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Previewing the NBA In-Season Tournament’s Final Four

With Thursday’s semifinal matchups set, we preview Bucks-Pacers and Lakers-Pelicans and give you one critical thing to watch for each team

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

We’re down to the final four! The Indiana Pacers, Milwaukee Bucks, New Orleans Pelicans, and Los Angeles Lakers are headed to Las Vegas for the inaugural in-season tournament’s semifinals. Here’s one thing about each team I’m keeping my eye on, both in Thursday’s matchups and, in a broader scope, for the rest of this season.

The Indiana Pacers’ Commitment to Atrocious Defense

Breaking news: The Pacers have an incredible offense. They not only rank first all-time in efficiency but, more impressively, are also generating 9.22 more points per 100 possessions than the current league average, which is the second-highest gap in nearly 25 years. They move like there’s a brick tied to the accelerator and execute as well as any team in the half court.

Coming off a 26-point, 13-assist, 10-rebound, zero-turnover performance against the Celtics on Monday night that included some metaphysical shotmaking in the fourth quarter, Tyrese Haliburton has turned into Steve Nash with a permanent green light. He’s an MVP candidate and the no. 1 reason Indiana’s offense has been good enough to overcome its 28th-ranked defense.

This might be the most aesthetically pleasing club in the league, but, for how thrilling the Pacers are to watch while they’re trying to score, it’s the other side of the ball that transfixes me when they play. Their strategy is fascinating, a clear by-any-means-necessary instruction to forbid 3-point shots. Only 25.3 percent of their opponents’ shots come from behind the arc, which is a league low by nearly 5 percent. The result is an all-out feast at the rim and the free throw line.

Help is not an option. Opponents make only 58.2 percent of drives with a help defender present. That’s not just the lowest number this season. It’s also the lowest number in Second Spectrum’s entire database. The calculus can look obtuse when put into action, almost like Indy is deliberately self-sabotaging by pretending every opponent has found a way to clone prime Klay Thompson and position four of him around the perimeter:

But there’s a method to this madness. (I think.) The Pacers don’t want to give up layups, but they do trust the long game: Turning every contest into a mathematical equation (three is more than two) allows them to deploy lineups that accentuate their offense and not worry as much about their defensively challenged personnel. Over the season, Indiana has attempted a league-high 253 more 3s than its opponents. (That’s a whopping 67 more than the second-place Kings!)

There’s reason to be bullish about this plan (which, to be clear, would be downright silly if adopted by a team that couldn’t score at a historically efficient rate). The Pacers allow a ton of shots in the paint but are actually above average defending the rim, and they have had the worst luck in the league against the 3s opponents do get off. Indiana is allowing 40.7 percent shooting from deep. That number will go down.

But Indy’s defense also makes a ton of mistakes and has a bunch of leaky defenders. Haliburton and Buddy Hield are walking targets, while Bennedict Mathurin and Obi Toppin don’t scare anyone on or off the ball. Myles Turner is averaging his typical two blocks per game but can’t protect the rim like he probably should because too often he isn’t anywhere near it.

In the clip below, for context, yes, Bogdan Bogdanovic is a theoretical threat to come off a wide pindown, which could warrant Turner being so close to Onyeka Okongwu. But Okongwu is also 5-for-21 behind the 3-point line this season. Maybe put out the fires that are raging instead of ones that aren’t even lit:

As a group, the Pacers frequently miscommunicate on switches and are constantly vulnerable to back cuts into a clear paint. They were more aggressive than normal in the fourth quarter of their win against Boston, but their bottom-line formula is unlikely to manifest meaningful success. Maybe that doesn’t matter. In the regular season, with a truly special point guard demonstrating a transparent desire to turn every game into a track meet, it’s an approach Rick Carlisle and his defensive coordinator, Lloyd Pierce, are evidently willing to live with.

