What No One Seems to Understand About the Indiana Pacers

In the lead-up to the Pacers-Heat Eastern Conference Finals (beginning tonight), we’ve seen plenty of the “clash of polar opposites” storyline: Big (Indiana) vs. Small (Miami), Fast (Miami) vs. Slow (Indiana), Great team effort (Indiana) vs. Great individual players (Miami), Offense (Miami) vs. Defense (Indiana). It’s true, this matchup is, besides an obvious basketball one, an ideological one.

There are plenty of stats to back up whatever you want to think. The Pacers have the league’s most efficient defense at 96.6 points given up per 100 possessions. How can any team score on them? The Heat have the league’s most efficient offense at 110.3 points per 100 possessions. How can any team stop them? The Pacers won the season series 2-1. They have the matchup edge. The home team won every game of that regular-season series. Advantage Miami. The 2013 Pacers are better than last year’s team that pushed Miami to 6 games. The 2013 Heat are better than last year’s team that won the whole thing. Blah. Blah. Blah inspired by All-State.

But at the end of the meaningless pre-series rambling, there’s one thing that consistently stands out as true: No one knows anything about the way the Pacers play basketball.

And why should they? The Pacers are never on prime-time TV. They played their first playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks almost exclusively on NBA TV. ESPN’s Zach Lowe and Bill Simmons have particularly loved to call the Pacers boring and unworthy of any serious attention. I don’t know where I saw it, but I swear I remember reading something somewhere a quote along the lines of “If a tree fell in the middle of the Pacers-Hawks series, would it make a sound?”

roy-hibbert-block-indiana-pacers-logo-570x286Against New York, the Pacers were great, but reporters wrote way more about how the Knicks’ season was a failure or how the Knicks lost more than the Pacers won. And that’s fine. Defense doesn’t move the needle. Indiana doesn’t draw ratings.  They don’t have superstars; in fact, they hardly have stars. Pacers games aren’t as much fun to watch, but none of that matters in a basketball game.

You don’t get a 10-point head start because the MVP is on your team. You don’t get points for advertisements or sneaker deals. You still start the game at 0-0 and play one group of five guys against another group of five guys for 48 minutes. The Pacers don’t have any one player who is going to beat you by himself. They don’t have a one-man matchup problem like LeBron James or Dwyane Wade.

Here’s what they do have: a starting lineup with no defined identity.

And yes, that’s a good thing.

In the Pacers-Knicks series, we saw exactly what happens when a team decides who they are too early. New York was going to ride Carmelo for 20-30 shots per game no matter what happened. It didn’t matter that he was matched up against Paul George, one of the best defensive wings in the game. Carmelo was going to work his matchup over and over again, for better or worse. In that case, it was clearly for the worst.

The Pacers’ defense (especially the starting five) took advantage of the adjustmentless Knicks offense and put their best players in the right positions. With New York going small to space out the floor for an Anthony iso, big men Roy Hibbert and David West could basically give up on their strong-side defensive matchups to stay near the rim and offer a second layer of protection, should George get beat off the dribble.

What happened? Carmelo still led the Knicks in scoring, but he did so despite a horrendous shooting percentage and plenty of foul trouble brought on my forcing himself to maneuver near the rim and picking up charges.

When it was Indiana’s possession, they did exactly the opposite. And this is the beauty of the Pacers’ style.

David West DunkAgainst New York (and starting tonight against Miami), Indiana doesn’t have a player who is an offensive matchup problem. What they do have is a fifth-best offensive player with a definite advantage over his matchup. The Heat are going to let LeBron shoot 15-20 times a game even though Paul George is blanketing him. The Pacers are probably going to go after whoever is defended by the weakest defender. In the universe of the 10 players on the court, Indiana won’t have #1, but they’ll certainly make it rain against #10.

Indiana plays a versatile lineup with a range of in-game of matchup adjustments that lets them consistently take advantage of the worst player on the floor.

