Reinforcing the Defensive Fundamentals
Back to the basics.
That’s part of what the Pacers have emphasized in their first two practices ahead of Sunday’s clash with the Atlanta Hawks to open postseason play.
Just a couple weeks ago, the Pacers returned from a Western swing with four quality road wins. Then, they may have relaxed. They weren’t as crisp or they weren’t playing with the kind of energy, especially in the first half of games, that put them near the top of the Eastern Conference.
“Maybe we took a sigh of relief afterwards,” said David West, noting that their focus wasn’t as sharp. “We got to let that go. It’s a new season. Guys are re-focused, re-energized and we understand the stakes are higher.”
Before you can move forward, it’s important to look back at what went wrong to make the necessary changes.
A few concerning items from the Pacers’ last two weeks:
- They trailed by at least 20 points in every game.
- Their six opponents made an average of 47.8 percent of their shots, nearly six percent better than the Pacers allowed this season, on average.
- Those six opponents averaged over 101 points per game, about 11 points more than they gave up per game.
- They were outscored by 64 points and four of the five losses were by double digits.
Coach Vogel insists the last six games to close the season – five losses in that 13-day stretch – is an aberration and that they can turn the page. He said not to over-react. They weren’t.
“I’ve always had a great deal of confidence in our defense,” he said. “I know we had a couple games where we weren’t really sharp defensively but our defense has been solid all year.”
The Pacers’ defense ranks first in opponents’ field goal percentage (.420), three-point percentage (.327) and second in points allowed (90.7). They also remain the top rebounding team in the league (45.8).
George Hill and Roy Hibbert said Thursday and Friday were two of the best practices the team has had all year. They were dialed in and taking everything in stride, a good indication of where this team is at. These past two days have been about reinforcing the fundamentals that they got away from after returning form their trip out West.
What they haven’t been doing recently – pressuring the ball and containing drives, among others – were all addressed.
Against the Hawks, the Pacers are preparing for everything, with an emphasis on how they defend the pick-and-roll. Roy Hibbert, admittedly, isn’t great at it, mainly because of his lack of quickness. If guys have to help, the Hawks are the seventh-best 3-point shooting team in the league (.371) and have Kyle Korver along with other very capable outside shooters when left open (even Josh Smith).
“We’ve got coverages for it,” Vogel said. “We’ve seen pick-and-pop shooters all year. We’ve got a plan A, which is what we always do. Then plan B would be to have Roy [Hibbert] be more aggressive with it. We just got to execute it better.”
From the moment the ball is thrown up, the Pacers have to be locked in; again, something that hasn’t been done in April.
“As much as we’ve been struggling, we’re playing good basketball,” said Paul George, the leading scorer of the Pacers. “You talk about being down 20 and still having a chance to win the game. If we can just nip out the poor execution … we’re talking about those games could possibly be blowouts the way we’ve been playing in the second half.
“We know what team we got. We’re a confident group. Our thing is, we just can’t allow ourselves to get in that hole.”
Doug Collins, the head coach of the Philadelphia 76ers for three seasons before resigning this week, provided a great analysis of Indiana’s defense before the two teams played on Wednesday. Here’s his scouting report on the Pacers:
“They obviously are big, their schemes are very, very good. They defend the paint. They’re great at defending plays. They will lock in on you. And so with them, you have to get them moving around. You have to get [Roy] Hibbert moving, you have to get David West moving, make them play side-to-side. If you can rebound the ball you’ve got to try to get into transition against them, try to get some drag screens, some early offense. They’re going to post the ball, they’re going to play in the paint, they’re going to get to the free throw line, so the big thing for them is Frank [Vogel] has done a tremendous job. He’s developed the style of play that he wants. It’s a power team, it’s a team that’s going to defend. They’re a very good rebounding team. They’re streaky from behind the three. I think probably going into the playoffs one of the things I’m sure Frankie’s probably a little bit concerned about is defending a lot of pick-and-rolls because if you’re going to play them, you’re going to have to try to attack them in the pick-and-roll and try to spread them out, and try to get Hibbert involved in as many of those plays as you possibly can.”
One big question mark for the Pacers is what they can get out of their second unit. Ian Mahinmi has been solid most of the season inside, Tyler Hansbrough has been serviceable but especially effective as a starter, which isn’t happening. Jeff Pendergraph has been consistent and proven himself worthy of game action time and time again.
At the wing spot, Gerald Green has by far been the team’s most inconsistent player. One night he’ll go 2-for-8 and have a few mental lapses, and then the next game score 19 points in 23 minutes, as he did in the Pacers’ last meeting with the Hawks.
Some of the other questions – Will the bright lights and playoff stage be too big for rookie Orlando Johnson? What will D.J. Augustin provide or will they have to rotate having George Hill, Lance Stephenson and even Paul George bring up the ball? And what about Sam Young?
“It’s critical,” Vogel said of the bench. “You need a punch off of your bench, whether it’s defensive energy or some offensive scoring punch. Whatever they can do to come off the bench and change the game. You can’t advance in the playoffs with five guys playing well and nobody else.”
As for what the rotation might look like, Coach Vogel wouldn’t share – to no surprise. ”I have it in my mind pretty much what I want to do. Nothing is concrete and I probably won’t disclose that until we get started.”
George Hill is dealing with a sore left hip/groin injury that will be there through the playoffs. He participated in most of practice on Friday but trainers did pull Hill out to prevent him from reaggrevating it, again. Tyler Hansbrough mildly sprained an ankle in practice, but it isn’t a big concern or expected to sideline him. David West (lower back sprain) and Paul George (strained abdomen) are also playing through injuries.