We’ll see whether it continues in Las Vegas against Giannis Antetokounmpo, who scored 54 points in a close Pacers win back on November 9. The Bucks took only 27 3s in that game, though. Indiana, meanwhile, jacked up 48.

The Milwaukee Bucks’ Tantalizing Pick-and-Roll Combination

The good news: The Bucks have the third-best offense in the NBA. The catch? When Damian Lillard and Giannis Antetokounmpo share the floor, they generate “only” 116.5 points per 100 possessions, which would barely crack the top 10.

How is it possible that Milwaukee isn’t at its best when Dame and Giannis are both on the court? This was supposed to be the most devastating pick-and-roll duo in the NBA! Instead, there are 33 tandems that average more picks per game than the 10.2 hatched by Antetokounmpo and Lillard. It’s not even the highest-volume partnership on this team. That’d be Lillard and Brook Lopez, at 14.1 per game.

It’s a somewhat frustrating development for a team that, while still awesome on offense and currently in second place in the Eastern Conference, has serious defensive flaws that don’t allow a sizable margin for error. Milwaukee’s ceiling is championship high, but its floor hasn’t been this low in half a decade.

Maybe Bucks coach Adrian Griffin is saving something for the playoffs, when he’ll unleash a Dame-Giannis pick-and-roll 30 times per game and let Khris Middleton and Lopez feast on all the opportunities that trickle down from the pressure put on opposing defenses. Milwaukee’s win over New York on Tuesday night suggests that might not be the case, though. Even though Giannis and Lillard carved the Knicks up whenever the two ran a pick-and-roll—to the comical tune of 1.78 points per direct play—they hooked up only 11 times. (Their season high is 18.) The aggressive Knicks defense had no answers, with the Bucks gorging on quality looks from behind the arc:

The production is important, but an even bigger reason to increase this duo’s activity is their need to develop chemistry. Whether the opponent is blitzing Lillard and putting Antetokounmpo in a four-on-three, switching up top and (in most cases) gifting a mismatch, or fighting over the top of Giannis’s screen and allowing a pull-up 3, it’s pivotal that these two become as comfortable as they possibly can, as quickly as they possibly can.

This doesn’t mean that they should abandon other pick-and-roll combinations entirely. Lillard and Lopez are awesome together. Middleton and Antetokounmpo are awesome together. But the Bucks will ultimately be most potent when their two superstars have synergy. And scoring efficiently is critical for this team. They are abysmal defending in transition [Haliburton has entered the chat], and when games are bogged down, they have several weak links on the perimeter who will be relentlessly hunted. This team can’t rely on stops. That’s no longer its identity. This pick-and-roll duo, for better and for worse, probably is.

The New Orleans Pelicans’ Spacing Vs. Defense Debate

There was much to celebrate throughout New Orleans’s impressive in-season tournament quarterfinals victory in Sacramento. Finally healthy—minus Larry Nance Jr.—the Pelicans’ depth was on full display, as Brandon Ingram’s superstar turn was supported by their full cast of integral role players, like Jose Alvarado and Trey Murphy III. Having so many options with their rotation is more gift than curse, but one yearslong internal quagmire was laid bare in that win.

As Zion Williamson struggled to score or get to the foul line (he finished with 10 points and zero free throw attempts), head coach Willie Green eventually had to ask himself which mattered more: covering up his franchise player’s defensive shortcomings or accentuating his offensive strengths? Williamson spent a few stretches at the 5 in super-small lineups (that finished plus-8) but ultimately played only 27 minutes, partly because Green sat him in the fourth quarter after the Kings forced Zion to guard different actions:

Benching your franchise player isn’t a long-term solution, though. For New Orleans to get where it ultimately wants to go, Williamson can’t just sit on the sideline during the biggest moments of a playoff game. He’s an unstoppable offensive marvel who can get where he wants against defenses that know where he wants to go (and is averaging more points in the paint than everyone except Giannis). But surrounding Zion with players who possess their own gravity makes the Pelicans, as a team, nearly impossible to slow down.

