Mark Montieth headshot

Pacers Hoping to Maintain Historic Defense (Part 2)

by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

November 19, 2013

Part 2 of a 2-part series on the keys to the Pacers' league-leading defense.

Click to read Part 1 »

A truly great team defense, however, starts with athletic and active individual defenders. Here's Burke's take on the Pacers starters:

Roy Hibbert

He leads the NBA in blocked shots, at 4.6 per game, one more than second-place Anthony Davis. His block of Carmelo Anthony's dunk attempt late in Game 6 of last season's second-round playoff series has become an iconic moment modern Pacers' history.

As a rim protector, Hibbert enables his teammates to play more aggressively on the perimeter, knowing Hibbert is there to help if they get beat. He also makes opponents think twice about driving into the lane in the first place. Television commentator Jeff Van Gundy dubbed him “the Great Wall of Hibbert” during last season's players series against the Knicks, when Hibbert established himself as a premier post defender, and he's taken greater pride in it since. He knows he won't get a lot of shots while surrounded by so many capable scorers, so he saves most of his energy for defense.

Paul George

He's 6-9, agile and eager, so he's one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA. He notably shut down high-scoring opponents such as James Harden and Rudy Gay in games last season, and felt slighted when he was voted to the second-team all-defensive unit. On the day he was presented with the Most Improved Player award, he vowed to win the Defensive Player as well, someday.

George might be the best all-around defender the Pacers have had. Artest, honored as the NBA's best in 2004, was blessed with a low center of gravity as well as great hands, strength and desire. George, however, has some advantages over Artest, aside from greater length.

“He's more flexible,” Burke said. “I don't know if that makes him better, but he's more flexible. Paul's got this body where he can get through screens and fight through crowds. He has great anticipation. He's getting more patient with his hands, too. Sometimes his fouls come when he's gambling and reaching for a steal. He's limiting that.”

George's flexibility also enables him to be a better off-the-ball defender than Artest was. Where Artest was an intimidating one-on-one defender, George is more willing and able to chase players around screens and away from the ball.

David West

He might not have the quickest feet for a power forward, although they're certainly adequate, but he has great hands for defending. He trains in the off-season by boxing, and one of his favorite hobbies is drumming, so that might help. He deflected the ball from Derrick Rose a couple of times in the Pacers' win over Chicago on Nov. 6, and got a crucial deflection from Deron Williams late in the win at Brooklyn.

He's also the team's best communicator and improviser on defense. Sometimes, for example, he'll trap a ballhandler on the sideline to force a double-team when it's not called for in the scouting report. Or, he'll double-team the ball in the low post, something Burke generally discourages.

“David has a real feel for when to do things during the game,” Burke said. “Sometimes it's out of our scheme, but we have a lot of trust in David.”

West has a feel for personnel, too. Late in the game at Brooklyn, the coaches were going to take Hibbert out and bring in another perimeter defenders to guard against a 3-point shot. “No, no, man, we got this!” West shouted to the coaches. Hibbert stayed in the game, the Nets threw the ball out of bounds, and the Pacers improved their record to 7-0.

“He's the lion heart of everything, a guy you really trust,” Burke said. “I'll ask him, 'How do you want to guard this?' It's great give-and-take and he'll own up to everything he does.”

Although West has the liberty of straying from a team concept at times, he's the closest the Pacers have to a coach on the floor. He communicates with his teammates as much as he does his coaches, and speaks as passionately about defense as Burke does.

“We're committed to it,” West said, when asked to explain the team's defensive success. “We trust in it even if the other team scores. We put the work in to make it work. Ultimately we have guys who can defend their position and we have great help defenders.

“I talk about this with our group … the other night Rudy Gay got going and I was pissed off because I couldn't get a piece of him, couldn't get over to help. But Paul was saying, 'I've got him.' That's unique about our locker room. We pull for each other. We want to defend one ball, one guy with all five of our guys. We're constantly in communication, starting with our point guard all the way to the rim with Roy.

