What Is Going On with the Indiana Pacers’ Defense?

The Indiana Pacers lost twice in the past week, first a 125-117 loss to the Suns on Saturday and then a 127-122 loss at Sacramento Monday night.

That’s 252 points in two games, dropping Indiana’s overall Defensive Rating down to 16th in the league after a great start to the season (one that was on display in a 114-107 win over Houston Wednesday, the third game since the last time this site talked about Indiana basketball last Tuesday) and worse, squandering a couple of solid offensive performances that generated 239 points in 96 minutes of play.

The Suns got their 125 points by playing exceptionally sound basketball; they turned the ball over just twice, generally avoided trying to challenge the Pacers’ excellent rim protection—Myles Turner and his four blocks were the only four blocks the Pacers got in total—and then kept the Pacers’ offense from getting the shots they wanted, holding them to just 29 3-point attempts and forcing just a 50.8 percent shooting night on 2-pointers. Oh, and they made all 17 of their free throws. Hard to fault the Pacers for all of the above.

The Phoenix game…well, it happens. The Suns are 7-4, second in the West, and look every bit like not just a playoff team but a contender with Chris Paul in the lineup.

The Kings game? Hoo boy, where do we start?

Well, for one thing, Sacramento played sloppy basketball, turning the ball over 18 times to Indiana’s 12. So…good thing I guess?

It’s the fact that everything else went completely southbound for the Pacers defense that is cause for concern.

Turner had three blocks. The rest of the Pacers had none.

Domantas Sabonis had 11 rebounds. Nobody else on the Pacers had more than six (Turner) and Richaun Holmes‘ six offensive boards powered a 44-37 rebounding advantage for the victorious Kings in which Indiana mustered just 27 defensive rebounds total.

And…well…let’s talk about the shooting, because it was the kind of you-can’t-guard-me night that suggests Indiana can’t seem to find its footing in terms of taking away the other team’s ability to get good looks.

Sacramento shot 56 percent overall; 46.9 percent on a .381 3PAR and 61.5 percent (!) on 2-pointers.

The Kings made 18-of-23 from the line.

So even though the Pacers won the turnover battle, shot 83.3 percent from the line, hit 58.6 percent of their own two-point shots, and got four scorers over 20 points for the game, that defensive meltdown turned a winnable game into a loss to start off a big West Coast road trip.

Indiana is allowing opposing teams to shoot 40.4 percent on 3-pointers. That’s second-worst in the league.

But on the other hand, no team allows fewer 3-point attempts per game than Indiana. It’s a bit of an enigma, but anyone who plays video games can see the obvious trade-off at work here.

Like, you know how in 2K you can allow a really high FG% from your opponent that you’re actually covering when you play with a player lock because the only time the guy gets a shot off is on the rare occasion you made a mistake? Like the guy shoots 60 percent but it’s because he went 3-of-5 and ended up with 7 points?

That, roughly, is what the Pacers’ 3-point defense looks like. They only allow 29.2 attempts a game, and of those 29.2 attempts, a lot more than you’d expect from pure chance would end up being quality looks, which is why they go in 40.4 percent of the time.

Until you realize that the other part of this equation is the Pacers giving up the tenth-highest eFG%, tenth-highest rate of FT makes to FGA, and eighth-highest FG% overall in the league.

The problem isn’t that Indiana can’t guard the 3-pointer.

It’s that unless Turner gets a block or the team forces a turnover (seventh-best opponents’ turnover rate in the league), they can’t stop the other team from hammering away at them two points at a time.

Absolutely none of this makes sense.

You notice how everything I’ve mentioned here is consistent with an equal-and-opposite reaction to the offensive principles you want your own team to avoid?

The Pacers’ opponents have a tiny 3PAR. They don’t take care of the ball. When they attack the basket, they run into great rim protection, and for all the complaining about Indiana’s lack of rebounding, the stats nonetheless say they have the 10th-best defensive rebounding percentage in the league so they must be doing something right (they’re ninth-worst in ORB% but offensive rebounds are dead and transition defense is king, so…)

But then you watch games like that Suns game or the Kings game and you have to start asking yourself just how a team that’s well-coached, puts up generally sound statistical profiles over the course of a season, and has the core roster of a team that consistently plays like a 50-win team over an 82-game season could lose like that.

10 games is still a fairly small sample, but the last two games have been an alarming trend defensively.

Hopefully coach Nate Bjorkgren and his staff can figure this out, because it is all kinds of frustrating putting up a good scoring night and then having to watch the other team run wild and erase all the good done on offense.