Conference Finals Weekend Preview: Examining the Grizzlies’ D and the Pacers’ O

We’re going to get into the meat of each conference finals series over the weekend. Each team by now has rewatched every possession of every game, trying to suss out what an opponent has done, how that opponent might adjust going forward, and how to adjust to those adjustments. We’ll see X’s-and-O’s tweaks, rotation changes, and (hopefully) some very good games. Some questions to ponder as I prep for a swing through the Grindhouse in Memphis and whatever the Pacers’ arena is called:

Spurs-Grizzlies

Did Memphis figure something out on offense in the second half of Game 2?

The Grizzlies’ offense has been a disaster, save for the third quarter of Game 2 and parts of the fourth quarter. Memphis has scored just 92.4 points per 100 possessions in this series, a sub-Bobcats scoring rate, and a very discouraging step backward after their post–Rudy Gay offense had performed very well through the first two rounds. They’re posting up much less against the Spurs, per Synergy Sports, mostly because they have issues just getting the ball to Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The Spurs’ big men are fronting well, and even when they don’t start off possessions fronting, they have been dynamite at sliding into that position just when a Grizzlies guard is ready to toss an entry pass.

But the main problem has been San Antonio just not guarding any Memphis perimeter player whose father was not an Olympic triple-jump champion. Every team sags away from Tony Allen and Tayshaun Prince, but the Spurs are smarter than everyone else, and so they are ignoring those two non-shooters more dramatically than most teams would dare; they get the risk-reward math. Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard are basically playing zone defense at the start of each half, which is why Lionel Hollins has played his starting lineup just 23 minutes combined over the two games — down from about 16 minutes per game in the first two rounds. That has meant more minutes for both Jerryd Bayless and Quincy Pondexter, and Pondexter has been the common denominator so far in every positive Memphis lineup. He’s 6-of-13 from deep so far, and while that might be a fluke, playing one of the Pondexter-Bayless duo — or both, as Hollins has done far more in this series than ever before — at least makes the Spurs think about clogging the paint.

Pondexter’s shooting might be fluky, and the Grizz are going nowhere as long as both Randolph and Gasol shoot 45 percent or worse. Their turnovers have ticked up a bit so far in this series, and their free throw rate — gargantuan for two rounds — has predictably declined against the foul-phobic Spurs. So perhaps the third quarter of Game 2 was just an illusion — a blip of random shooting and X’s-and-O’s trickery the Spurs will figure out while resuming their destruction of the Grizz.

But Memphis might have found a few things in that second half. The Grizz run a lot of Conley-Gasol and Conley-Randolph high pick-and-rolls, and if Conley can’t get to the rim, he often tries to find Randolph sealing in the post or Gasol hanging around the elbow area. But in the third quarter, Memphis got some traction by having Gasol rescreen for Conley in the opposite direction:

(And here’s another example — a play in which the rescreen forced a switch of Parker onto Gasol in the post, a mismatch the Grizz exploited right away.)

This Pondexter 3-pointer is instructive for a couple of reasons. Changing the pick-and-roll direction like this, and especially this quickly, can confuse the off-ball defenders on the wings, since help responsibilities change depending on which way (left or right) a ball handler is heading. Leonard, guarding Pondexter here, would not normally help this aggressively in the paint on Conley’s drive, since doing so leaves the nearest spot-up shooter open.

But it’s unclear if Leonard made a mistake here. Here’s the thing: With some exceptions, the Spurs are treating Bayless and Pondexter with almost the same lack of respect as the Allen-Prince combination. San Antonio is making Bayless and Pondexter prove they can consistently inflict pain, and it’s unclear if they inflicted enough of it in Game 2 to change the Spurs’ strategy. Pondexter got that spectacular throw-down on Boris Diaw’s head in part because Leonard had totally abandoned him in the weakside corner (see video here). And the Spurs even gave Bayless the dreaded one-pass-away 3-pointer by doubling the post off of him, even though Bayless was the closest kickout option for Randolph (video here).

The Grizzlies sniffed this out in the second half and called sets to punish the Spurs for this lack of respect. That Pondexter 3-pointer probably qualifies as just such a set. So does this play call for Bayless, which has him setting a cross screen under the rim for Randolph and darting up toward the perimeter much earlier than he normally would on this action:

Bayless understood here that his man, Green, would linger in the paint to make sure Randolph couldn’t get the ball, and that he might get an open look by working quickly. He was right.

And Allen is beginning to get that he has to cut to the rim if the Spurs are going to ignore him, though it would be nice if he could make a shot:

Memphis also discovered some ways to open entry passing lanes to Randolph in the post — by clearing their perimeter players to the opposite side of the floor and having Gasol work as the entry guy, for instance. This was encouraging, but the Spurs know about it now, and much of Memphis’s progress came with Tim Duncan on the bench. Let’s see if any of it works in Game 3.

