CLEVELAND, Ohio — As the Indiana Pacers head back home — trailing the Cleveland Cavaliers, 2-0, in the first round of the playoffs — there’s a long list of things they need to figure out if they have designs on returning to Cleveland.
Most of the Pacers’ issues are on the defensive end. Some of the problems may not be correctable. But any hope of making this a competitive series will start with how Indiana adjusts to the Cavaliers’ destructive 1-3 pick-and-roll.
“If we had the answers we’d probably be up in the series right now,” Indiana star Paul George said following Monday’s 117-111 loss. “We’re trying to figure it out. They’re killing us on the 1-3 pick-and-roll. We’ve got to figure it out at home.”
The Pacers aren’t the first team to struggle with this action (1 is the point guard and 3 is the small forward) and it will be a staple of the Cavaliers’ postseason run.
When it involves Cleveland’s two best creators, opposing teams have a natural concern of fighting through the screen. One false step could lead to LeBron James or Kyrie Irving, depending on who is the ball handler for that possession, getting a full head of steam en route to the hoop. Giving too much respect to the screener, who can also pop out for an open jumper, leads to something similar.
The Cavs mix it up too, attacking different ways, from countless areas on the court. Sometimes James is the screener, looking to roll toward the basket as the finisher. The tough screen he sets combined with the attention he demands will often free up Irving for an open off-the-dribble jumper. That happened more than a few times Monday night, as Irving poured in 37 points on 14-of-24 from the field.
Other times, James will set the screen, understanding the defense is likely to switch. The Pacers have said switching is their last resort.
Instead of creating space for Irving’s pull-up, James will demand the ball in the post, trying to exploit the mismatch. Whether the shot goes in or not, James against a guard will likely lead to a quality offensive possession, one that ends in a high-percentage look.
James will also run the pick-and-roll as the primary ball handler, using Irving or backup point guard Deron Williams as the screener. Perhaps even the faux screener.
Despite trying different defensive strategies, Indiana still has yet to find the best answer.
“He’s running the pick and roll and he’s setting that pick and roll,” Pacers head coach Nate McMillan said of James. “Part of that is us just trying to work harder. Trying to work harder to get through the screens and stay with our matchups and we’ve got to be more physical to get closer to our guy and get through that. He does a great job of executing that. Really executing whatever matchup he wants.
“He’ll go with the one man or he’ll go with the two or the three if he feels that’s the better matchup for him. We’ve got to do a better job of working on the ball, guarding, pressuring the ball and the guy who’s involved in the screen, a better job of blitzing and getting back.”
In Game 1, Indiana attempted to switch almost everything. But when the Cavs ran the 1-3 pick-and-roll, they attacked the mismatch, usually undersized guards Jeff Teague or Monta Ellis attempting to defend James in the post. Sometimes it was Irving against a slower defender. Sure, it led to isolation basketball, but the Cavs were taking advantage of lesser defenders.
“We don’t play too much bad iso,” James said. “We’ve got guys that can, for the most part it’s usually me and Kyrie who are the iso guys on our team.”
In Game 2, the Pacers varied their coverage schemes, trying to blitz and recover and sometimes even mixing in the “go under and dare James to settle for jumpers” strategy that has been effective in the past when his outside shot is malfunctioning.
Still, nothing consistently worked. George was left shaking his head when asked about the best approach.
The one thing the Pacers haven’t tried is Cleveland’s defensive strategy of hard trapping. When George runs the pick-and-roll for Indiana, the Cavs send an extra defender his way, forcing someone else to make a play. Seeing the Pacers’ inability to capitalize on the 4-on-3 situations makes it likely that the Cavs will continue to deploy that tactic until someone helps George.
So why don’t the Pacers try that? Simple. The Cavs have far too many offensive threats. Sending too much help in James’ direction is dangerous. He’s too smart, sees the court too well. The Cavs have surrounded him with snipers, high-percentage 3-point shooters ready to make the defense pay for over-committing. Given all of James’ immense gifts, his passing ability may top the list, something the Pacers feared coming into the series.
If Irving is running the pick-and-roll, the same holds true. As the Cavs have said all season, they pride themselves on putting the defense in a delicate pick-your-poison conundrum.
“It’s not so much limiting the help, it’s not over-helping,” McMillan said. “LeBron does such a great job of making reads when you are committing to trying to stop him getting to the basket and he’s firing out to all of these 3-point shooters that they have.”
In Cleveland, the Pacers have had their chances late. Their offense hasn’t been much of an issue. But most of the series, Indiana’s 26th-ranked pick-and-roll defense has looked befuddled. If “almost” is going to turn into an actual win, that’s where it all starts.
“Defensively, we need to be tighter, get closer, be more physical defensively and not give them the matchups they want in their multiple pick-and-roll combinations,” McMillan said.
That’s easier said than done. As George admitted, if the Pacers would’ve have figured it out by now they wouldn’t be going into a must-win game Thursday night.