The Indiana Pacers finally fell out of the ranks of the NBA’s unbeatens Tuesday night when the Boston Celtics avenged a last-second loss in Beantown by mounting an impressive 33-17 fourth quarter to sneak a 116-111 win out of Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
And while the Pacers have struggled to find the touch from beyond the arc (their 30.3 percent shooting from long range is third-worst in the league and has led to a gun-shy .331 3PAR that is less about offensive design and more about a lack of confidence in their shot), they have picked up three wins thanks mainly to a fantastic 2-point percentage.
Indiana is hitting 62.5 percent—five out of every eight—from closer to the basket, tops in the league and good enough to overcome their 3-point woes and land them fourth in the NBA in eFG%.
This is thanks mainly to Domantas Sabonis, who is putting up the perfect double threat of getting a ton of looks at the rim—50.8 percent of his shots have come within 3 feet of the basket, according to Basketball Reference—and converting those shots with an efficiency nearly unrivaled in the entire league.
Sabonis is hitting 76.7 percent of his shots from in that close, and his average shot distance on all of his attempts is just eight feet. Of the nine players getting rotation minutes for Indiana so far this season, only T.J. McConnell has a closer average shot distance—4.2 feet!—but McConnell has also attempted only 11 shots through four games.
Sabonis has taken 59 shots, and 30 of them have been right at the rim. Even with 11 3-point attempts, he’s still got a shot chart that leads to the obvious eye-test conclusion of “this guy’s shooting the lights out.”
The Pacers, despite that atrocious 3-point shooting, rank seventh in Offensive Rating in the NBA. This is, again, thanks to a fantastic ability to fight to the rim and get good looks in close. Their .376 attempt rate on 0-3 foot shots is second only to the Cleveland Cavaliers (who are also 3-1 and who face Indiana on New Year’s Eve for the Central Division lead heading into 2021), and Indiana has been far more efficient than not only Cleveland but most of the rest of the league.
The Pacers are making 73.3 percent of their shots as a team in close, which ranks eighth in the league but is by far the best out of the teams that have relied most heavily on shots close to the basket to power their offense.
Every team above them simply has far fewer attempts.
Meanwhile, the Pacers are eighth in the NBA in Defensive Rating; of the top ten squads in the league, nine would make the playoffs if the season ended after just three or four games. Only the winless Raptors, with their hapless offense and putrid Net Rating, would miss out.
Although speaking of defense, Cleveland has the second-best Defensive Rating in the league so far; it will be interesting to see Thursday night whether the Cavs can deny the Pacers those easy shots at the rim while getting not only the looks they themselves have been able to generate but for those looks to go in.
The Pacers have been stingy defensively at the rim. Thanks mainly to Myles Turner and his terrific shotblocking so far through four games, Indiana’s opponents have put up the fourth-lowest two-point FG% in the league even as the Pacers have allowed their opponents to go hog wild from long range.
The Pacers are allowing the second-most 3-point attempts per game and their opponents are converting at the fifth-highest rate of any defense.
Cleveland is a good 3-point shooting team (37.4 percent, eighth overall) but they simply don’t shoot many of them (their 3PAR is 27th as, like Indiana, they get most of their looks from in close.)
We are looking at a fascinating “mirror match” Thursday night, but more importantly, as the Pacers look to bounce back from their first loss of the season, we’re looking at a team that is starting to find an identity as a bully-ball team down low, while they’re playing that style at a freakishly efficient scoring rate.
There is more to modern NBA basketball than 3-pointers; the Pacers look to be mastering the layups part of “threes-and-layups.”
As 2020 finally comes to a close (good riddance!), we’re about to ring in the New Year with a battle on the block. Should be fun to watch.