Can Memphis defend these guys?

All that fun scoring stuff doesn’t matter if Memphis just can’t handle Parker’s quickness and the Spurs’ spot-up shooting. The Warriors and even the L.A. D-Fenders held the Spurs mostly to midrange jumpers over the first two rounds, but the Grizzlies, bringing by far the best defense of San Antonio’s postseason opponents, haven’t been able to duplicate that. The Spurs are 23-of-54 from 3-point range against Memphis, and they are sizzling from the corners. Parker has been too quick for them, and he has worked Memphis into some disturbingly bad breakdowns — mistakes that continued into the second half of Game 2, even as Memphis rallied. They’ve had no clue how to deal with staggered screens in semi-transition, when two Spurs bigs (usually including Matt Bonner) will set a monster two-man screen for a San Antonio guard and then veer in different directions:

They’re sloppy in transition defense. Bayless has gone under screens against Ginobili and had terrible trouble tracking Parker. They’ve had two defenders rotate at one Spur, leaving someone else wide open. They’ve allowed backdoor cuts with minimal stress.

It sounds strange, but the best outcome for Memphis on any Parker-centric pick-and-roll is probably Parker shooting, and perhaps even Parker shooting a heavily contested shot near the rim. (A Duncan midrange jumper is also acceptable.) San Antonio’s pick-and-roll ball handlers have actually shot poorly in this series (just 11-of-30 per Synergy); the spot-up looks are killing Memphis, and the Spurs have found more of them than they did even in the regular season, per Synergy. Data-tracking cameras installed in the Spurs’ arena recorded 12 drives by Parker in Game 2, with a drive identified as any time Parker dribbled the ball from a spot at least 20 feet from the hoop to within 10 feet of it. Parker scored zero points off those drives, according to data provided exclusively to Grantland by STATS LLC, the operator of the cameras; the Spurs scored 17 points out those 12 drives, suggesting Parker’s passing is the real problem here.

Memphis had some success having the guy defending Parker go under screens and sort of attach himself to the big man rolling to the rim, while Gasol/Randolph did their best to scamper after Parker. That tactic makes it tough for Parker to find any passing lane to the roll man, and if Gasol can at least stay within arm’s reach of Parker as they approach the basket, the other Grizz defenders can stick more closely to the Spurs’ army of shooters:

This is very, very hard work, and Randolph won’t be able to manage it at least half the time. The Grizz might also consider unleashing Allen as something like a full-time Parker defender, a change that would dovetail nicely with slotting Pondexter more minutes alongside Allen and the rest of the starters — or even starting him for Prince. Hollins likely won’t go that far, but he opened the door for a lineup change, and bringing Prince off the bench would give second units an additional ball handler and detach him from Leonard for a few minutes — allowing Prince to work from the post against a Spurs guard.

The Grizz should also think about helping off of Parker when Ginobili works as the lead ball handler and the Spurs stash Parker in the corner. Parker has been a decent corner shooter in recent seasons, and shot a very nice 41 percent on such shots this season, but he rarely takes them.

Bottom line: Memphis has to defend better, or they are toast.

Pacers-Heat

Will Miami adjust its Roy Hibbert plan, and what else can the Pacers do on defense?

Frank Vogel made some off-day news by proclaiming the Heat had come up with a better Roy Hibbert attack plan than the Knicks. The New York media absurdly turned this into “VOGEL RIPS KNICKS,” as if it’s surprising the league’s best offense, with the league’s best player and cleanest spacing, might be able to deal with Hibbert’s shot-blocking in smarter ways than New York.

What was the plan? It’s pretty simple: Miami didn’t run many high pick-and-rolls with Hibbert defending the screener, since doing so plays into Hibbert’s strengths and those of the Pacers’ league-best defense. At times, that meant sacrificing Chris Bosh’s pick-and-pop game, since Hibbert spent large chunks of Game 1 guarding the Bostrich, but the Heat are willing to live with that.

The Heat instead ran a bunch of guard-guard and wing-wing pick-and-rolls along the sidelines, often with some funky pitch-back action involved. And here’s the crucial point: They ran those pick-and-rolls on the opposite side of the floor from where Hibbert was stationed, and they engineered that spacing by having Hibbert’s man stand way out on the baseline — almost in the corner. That meant Hibbert began those plays on the opposite side of the lane, since he can’t just plant himself there, and allowed Miami’s guards to get a head of steam before Hibbert arrived near the basket:

I’m not quite sure what the Pacers’ answer is here, and Miami will surely bring some new stuff to the table in Game 2. Hibbert is not going to defend a guard or wing just for the sake of being involved in a pick-and-roll. The Pacers could have Hibbert start off on the strong side of the floor, so that he doesn’t have to slide over to clog up Miami’s stuff, but doing that puts a lot of pressure on the weakside defenders.

