Sitting seventh in the Eastern Conference at 9-9, the Indiana Pacers might be the most surprising team in the NBA as the first quarter of the NBA season comes to a close. While the Pacers have seen great improvement from guys like Roy Hibbert and Josh McRoberts, there is just one reason why the Pacers are now in a position to make a play for the playoffs: Defense.
The Pacers rank eighth in the NBA in Defensive Rating, having allowed 105.3 points per 100 possessions. The Pacers' biggest strength on the defensive end is protecting the paint and the area around it. Opponents' shooting percentages in the three shot locations inside 15 feet (according to HoopData.com) are all below the league average. They are holding opponents to 58.7 percent shooting at the rim (2nd in the NBA), 41.1 percent shooting from less than 10 feet (sixth in the NBA), and 28.5 percent shooting from 10 to 15 feet (which leads the league). The main reason Pacers are able to protect the paint because they do a great job defending opponents' post-ups and pick-and-rolls.
On plays that Synergy Sports Technology labels "Post-Up," the Pacers rank eighth in the NBA allowing just .80 points per possession on 36.6 percent shooting. Much of the credit needs to go to Hibbert, whose position-adjusted dMULT places him in the 65th percentile of NBA players. This is a marked improvement of the 1.174 dMULT Hibbert posted last season, which rated him well below average on the defensive end. Hibbert's size and strength causes a lot of problems for opponents in the post because he's learned how to leverage these skills very well.
Hibbert does a fantastic job of pushing the man posting him up away from the block. The further out that the post man is when he makes the catch, the less comfortable (and more importantly, less successful) he will be.
Here, Nene Hilario makes the catch about 2 to 3 feet farther out than he wants to. That forces him to take a dribble and try to drive the lane instead of making a post move and Hibbert is able to bother the shot. Hibbert also does a great job of staying vertical as Hilario attempts his shot. Hibbert jumps and Hilario creates contact with him, but because Hibbert stays vertical (he keeps his hands straight up and he jumps up rather than out), there is no foul called on him.
In this clip, Dwight Howard tries to get early post position on Hibbert by bullying him into the paint. Hibbert takes the contact, and even delivers a blow of his own, but does it smartly, and no foul is called. The ball eventually gets to Howard, but because he is out of his comfort zone, he clangs a shot off the backboard.
Again, Howard gets the ball against Hibbert in the post. Howard tries to back down Hibbert as he dribbles, but he doesn't make any progress. Because of this, Howard is forced to settle for the turn-around hook that he misses.
Being big doesn't mean that you will play good defense. There are plenty of big guys who don't know how to use their size. What makes Hibbert an above average defender is he knows how to use his size smartly and to his advantage. The fact that he doesn't foul excessively (he's committing 4.5 fouls per 40 minutes) is yet another reason why he is successful on the defensive end.
In addition to defending the post well, the Pacers also do a good job defending pick-and-rolls, especially when the ball handler comes off of the screen looking to score. The Pacers' rank ninth in the NBA allowing just .8 points per possession on plays labeled "PNR Ball Handler" by Synergy Sports Technology. The Pacers use an interesting strategy against pick-and-rolls, as they never seem to hedge that hard on screens. They would rather keep the big defending the screener in the paint, preventing any dribble penetration off of the screen.
Here, Anthony Parker is coming off of an Anderson Varejao screen. Look where Hibbert is positioned--he is deep in the paint, ready to defend any dribble penetration coming off of this pick-and-roll. Instead of challenging Hibbert, Parker settles for a jumper, which misses.
Now, in that first video Mike Dunleavy Jr. went under the screen on the pick-and-roll. That isn't what the Pacers normally do. What they like to do is have the ball handler's defender go over the screen with Hibbert in the paint ready to cut off any penetration. This works because when a defender goes over the screen, they are giving up the penetration to the lane. However, since Hibbert is there, the ball handler is hesitant to try and attack the lane.
That is exactly what happens in the above clip. Darren Collison chases Mo Williams over the screen, giving up the penetration. However, because Hibbert is patrolling the paint, he settles for a jumper. Since Collison went over the screen, he is able to challenge the jumper and turn it into a tough shot.
In this clip, it is McRoberts covering the screener, but the concept is still the same. As Russell Westbrook uses the screen, his man goes over it. McRoberts doesn't hedge hard (or at all), but he stays between Westbrook and the rim long enough for Brandon Rush to recover and get back in front of Westbrook.
While the Pacers defense has been very good, the offense has been very pedestrian. Despite their below average Offensive rating of 106.3, they do an excellent job cutting off of the basketball. More specifically, the Pacers love cutting off of their bigs (Hibbert and McRoberts) when they have the basketball. It is rare that a team has an above-average passer at both the power forward and center positions, but that is what the Pacers have in Hibbert and McRoberts. In fact, both big men are among the top six passers for their position: Hibbert has an assist rate of 5.2 percent and McRoberts is at 4.8 percent. Both are averaging around four assists per 40 minutes. Pacers coach Jim O'Brien has been smart enough to realize that his bigs are fantastic passers, and Indiana uses that to its advantage.
According to Synergy Sports Technology, the Pacers rank 2nd in the NBA in points per possession on plays labeled "cuts." The Pacers are scoring an impressive 1.38 points per possession on 72.7 percent shooting on these cuts. Most of the assists coming off of these baskets come from Hibbert and McRoberts.
One of the ways that the Pacers do this is by putting their bigs at the high post and cutting off of them:
The Pacers really like to use a 1-4 set with the two bigs on the elbows and the wings free throw extended. What they do resembles the flex and the bigs can swing the ball from side to side as the wings either cut back door or off of the big with the basketball.
That's what happens here. As McRoberts gets the pass from Hibbert, Dunleavy Jr. cuts backdoor and gets free in the lane. McRoberts hits him for the easy two.
The Pacers do a number of different things revolving around their bigs at the elbow. Here, Hibbert sets a screen, gets the pass, and then hits Rush who gets a back screen off of the basketball.
Eventually teams will grow tired of having the Pacers' bigs pick them apart with their passes. They can try to double the big on the pass, but that isn't a great solution either. Here, McRoberts makes the catch and Dwyane Wade quickly tries to double him. McRoberts is so tall and so long that the double doesn't bother him at all and he is able to make the pass over Wade and help the Pacers get a bucket.
In addition to these passes from the elbows, Roy Hibbert is very good at passing out of the post to cutters:
Here, Hibbert gets the ball in deep position. With all the attention revolving around Hibbert, Dunleavy Jr. is able to cut to the basket undefended. Hibbert has his head up, allowing him to spot Dunleavy Jr. and hit him with the pass.
In the above clip, Hibbert again gets the ball in the post. This time, the cut takes a little longer to develop, but Hibbert stays patient and he is able to hit Collison cutting from the top of the key to the rim.
I know there is a lot of talk discussing whether or not the Pacers' start is a fluke and wondering when they will return to playing below .500 basketball. I don't expect this to happen. In fact, I think as the season goes on that the Pacers will be able to play even better. This is because they already have the very strong defense, and they are just waiting for the offense to catch up.