“If we lean on our defense, it's going to pull us through most nights. If we trust in our defense it's going to put us in a good way at the end of the night.”

Lance Stephenson

Defense wasn't foremost on his mind when he was dominating the playgrounds of Brooklyn, but he's gradually getting on board with the notion. Last season, he constantly talked about “air space” in post-game interviews with the media.

“We took away their air space,” he said after most wins.

“We didn't take away their air space,” he said after most losses.

He still gets lost at times, such as when he gave up those quick 3-pointers to Mayo against Milwaukee, but he's willing. It doesn't hurt that he's often the strongest and fastest player in the game. He got back on defense late in the game against Brooklyn to help make a game-saving defensive play.

The challenge for him, as it is for most young players, is making multiple efforts in a single defensive possession. He not only has to remember to “sink” to help defend in the lane, but also to run back out to get a hand in the face of a perimeter shooter.

“Those are the concepts he's getting dialed in,” Burke said. “For him to get on board with the discipline of our defense has been hard, but that's just a natural thing for a guy like him, who could just go out and create havoc and do what he wanted (with previous teams).

“But he's come a long way. I told him, if we ever get you up to (contesting) every three out of five shots, we're going to be in business.”

George Hill

He played his first three seasons in San Antonio, which consistently has one of the league's better defenses. That was a great training ground.

“Coach Pop was a defensive-minded coach,” Hill said. “That's how you got on the floor for him. Defense is something you have to want to do.”

Hill has average height for an NBA point guard at 6-foot-2, but has unusually long arms. He also has expertise that often goes unnoticed to most observers.

“George is one of best pick-and-roll defenders I've been around,” Burke said. “He's got a lot of savvy tricks he uses.”

The Pacers' bench unit also has improved defensively from last season, Burke said, although Tyler Hansbrough and Sam Young were capable. The key to the unit now is Ian Mahinmi, whose quick feet allow him to clean up the mistakes of others. While Hibbert is known as a rim protector, Burke considers Mahinmi a “lane protector” who is able to jump out and defend a pick-and-roll but still get back to the basket in time to help defend near the basket.

He's also taking greater pride in his defense, asking for game video to take home and study.

“He's so mobile,” Burke said. “To have a one-two tandem (with Hibbert and him) is pretty impressive. It's a luxury.”

Luis Scola lacks quickness, but says he's become more committed to defense since his trade to the Pacers, mostly because it's emphasized more. Burke takes pride in seeing him lower his head and sprint back on defense, and in seeing him defend pick-and-rolls more aggressively. C.J. Watson was well-tutored in Chicago's defensive system, and has more size and strength than last year's backup point guard, D.J. Augustin. Orlando Johnson and rookie Solomon Hill are physical, aggressive defenders who pick up on the schemes quickly. Chris Copeland lacks the footspeed to be really effective and is still learning the schemes, which is one of the reasons he has struggled to find more playing time.

In the end, the Pacers will likely go only as far as their defense takes them. Burke will ride herd on it. He won't necessarily dive on loose balls, but he will continue pointing out mistakes – angrily, if needed. The players kidded him about being “crabby” one day in practice last week, but he takes that as a badge of honor.

“Everything matters,” he said. “When they're not dialed in, I like to grab their attention. Frank's a great motivator. But sometimes at the defensive end they need a shot. Sometimes I feel I need to be the bad cop.

“There's no tricks to it. There are twists and nuances and emphases, but our pride and heart and our desire will have to make it work, ultimately.”

Part 2 of a 2-part series on the keys to the Pacers' league-leading defense.

Click to read Part 1 »

Note: The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Indiana Pacers. All opinions expressed by Mark Montieth are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Indiana Pacers, their partners, or sponsors.

11-Game Fan's Choice »
Purchase an 11-Game Pack and choose your favorite games to attend.