In that case, though, the Heat have shown they will just call some standard high pick-and-rolls using David West’s man as a screener. The Pacers prefer to have West hedge out against pick-and-rolls, but the Heat — and especially James — just blew by him, turned the corner, and found Hibbert’s guy (again, spaced way out toward the corner at first) for easy baskets:

And yet Miami scored only 101 points per 100 possessions against the Pacers’ stout D. That would have ranked just 20th in the regular season, well below Miami’s perch atop the league. That’s nice production against Indiana, about five points more per 100 possessions than the Pacers allowed on average, but it’s just low enough to where the Pacers can have some hope in this series. The Heat, in other words, will have to make some adjustments of their own.

The Pacers have typically limited Miami’s 3-pointers, squashed their pick-and-rolls, and forced Miami to rely more on isolations and post-ups. We saw some of those clear-out plays for James in Game 1, but Paul George defended him well, mostly coaxing long jumpers. The Heat might be more aggressive getting LeBron deep post position in Game 2, especially when they go small, with shooters everywhere around him. And they showed glimpses of being able to get LeBron some space going hard to the basket by using him as a screener on pick-and-rolls with Wade and Norris Cole/Mario Chalmers.

Can the Pacers keep their offense afloat?

This, to me, has always been the larger question of the series, and that hasn’t changed after Game 1. The Pacers, naturally, put up something close to league-average scoring in Game 1, and that’s the basic formula for them to compete here. They’re not suddenly going to morph into a top-five offense against Miami’s defense, but if they can hit around league-average, they give their defense a chance to keep them in games.

But I found Game 1 weirdly concerning from this perspective. Indiana got very nice shooting games from their three best players (West, Hibbert, George), they got to the line at a very high rate, and they rebounded 37 percent of their own misses — a monster number. All of those things won’t sustain game-to-game.

That questionable sustainability isn’t worrisome on its own. But it becomes so if two other trends do continue: the Pacers’ inability to take care of the ball or generate high-value 3-point looks. The Pacers have been among the league’s most turnover-prone teams all season, and they just may not have the passing-dribbling chops to exploit Miami’s trapping defenses. Indiana knows what to do; they just can’t do it fast enough or with the required precision. The Pacers know Miami will trap the ball handler on pick-and-rolls, and that such trapping allows their big men to catch the ball wide open while rolling toward the paint into a 4-on-3 advantage. They just haven’t shown the ability to consistently get good shots out of those 4-on-3s when Miami’s defense is dialed in. Take this Hill-West pick-and-roll, designed to get West as much space as possible by clearing the left side of the floor:

Freeze that play on West’s catch, and you’ll see all the options before him — Hibbert flashing open in the lane, as his man, Bosh, slides over to contain West, which in turn forces LeBron to leave Lance Stephenson in the right corner to crash on Hibbert’s back.

And then West … pauses. That pause is enough for the Hibbert window to close, and for Dwyane Wade, the only defender left on the weak side against Stephenson and George, to read the play. And look carefully at those weakside shooters: Stephenson isn’t even in the corner; he’s a step inside the 3-point line, and in order to make himself available, he cuts even closer to the hoop, into a very awkward position on the baseline. George is something like 5 feet behind the 3-point arc, out of high-value range. The Pacers still get a basket out of this, but it’s an extraordinarily difficult one, and Indiana made a bunch of these kinds of tricky or difficult shots on Wednesday. They’ll need to find some easier ones.

And West is, by far, the best of Indiana’s big men at executing this stuff. If he can’t do it, they’re screwed. Here’s Hibbert in the West role/roll, missing a wide-open pass from George Hill, and hesitating Indiana into a tough post-up and a turnover:

And here’s Hansbrough, an awful passer, getting nothing out of the same situation, in part because Miami’s defense is so good, and in part because the weakside shooters are spaced poorly again:

There’s no real adjustment here for the Pacers. They just need to be better — to make quicker decisions, perhaps use some pass fakes to get Miami’s perimeter defenders to dart toward one shooter while leaving another open (West almost does this by accident in the first clip), and have their shooters be more aware in hunting open passing lanes. Beyond that, the Pacers must keep finding ways to get West and Hibbert the ball in the post — they did well in this regard in Game 1 — and work for transition chances when they can get them. The Pacers have a fighting chance if they can score at about the rate they did in Game 1. If they can’t, they’re done.

Filed Under: Indiana Pacers, Memphis Grizzlies, Miami Heat, NBA Playoffs, San Antonio Spurs, Zach Lowe, Zach Randolph

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Zach Lowe is a staff writer for Grantland.

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