are missing now (which is an issue). They can. But can they do those things at a level that would lift them past the Miami Heat over the course of seven games? I picked the Pacers to do that (to win it all, actually) before the season but I’m no longer sold. I’m not sure they can fully pull out of this skid.

The good news is they have not only the next 16 days to figure it out, but also they have the first round of the playoffs (which in the East will essentially be a tune-up round against an inferior opponent, a team like Charlotte will fight but can’t beat even these Pacers).

However, if they can get back to a Game 7 against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, now that game will likely be in Miami (a team that has won 10 of their last 11 when Dwyane Wade sits and rests). The Pacers have surrendered their home court.

Not that it will matter if they keep playing like this.

Draymond Green is texting Joel Embiid advice during playoffs

Getty Images
Leave a comment

In Game 1 of their series, the Philadelphia 76ers — without Joel Embiid — blew the doors off the Miami Heat, winning by 27. It’s the kind of game that can lead a young team to overconfidence.

That’s when Draymond Green texted Joel Embiid some words of advice, reports Jessica Camerato of NBC Sports Philadelphia.

“Draymond texted me after the first game when we blew Miami out,” Embiid recalled Monday. “He basically told me that it’s not going to be the same in Game 2. They came back and they won that game.”

Green was right, but it’s one of the harder things for young players to understand, how much the ground can shift game-to-game in the playoffs. For the first four games especially, matchups and strategies will change night-to-night, and around Game 5 that tends to settle down and become more about execution (and talent).

For the Sixers, everything in their series changed with the return of Joel Embiid. Unhappily wearing a mask, Embiid’s defensive presence in the paint slows the Heat attack and allows things like Philly’s Game 4 comeback win on the road. Now Embiid’s about to make his home playoff debut in Game 5 Tuesday night, with a chance to close out the series.

“The atmosphere was amazing, it was insane,” Embiid said of the home crowd in Games 1 and 2. “After going to Miami, I felt like nothing compared to it. … We’ve been almost perfect [at home] since the beginning of the year. It just shows you how much we need them. Especially myself, I play better in that type of environment. I need the fans to get into it and push me. That makes me elevate my game.”

Beyond the first round, in an East where the expected best teams — Toronto and Cleveland — have looked vulnerable, the door is open.

“A lot of people say that we have a bright future, but I think our time is now,” Embiid said. “We have a pretty good chance. We have a special team, a lot of great guys. I don’t think we need anybody else. We’ve just got to work with what we have, and we have a special team. I feel like we have a pretty good chance to go far.

Jazz shut off Thunder in feisty Game 4 win

9 Comments

Jae Crowder threw an ejection-drawing elbow, and teammate Donovan Mitchell couldn’t contain his grin as he pulled Crowder from the scuffle.

Steven Adams took the elbow in the face, and he didn’t even flinch.

Both the Jazz and Thunder showed their competitiveness in Utah’s chippy 113-96 Game 4 win Monday. The difference: The Jazz delivered the blow. Oklahoma City took it.

Utah has won three straight to take a 3-1 lead in the first-round series. Teams without home-court advantage up 3-1 in a best-of-seven series have won it 89% of the time. Still, those leading teams lose Game 5 on the road 74% of the time. Game 5 of this series is Wednesday in Oklahoma City.

In other words: The Jazz have seized control of the series. They probably won’t close it out in Game 5 – though the way they’re playing, the certainly could.

Mitchell scored 33 points tonight, the first 30-point playoff game by a rookie since Brandon Jennings in 2010 (34 points). Mitchell has already scored 110 points this postseason, the most by a rookie since Harrison Barnes in 2013 (193 points). With Utah increasingly likely to advance, Mitchell has a chance to catch Dwyane Wade (234 points in 2004).

“He’s playing amazing,” Ricky Rubio said of Mitchell. “He doesn’t seem a rookie at all.”

Rubio, the star of Game 3, happily deferred to Mitchell tonight. Russell Westbrook‘s guarantee to shut down Rubio meant little, as Rubio set the tone as a passer. His eight assists don’t do him justice, as he made key passes that led to fouls drawn and other advantage situations for his teammates.

“We play as a team,” Rubio said.

Westbrook, on the other hand, looked out of control. He committed four first-half fouls, and though calls were questions, he also committed five turnovers and shot just 7-for-18. The question isn’t whether Westbrook was reckless. He was. The only debate is just how reckless.

Westbrook’s fervor hardly stood out. In addition to Crowder’s ejection, the game featured six other technical fouls – on Paul George, Quin Snyder, Steven Adams, Joe Ingles, Rudy Gobert and Raymond Felton. And there was even more trash-talking and physicality than whistled.

There just wasn’t nearly enough sustained production from the Thunder.

George (32 points on 9-of-21 shooting with six turnovers) had moments but was far too sloppy. Oklahoma City’s big three shot dreadfully from beyond the arc – Carmelo Anthony (0-for-6), Westbrook (0-for-3) and George (2-for-9).

Utah led by double digits the final 23 minutes. Joe Ingles made as many 3-pointers (5-for-11) as the Thunder combined (5-for-26).

Ingles is an excellent shooter, but the Jazz’s offense hummed and got him open looks. His outside shots are a bellwether – of a Utah team cruising.

Mitt Romney taunts Russell Westbrook after fourth foul

Getty Images
8 Comments

It’s been a glorious night for Utah Jazz fans.

In Game 4 the Jazz have taken care of the big three of the Thunder in what has been a very physical, chippy game (Jae Crowder even got ejected). Between their team going on big runs and the physical play of the game, the Utah crowd — one already with a reputation for verbal hostility toward opponents — has savored every second of it.

That includes former Massachusetts Governor, presidential candidate, and current Utah Senate candidate Mitt Romney, who reminded Russell Westbrook exactly how many fouls he picked up.

Twitter – which has its own reputation for verbal hostility — was not kind to Romney after this. Of course, he earned it with that outfit.

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

1 Comment

We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.