Most reporters or pseudo-analysts will say that the Pacers biggest flaw is that they don’t have a “go-to guy” or that they “don’t know who is taking the big shot.” But that’s exactly their strength. They’ll line up their five best players, look across at your five best players and abuse your weakness.

If you’ve read this blog for long, you should be expecting some data to back this up. Here it goes:

In the Pacers-Knicks series (six games) the Indiana had five different leading scorers. They responded to New York’s adjustments to keep the ball with the man whose matchup had foul trouble or a size disadvantage. And it worked beautifully. Here’s a breakdown of Indiana’s scoring leaders in that series:

  • Game 1: David West – 20 points
  • Game 2: Paul George – 20 points
  • Game 3: Roy Hibbert – 24 points
  • Game 4: George Hill – 26 points
  • Game 5: Paul George – 23 points
  • Game 6: Lance Stephenson – 25 points

Notice that the high number stays about the same each game, but the man scoring the points changes. It’s system scoring. In case you were wondering, Carmelo led the Knicks in scoring in all six games of the series.

What about other areas of the game? There’s more to basketball than just points scored. Great point, hypothetical reader. How about we take a look at another aspect of the offensive game – average field goal attempts per game that series:

  • Paul George – 16.5 FGA
  • George Hill – 13.6 FGA
  • David West – 11.8 FGA
  • Lance Stephenson – 10.3 FGA
  • Roy Hibbert – 10.3 FGA

The Pacers statistical “go-to” guy only shoots around 60% more than the fifth-best starter. Compare that to the Knicks this postseason with Anthony in front at 25.5 FGA and the next four taking 14.8, 13.5, 8.3 and 4.3 shots per game. That’s right, the difference between the first option and the fifth option was more than 20 shots a night, an increase of 493%.

For reference, the Heat are a bit more balanced, with LeBron leading at 15.4 FGA, an increase of only 154% over fifth option Mario Chalmers.

Win together, press conference together.

Win together, press conference together.

The Pacers even rebound as a team. They know where their teammates are and move opponents out of the way to allow their teammates to get boards. That’s why they led the Association in rebounding during the regular season. In the same way that the offense funnels shots to the best matchup, the defense funnels rebounds to the man in the right spot. Here’s a look at the Pacers rebounding leaders in the Knicks series:

  • Game 1: Lance Stephenson – 13 Reb
  • Game 2: Roy Hibbert – 12 Reb
  • Game 3: David West/Roy Hibbert – 12 Reb each
  • Game 4: Paul George – 14 Reb
  • Game 5: David West – 10 Reb
  • Game 6: Roy Hibbert – 12 Reb

The point is that you might look at the Pacers and call them unreliable or inconsistent. They don’t have a player capable of leading the team in scoring or rebounding every night.  They don’t have one person that they can rely on put up great numbers. And you’d be right, they don’t. They have five.

Frank Vogel and Paul GeorgeThe Pacers don’t have the best player in the Eastern Conference Finals. They might not even have the second or third best player. But five men play at a time and the difference between the Heat’s best and the Pacers best isn’t as important to Indiana as the difference between their worst player and the Heat’s fifth starter.

My favorite quote about the Indiana style came from coach Frank Vogel, who answered a question about Indy’s lack of a true “go-to “ scorer, reported here by the New York Times:

“The open man is our go-to guy. Our starting lineup in particular has five guys out there that can make plays in a number of different ways. That’s the beauty of our team.”

Constantly attacking the worst matchup might be ugly basketball, but it’s gotten Indiana this far. Against the Heat, the Pacers starters will probably start game 1 matched up with Paul George on LeBron James, Lance Stephenson on Dwyane Wade, George Hill on Mario Chalmers, Roy Hibbert or David West on Chris Bosh and the other big man on Udonis Haslem or Shane Battier, whoever the starter is. Assuming Bosh is responsible for Hibbert, you can expect the Pacers to pound the ball with West in those lineups.

If the Heat go small with Norris Cole or Ray Allen off the bench and move LeBron to West, expect Paul George or Lance Stephenson to get possessions. That’s just the way it works. And trust me, it works.