Heading into Monday night, Dyson Daniels—who leads the NBA in deflections—was averaging more than 26 minutes per game. Against the Kings, he played only six. Murphy and Alvarado took some of that run, but so did CJ McCollum, who recently replaced Daniels in the starting lineup after missing a dozen games with a collapsed lung. McCollum might be New Orleans’s top outside threat. He regularly makes tough, timely shots and doesn’t need any help to get a quality look off. But before Williamson was hunted, the Kings targeted McCollum near the end of the first half, over and over again.

Daniels and Herb Jones can contribute on offense in myriad ways, but regardless of their 3-point percentages, they’re generally ignored behind the arc. But both are excellent defenders—I could write a book about all the ways Jones is incredible on that end. How should their impact on New Orleans’s spacing affect Green’s rotation? In the aggregate, what combinations ultimately help or hurt Williamson? And is what’s best for Zion also good for the Pelicans? It’s a fascinating question that this team will spend the next few months trying to answer, starting with Thursday night’s game against the Lakers and up to the trade deadline.

How Is LeBron James Still Pulverizing Teams at the Rim?

Twenty-one seasons in, there are occasional nights when LeBron can’t reach the gear he used to. When he looks like a sluggish designated hitter who doesn’t make defensive rotations and delegates offensive responsibilities to his teammates. Overall, turnovers are up, post-ups and pick-and-rolls are down, he’s averaging the fewest shots per game of his career, and he’s never had more of his own baskets assisted by teammates.

For all intents and purposes, this is normal. It’s the expected path for a man who’s about to turn 39 years old and has spent more minutes of his life playing NBA basketball than any other human being.

But on Tuesday night, throughout the Lakers’ 106-103 win over the Phoenix Suns, LeBron did indeed have it: 31 points, 11 rebounds, and eight assists. The performance captured what has been, on the whole, a season for James that defies logic on virtually every level. He’s making a career-high 62.6 percent of his 2-point shots and averaging his most points per shot attempt since he left the Miami Heat. The only players with more total field goal attempts in the restricted area are Antetokounmpo, Williamson, and Anthony Davis. LeBron’s making 76.5 percent of those shots, one of the highest marks in the league.

These numbers touch on something that just kinda doesn’t make sense: how truly great James still is when attacking the paint. Get a load of this: In Second Spectrum’s entire database, there are 1,641 examples of a player logging at least 200 drives in a season. Right now, LeBron’s 1.23 points per direct play are 10th (!!!) best and his highest ever. He doesn’t blow by opponents like he used to, but thanks to his respectable 3-point percentage, defenders usually go over screens and stay higher on the floor than they probably want to. Jusuf Nurkic and Drew Eubanks had no shot bothering James on Tuesday once he got by the first layer of defense:

In general, despite less-than-ideal spacing, whenever he puts it on the deck and barrels toward the hoop, LeBron hardly ever turns the basketball over. He can go either direction at whatever speed he wants, always a threat to pass or float toward the middle of the floor and hit his signature leaning jumper.

It’ll be interesting to see if and when other players realize they should probably duck under some of these ball screens a bit more than they have been. It’s not a foolproof plan, but when done properly, it halts some of the downhill drives James can otherwise enjoy:

Going back to what I wrote about New Orleans, the Pelicans will likely stick Jones—one of the most capable pick-and-roll defenders in the league—on LeBron and force him to beat them with his pull-up jumper. Switching ball screens when Williamson or McCollum is put into the action probably won’t lead to the outcomes the Pelicans want. Expect Jones to duck under screens, with some hedging done by the screener’s man. This can create issues elsewhere, but thwarting LeBron at the point of attack, delaying L.A.’s offense, and forcing the Lakers to execute against a ticking shot clock are common denominators for teams that fare well against the Lakers. In Vegas, it may be one of the more critical games within the game.