These are not your [insert relative here]’s Pacers.
Ahead of the Boston Celtics third (and fourth) game of the season, a spiced-up opponent awaits them in Indianapolis. The Indiana Pacers, under first-year head coach Nate Bjorkgren, enter Sunday’s matchup 2-0 with two convincing fifteen-point victories over the New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls. A mainstay in the Eastern Conference playoff picture over the last few years, the front office made the difficult decision to remove Nate McMillan from his coaching duties, despite leading a team on-pace for a 50-win season to the playoffs despite the absence of their best player, Victor Oladipo.
Now Oladipo is back, joined by All-Star Domantas Sabonis, former 50-40-90 club member Malcolm Brogdon and bubble breakout star, TJ Warren, who averaged 20 points per game in the 2020 NBA Playoffs. Finally approaching full strength, the Pacers are the East’s most overlooked team.
Preparing for the Pacers requires a quick study on the scouting front. With a new coach in Bjorkgren (a former Toronto Raptors assistant) at the helm, the playbook and philosophies on both ends are different. Only three preseason games, where the Pacers rarely played their top unit together, and two regular season contests reveal what the team is trying to get done on both ends.
Through two games, the Pacers sport a top-five half-court offense, an elite transition defense and three players averaging 19 points per game (Sabonis, Oladipo and Brogdon).
Everything for the Pacers seems to revolve around Sabonis, fresh off a double-double last night against the Chicago Bulls. He’s being entrusted to do a lot more creating from the top of the key. Through two games, he’s only taken two shots out of post-ups, a far cry from where the center was a season ago. Even though the Pacers are starting two bigs (he and Myles Turner), they are not trying to play through size mismatches, instead using the shooting ability and playmaking of Domas to stretch out defenses.
Instead of frequent post-ups on Sunday, we’re likely to see a the ball in Sabonis’ hands atop the key, with whirling backdoor cutters and handoffs leading to quick-striking ball screens:
Be careful going underneath any of these handoffs when guarding Oladipo or Brogdon: both are likely to hide behind their teammate and pull from deep if they’re given room.
For the Celtics, the theory of playing against a team with two bigs is comforting. As discussed yesterday, Brad Stevens is rolling with Tristan Thompson and Daniel Theis in the starting group, almost out of necessity based on the shaping of this roster and the early injuries it’s sustained. Both games against the Milwaukee Bucks and Brooklyn Nets provided challenges on that front, both on offense and defense. Expect the Pacers and Celtics to match size-for-size.
That doesn’t mean smooth sailing for the Celtics though. The Pacers have done a fantastic job finding ways to get Sabonis, a power-driving left-handed center, downhill towards the rim against his man. They run a dribble pitch play that gets Sabonis the ball on the move, a legitimate “copy-and-paste” from the Raptors playbook for Pascal Siakam.
An action like this might look familiar to C’s fans after the brutal war with Toronto in the playoffs:
Coach Bjorkgren tries to maximize the spacing in his two-big lineups. He’ll frequently call Double Drag ball screens when Sabonis and Turner are in, using both as battering rams in the middle of the floor. Both Brogdon and Oladipo thrive in ball screens, taking turns running the show and playing off each other well as they take turns initiating the action. It’s been an effective way for them to get early dribble penetration and quality looks thus far:
Lastly, Celtics fans will be jealous of the impact a shooting specialist like Doug McDermott has on the offense for Indy in the second unit. He’s one of the league’s best-kept secrets, a great shooter who is unbelievable off screens or handoffs when sprinting to his right.
Bjorkgren includes a lot of staggers and sprint-handoffs in the playbook to maximize his minutes on the floor. The gravity he creates, and the multitude of open looks he gets, are ironically what’s missing in Boston right now. Perhaps this is a look at who someone like Aaron Nesmith can become, or what the Celtics need to chase at the deadline.
On defense, Indy broke out a full-court press against the Bulls on Saturday, overwhelming the young squad and creating three backcourt turnovers in a one-minute span. Who knows if we’ll see that tonight against Boston, but I doubt it coming off a back-to-back.
Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum are the best perimeter defensive trio Indy has faced thus far, and likely will face in the East all year. Thompson can match Sabonis with his energy, and the Celtics are far fresher coming into tonight’s game.
However, the Pacers are not to be slept on though. They’re shooting more threes than ever before, properly spacing their offense and seem to have struck a harmony between their three best scorers. It’s not an accident they’ve scored 123 points a game despite only shooting 28.3 percent from deep. This is a supercharged offense, far different than the Pacers of the past, and is one the Celtics cannot sleepwalk through after two emotional openers.