The Fundamentals: Indy finds its way
As Russell Westbrook dominated, Anthony Davis soared, LeBron James flexed, Marc Gasol pushed ahead, DeAndre Jordan froze, and Tyler Zeller beat the buzzer on Wednesday night, the Indiana Pacers were off in their own corner taking care of business. Their game against the Knicks was more or less decided in a 30-19 first quarter. The margin thereafter was never a point slimmer. Yet all the while Indiana did its diligence, pushing its lead to 30 in the early fourth before riding out an eventual 23-point victory.
Beating the derelict Knicks is no feat worth remarking upon. Indiana's lasting surge, however, warrants some consideration. The Pacers are now winners of 10 of their last 13, having bested the Warriors and Cavs (twice) and feasted on weaker competition. In doing so they've salvaged a season once in ruin; with that 13-game stretch alone, Indiana pushed its way from 12th place in the East to ninth with a mere half-game currently standing between the Pacers and playoff qualification.
This hardly seemed possible as recently as mid-January. It was then that Indiana's blight hit a new low when—in the midst of a seven-game losing streak—the Pacers dropped back-to-back games against the Sixers and Wolves, owners of two of the league's three worst records. Injuries to Paul George, George Hill, and David West appeared to cripple the Pacers beyond immediate repair.
Frank Vogel took that opportunity to work what by even this skeptical eye amounts to magic. More than 40 percent of Indiana's wins this season have come in the past month or so:
Better yet, those wins have come through utterly decisive means. The defense isn't quite peak Pacers at the moment, but it's strong enough to apply slow, constricting pressure. Roy Hibbert and the ever-underrated Ian Mahinmi pinch any opponent who comes middle with their towering vertical extension. George Hill, now back in the lineup full time after missing 39 games to injury, envelops his mark with well-applied length. Everything else is held together by duct tape and Vogel's word. His coaching is equally empowering in its scheme and resolution.
Vogel was named the Eastern Conference coach of the month after the Pacers' 7-2 performance in February, though that arbitrary honor doesn't do his work justice. The man has made a workable, high-level defense without George, without Hill for an extended stretch, and against the grain of David West's decline. He's incorporated Rodney Stuckey and C.J. Miles as significant replacements for superior defenders and survived the exchange. As the season has worn on, the Pacers have only grown sharper through better health and impressed fundamentals.
Vogel makes it all work. George is the face of the Pacers' defense and Hibbert the backbone. Yet with the former out entirely and the latter inconsistent, Vogel has adjusted to keep the Pacers oppressive. To wit: Over these last 13 games, Indiana has forced its opponents into the kind of impotence the Pacers themselves demonstrated to start the season.
Indiana's transformation on offense, however, has been as dramatic as any in the league. For long stretches of the early season this team bordered on unwatchable – so mired in its talent deficit as to make even tuning in for their games a chore. Injuries played no small part in that, as an already shaky defense lost (in George, Hill, and Lance Stephenson) its three lead ball handlers from the season prior.
Hill's return brought about a revival. There are decent offensive pieces on the Pacers' roster, though for long stretches they went underutilized. A quirk of operating in superstar-less balance is the vital need for direction. Without a single, elite player at the center of the team's operations, another has to fill the creative void by getting the ball where it needs to go. Donald Sloan isn't quite qualified to do so against starting-caliber opponents, nor is Stuckey. This left Indiana without the ability to execute for the first two and a half months of its season, lost in sets that stalled out or plays punted before they were given a chance to develop.
Those basic operational functions are no longer an issue. Hill's presence on the floor alone has been good for an offensive swing of 10.2 points per 100 possessions, in the ballpark of this season's top MVP candidates. In Hill's case that split has as much to do with the performance of those behind him as any of his own contributions, but the difference between the two is nonetheless extreme. Hill, if for different reasons, is as essential to the Pacers as Stephen Curry is to the Warriors.
Hill's short work this season has been more spectacular than most know. Very quietly the 28-year-old guard has managed his best season to date – a mature, composed effort on a team that needs him desperately. His role has changed with the times. No longer is Hill a mere game manager for a post-centric outfit, but a genuine creator who draws more than 40 percent of his own possession usage from the pick-and-roll, per Synergy Sports. In those scenarios, Hill maxes out his efficiency not through explosion, but precision. Only one other player in the league to tally 50 pick-and-roll possessions or more has registered as low of a turnover rate on those plays as Hill.
In a league as saturated in point guards as this, Hill will inevitably go overlooked. But as a lark let's examine on a basic statistical level how Hill's season matches up to one of the NBA's other well-regarded point guards: Portland's Damian Lillard.
Both are very different players entrusted to very different roles, though on balance their usage and efficiency find striking similarity. This is by no means an assertion that Hill is the caliber of player as Lillard. Yet he's been similarly brilliant relative to what he's asked to do, and because of that ranks solidly in the point guard middle class.
Hill's return has also worked out brilliantly for Stuckey, whose play of late—if sustained—could support Sixth Man of the Year candidacy. Stuckey's masquerade as a point guard for the Pacers earlier this season proved fruitless. It was good neither for Stuckey nor his team's offense, in part because he does his best work when able to attack at an angle. Force him into a high pick-and-roll against a set defense and Stuckey will frustrate with his lack of awareness. But run him around screens and into a side pick-and-roll and Stuckey will knife his way all the way to the rim. Playing off the ball is a freeing experience for Stuckey, even if – through the natural flow of the offense – he so often finds himself in a position to create.
Alongside Hill, Stuckey makes for a smooth, decisive driver. He knows how to attack a scrambling defense by changing speeds and angles, working his way into finger rolls and short jumpers. That kind of play has allowed him to lead the Pacers in per-game scoring (15.1) over the last 13 games despite playing just 25.5 minutes a night. It's amazing what can happen when a capable player is finally allowed to fill the role he was intended to play all along.
What's more shocking—and possibly fluky—is Stuckey's astonishing success from beyond the arc. For years Stuckey has worked the interior with drives and an in-between game, venturing outside for only the odd long-range try. It just wasn't his game. Stuckey had attempted to deepen his range at various points previously but leveled out with a 29.7 percent career average on long-range tries.
Stuckey has defied that mark with the Pacers by making 38.4 percent of his threes this season and a shocking 46.9 percent of his threes over the last 13 games. Every piece of evidence available suggests that this won't last, but players can sometimes defy reasonable, data-based expectations. Whatever the case, Indiana— whose top four long-range shooters by attempts have combined to make just 31.7 percent of their threes—has very much needed Stuckey's windfall.
These two are the standouts, yet the Pacers' offense only functions as well as it does because of its counterweight. Every piece matters: Hibbert's attempts inside, no matter how ill-fated, draw attention; West waiting at the elbow serves as a valuable pressure release; Miles manufactures points when they're difficult to come by; and Hill draws fouls and guts offensive rebounds to supply his share. Indiana has struck a balance steady enough to bring a playoff berth into view. Every day they linger there rouses whispers of George's possible return and, by extension, what these Pacers might be capable of.
Statistical support for this post provided by NBA.com.