• Nate McMillan and the Pacers are one of the NBA's biggest surprises. It makes sense for a team subverting expectations to thrive in out-of-timeout misdirection.
By Rob Mahoney
January 18, 2018

The NBA’s top offense coming out of timeouts this season isn’t coached by Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle, or Brad Stevens. It isn’t Steve Kerr’s otherwise unstoppable Warriors or Mike D’Antoni’s prolific Rockets. Credit goes, instead, to Nate McMillan and the ever-surprising Indiana Pacers—still firmly in the playoff picture at the season’s halfway point, and leading the pack in an area of the game reserved for the game’s foremost tacticians.

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It’s in these situations that McMillan and his staff can build and subvert expectations. Most of what the Pacers run isn’t revolutionary, though it comes with one or two wrinkles that consistently throw the defense out of sorts. If planned and executed correctly, even the smallest action can complicate the in-the-moment calculus of several defenders. Indiana thrives on that. What looks to be a stale, predictable action ends with Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis veering downhill suddenly for a promising two-on-one.

Let’s take a tour through some of the sets and actions that make that possible.

Staying in the flow

If there’s a trademark of the Pacers’ offense in these situations, it’s the pressure applied to the backdoor. Watch here as Oladipo sets a back screen for Thaddeus Young—the trigger that effectively sends the entire play into motion. Anyone who has watched the Warriors with regularity knows how potent the idea of screening with a sharpshooting guard can be. Whether they realize it or not, the defense is trained to track the whereabouts of that shooter at the expense of less obvious threats. Utah doesn’t take the bait. Joe Johnson follows Young as he slips toward the basket, and Donovan Mitchell keeps with Oladipo as the action clears. 

The slightest hesitation from Mitchell, however, allows Oladipo to continue into a clean catch on the perimeter—after which comes an immediate Sabonis ball screen. What makes this sequence work is its timing. Even while relatively well-defended, Indiana flows through its progression seamlessly, flexing out each option until Oladipo finds Sabonis for an and-one layup. This isn’t just smart design—it’s close to perfect implementation by every Pacer involved.

Reanimating the post

If post play is really and truly dead, the Pacers have managed to charge it with enough electricity to at least pass briefly as living. A lineup featuring Lance Stephenson and Cory Joseph should not, in theory, be able to post up Al Jefferson at his favorite block. Yet Indiana gets there—and on a relatively deep catch, no less—by forcing the Cavs to think their way through what looks to be a very different setup.

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Based on how this set begins, it seems most likely that the ball winds up in the hands of a curling Bojan Bogdanovic. The Pacers want you to think that, which then allows Joseph, who initially screened for Bogdanovic, to reverse into a prompt cross-screen so that Jefferson can establish position. By the time the relevant defenders are back in position, Jefferson is already going up with his hook shot.

Playing inside-out

The twists keep on coming. This set begins where the previous one ended: in a cross screen along the baseline for a post player, allowing them to move easily from one block to the other. Only the ball doesn’t enter to Turner in the post like it would Jefferson. It reroutes to Oladipo, the initial cross screener, as he loops back to the top of the floor. Turner follows in kind, transforming what looked to be a clear post-up into a tempo pick-and-roll. The defense is flattened out so completely by guarding the baseline and the corners that Turner ends up with a wide open, catch-and-shoot three on the pop.

Sleight of hand

Most NBA teams run variations on the same ideas: “floppy” action, in which an offensive player begins the play under the basket only to curl around a screen to the perimeter; “horns” offense, in which both bigs are brought to the elbow simultaneously to build in directional flexibility; and even things like the “Iverson cut,” in which a potential scorer darts from one side of the court to the other, edging past multiple, staggered screens along the way. The list goes on. 

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So when a team runs something familiar, the defense takes to that visual cue. Playing on that expectation frees up Joseph, in this case, for a wide open floater. Everything about the initial setup of this play suggests it will come back to Oladipo on the right side of the floor. It never does, and never had to.

Next level

Along those same lines, the Pacers bind the defense on this play by again playing with the formula. Everything about the structure of the offense and the way Darren Collison at the start of this play points to him tracing the three-point line from the corner to the top of the floor—a staple action to initiate wide swaths of NBA offense. Yet instead of actually using the screen that’s been laid out for him, Oladipo dashes in front of it. Magic guard D.J. Augustin really thought he was on top of the play until the moment his man went in the complete opposite direction.

Stephenson can’t quite find the angle to get the ball to Collison, but the Pacers ultimately find something better. What’s left is an actual curl for Bogdanovic—an echo of the the exact action Indiana imitated in the first place. Marreese Speights, the Magic’s primary help defender on the play, is stuck. He has to show some pressure against Bogdanovic, lest he give up a clean look or a lane to the basket. Yet in doing so, Speights allows Sabonis to roll freely to the rim, where only Augustin can get in his way.

The new Oladipo

One of the benefits in having multiple ball handlers on the floor is the way it allows them to play possum. Oladipo begins this play with the universal sign for “decoy”: waiting in the corner, hands on his knees. His explosion around a screen and into a dribble hand-off changes everything. We get our best look at the new Oladipo in the open floor, where all the work he’s done on his body comes to bear in the most potent fashion.

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The same physical propulsion applies here—simply applied in the way Oladipo accelerates into the play. Going from a dead stop into a full-speed hand-off is a nightmare assignment, particularly when the creator in question is as clean a pull-up shooter as Oladipo has been this season.

The screen as a mirage

NBA players are so quick and so skilled that scoring rarely requires a complete defensive breakdown. Even some slight hesitation can be enough; falling behind a play as it develops can doom a defender, leaving them only with desperate gambles and fouls as recourse. We see that in play on this sequence, where Robin Lopez is guilty only of minding Young for the slightest moment as he pretends to set a ball screen before cutting through.

The direction of that action divides his attention. Had Young continued toward the basket, it would have been Lopez’s responsibility to rotate over and contest his shot. Instead, Lopez’s man (Turner) goes to set an actual screen at the exact spot where Young feigned one. The fake screen pulled Lopez in one direction only for a real screen to yank him back the other way. He recovers fairly well, though not well enough to prevent Oladipo from pulling up for a jumper.

Close quarters

The challenge of this sequence is its geometry. By initiating the play around the elbow, the Pacers deprive their opponents of any margin for error. The slightest mistake could end in a a burst drive and a layup.

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That has to be on the defense’s mind as Oladipo curls around two, snug screens—the first pinning his man down, toward the basket, and the next screening inward, allowing Oladipo even more separation. Oladipo is already in his shooting motion before Rondae Hollis-Jefferson can even get out of the paint.

Data courtesy of Synergy Sports.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)