In Game 1 against the Washington Wizards, the Indiana Pacers scored 96 points. Although it wasn't enough to beat the Wizards this was the Pacers' third-highest total of the playoffs, and for an offense starved for success it seemed like a step back towards respectability.
But some ugly truths are hidden in that number. If we account for the fast pace of this game we find that the Pacers actually scored at a rate of just 96.1 points per 100 possessions, an average lower than the league-worst Philadelphia 76ers managed in the regular season and the Pacers' third-worst offensive performance of these playoffs.
In a mad scramble of fouls and desperation pull-ups, the Pacers also knocked down four three-pointers in the final 46 seconds of the game in trying to close a double-digit deficit. If we remove those random, chaotic possessions we find that the Pacers' offense managed just 88.4 points per 100 possessions across the rest of the game.
That total is an absolute disaster and a brutal indication that when it comes to their offensive problems the Pacers haven't solved anything.
The Pacers' extended struggles on offense come down to two key issues:
- The Pacers might not be playing an optimal offense for their collection of talent.
- They are poorly executing the less-than-desirable offense that they do have in place.
Last week, Tim Donahue of 8Points9Seconds.com described the way in which the very offensive landscape has changed right underneath them:
Lance and Paul have become more dominant, while George Hill has faded into the background. West is still their security blanket, but they don’t use him consistently or organically. Meanwhile, Hibbert continues to want more touches – really, shots – but there are fewer to go around. More importantly, just getting Hibbert the ball is a chore. Part of that is defensive focus, part of it is bad passing, and part of it is that Hibbert is so limited in where he can be effective offensively. At times, the entire offense stagnates, when they decide to force the ball to Roy.
The Pacers find themselves trying to play a physical inside-out game that doesn't necessarily emphasize their best offensive skills. Exacerbating the problem is that they've become increasingly sloppy at running that inside-out system.
Here, on their very first possession of Game 1, the Pacers are simultaneously running Paul George off a curl while David West and George Hill run a pick-and-roll on the opposite side of the floor. You'll notice Roy Hibbert camped out behind Marcin Gortat on the weak side for the entire possession:
There is no attempt to post Hibbert up. He's not setting screens for anyone, and playing behind Gortat in an effort to create some spacing means he's not even in position to compete for an offensive rebound. Also, note how Lance Stephenson collapses the Pacers' spacing by hovering just behind Hibbert instead of staying behind the three-point line.
Hibbert generally offers nothing in the way of spacing, and the entirety of his offensive contributions can be linked to his post scoring, offensive rebounding and screening. On the very first possession of the game the Pacers ran a set that asked him to do exactly none of those things.
In a scenario like this, Hibbert's presence on the floor is not only wasted but actually counterproductive because it brings another defender to the paint.
Watch these two pull-up jump shots from George. In each case there is no incentive to continue attacking the defense because Hibbert's defender is lurking, ready to challenge a shot at the rim:
Stephenson and George have had problems all season long with settling for inefficient, long two-pointers off the dribble, but it can be such a challenge for them to find space to drive that it is often the best available option.
On their second possession of the game, the Pacers struggle with trying to get Hibbert involved in another way. They end up with a weak-side pick-and-roll between him and Stephenson. Admittedly Stephenson takes a poor angle, but Hibbert completely whiffs on the pick and creates no opening for penetration.
As Hibbert receives the ball at the elbow, Nene is able to easily rotate down to him because West, who is not a three-point threat, is the player stationed at the top of the key.
Here, a few minutes later, the Pacers are isolating Stephenson on the wing. His sloppy ball-handling makes it a moot point, but the spacing here is absolutely horrific.
As Stephenson begins his move, Hibbert and West are both stationed on the opposite block putting their defenders in perfect position to challenge a shot at the rim. Adding insult to injury, George inbounds the ball and then just stands on the baseline watching, putting a fourth defender between Stephenson and the rim.
Even if Stephenson controls the ball and beats his man, there is nowhere to go. Ideally, George should be sprinting to the opposite corner and West should be moving to the elbow.
These handful of possessions do a great job of illustrating the issues the Pacers are struggling with.
The Pacers' best offensive players are George and Stephenson, but their effectiveness is often handicapped by playing in lineups with both Hibbert and West on the floor. Hibbert pulls extra defenders to the rim, while West sacrifices a narrow bit of spacing by not being a three-point threat. This chokes off driving lanes and pushes everything towards long two-pointers.
If the Pacers really want to maximize the offensive talent of Stephenson and George, then playing West and Hibbert together is the wrong strategy. The problem is that the Pacers don't have a lot of other options on the bench.
Ian Mahinmi and Luis Scola essentially duplicate the offensive skill sets of West and Hibbert, albeit slightly less effectively. Chris Copeland is an option, but playing him at power forward for spacing compromises the Pacers' defense at the other end.
This lack of options is one of the reasons Frank Vogel has been so stubborn about continuing to give minutes to West and Hibbert together. While they might not be the best option, they can work together.
But to make that combination work, someone, West or Hibbert, needs to touch the ball in the post on most if not all half-court possessions.
That doesn't mean every shot needs to be a Hibbert jump hook, but if the threat of their post-up ability isn't bending the defense then the Pacers have probably already lost the possession. In the past the Pacers have had success running high-low sets with West and Hibbert, and this might present the perfect solution to their apparent inability to make an entry pass.
In addition, if the Pacers are going to play West and Hibbert together then everything needs to be perfect around them. George and Stephenson need to properly space the floor, not float aimlessly around the lane. Screens need to be crisp and hard, and ball-handlers need to attack open space.
The Pacers' offense is not broken beyond repair. There are two obvious solutions: They can do things differently, or they can do things better. Right now they appear to have chosen neither.
Statistical support for this story from NBA.com/stats