Pacers Benefiting from Joseph's Defense

Dec. 7, 2017 - After Pacers guard Cory Joseph played the entire fourth quarter in Indiana's come-from-behind win over the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday night, head coach Nate McMillan talked about Joseph's defensive effort and how it lifts the team.

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Pacers Benefiting from Joseph's Defense

Dec. 7, 2017 - After Pacers guard Cory Joseph played the entire fourth quarter in Indiana's come-from-behind win over the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday night, head coach Nate McMillan talked about Joseph's defensive effort and how it lifts the team.
Dec 7, 2017  |  01:27

Joseph Difficult to Categorize, Easy to Love

by Mark Montieth Writer

Where do you start with Cory Joseph?

He's always been known as a defender, one who took pride in pouring himself into opposing guards and making their lives miserable. But he also happens to be the Pacers' best free throw shooter and is one make short of being their best 3-point shooter.

He hasn't started a game for the Pacers this season, and has started just 69 in an NBA career that began in 2011, but he's often a finisher. He's not a primary scorer, averaging just 7.8 points, but he's a clutch shooter.

So, what is he?

"I just see him as a basketball player," assistant coach Dan Burke said.

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That will have to do. Joseph not only has defied categorization, he's been a primary factor in the Pacers' early-season success and a primary example of their special chemistry. He fits in, he stands out, he sits down, he steps up ... whatever happens to be needed at the time.

That was never more evident than in Wednesday's spectacular victory Chicago, when Joseph played the entirety of a fourth quarter in which the Pacers erased a 16-point deficit. Break it down, and you can see the challenge of defining him.

Through the first three quarters he was nearly invisible, contributing two points on two field goal attempts and an assist in his 19 ½ minutes. He opened the fourth with a missed 20-footer and a traveling violation, which helped the Bulls extend their lead to 16.

Over the final 9 minutes, 25 seconds, however, he was front and center, outshone only by Victor Oladipo's final-minute heroics. He began the comeback with a 3-pointer, and from that point on every mention of him in the running play-by-play kept by the Pacers' stat crew was positive.

There was a steal at 7:32, a rebound at 6:30, a rebound at 6:07, a steal at 5:20, an assist at 5:11, a rebound at 4:08, a steal at 1:32 and a 17-foot jump shot off the dribble over a taller defender at 1:19.

Some contributions don't fit into a stat booklet, however.

"He's an intangible guy," Thad Young said. "He does a lot of things that help teams win games. He's not going to have stats that wow you. But you look at the stat line and see all the small things he's done in the course of the game and you say, 'OK, this guy made it happen for us.' And then if you watch tape and see how he harasses guys on the ball; he just makes the pace pick up when he comes in.

"He just has a lot to his game."

Including vocal performances.

"He talks more than what he gives off," Myles Turner said following Wednesday's victory. "'Come on guys, it's time to go!' He's always up and at 'em. That's what you love about Cory."

Burke, meanwhile, was loving Joseph's harassment of Kris Dunn, who led the Bulls with 18 points but hit just 1-of-3 shots and committed two turnovers in the final 6:22. Dunn had been outstanding through three quarters, with 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting, five rebounds and six assists, but was a non-factor in the most crucial moments.

Burke has seen all of the Pacers' better backcourt defenders over the last 20 years, from Danny Granger to Paul George to George Hill, but Joseph is unique. At 6-foot-3, he's not as long as them, probably not as quick and in some cases not as strong. But he's a physical defender who fights over screens and stops the opposing point guards' penetration, which prevents a teammate from having to give help and leave an open shooter. He also knows the unnoticed legal tricks, such as bumping a ballhandler's hip to keep him off-balance.

Defending point guards is a brutal business in today's pick-and-roll crazy NBA. You're constantly being bumped, constantly trying to fight through screens, constantly chasing someone. It wears down the best of defenders, Joseph included. He was listed as questionable for Wednesday's game because of a left shoulder injury suffered in Monday's victory over New York, but never gave in on Wednesday.

"He brings a lot of savvy and a lot of toughness," Burke said. "He just gets the job done."

Part of that toughness translates to volunteer work. Joseph occasionally will call a teammate off a hot shooter and assign himself to the task. Burke recalled that happening in the Nov. 27 victory over Orlando, after Terrence Ross hit a couple of shots.

"Then Cory says, 'Let me have him,'" Burke said. "He gets into him and breaks his rhythm.

"We always joke with him, 'Who you guarding this game?' There always seems to be three or four guys he's guarding."

Joseph's mindset was forged in Canada, where he had no choice but to absorb the finer points of the game. Both of his parents played and coached the game, and his mother even refereed. No way he was getting out of that environment without playing the game as it's supposed to be played.

San Antonio took him with the 29th pick in the 2011 NBA draft, allowing him to further his education in a winning environment. Joseph was a backup guard on the Spurs' championship team in 2014. He averaged just 2.8 points over the 17 games he played, but learned a lot and left an impression.

"He's just a consummate professional who wanted to use every bit of his ability," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said before his team's game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Oct. 31. "He's not the most talented player in the world, but nobody has a bigger heart.

"There were times he came to me and said, 'Pop, I need to go down to the D League. I'm sitting too much; I need to play.' I don't remember any other player asking me to send him down to the D League. He's just the hardest worker on the planet and has formed himself into a solid NBA player who has an impact on the game.

"He does that first of all with his defense and his heart. He has a great drive and he's improved his jump shot over time. He's carved out a great career for himself and I couldn't be prouder of him."

The experience of watching teammates pull out tight games in the NBA Finals, and of being in them, serves Joseph well in games such as the one on Wednesday. He's played in bigger games than any of his teammates, so the final minutes of an early December game against a losing team don't frighten him.

"The poise you have to have to play in those games, I can bring that here," Joseph said. "In situations like (Wednesday) when things aren't going our way for the first three quarters … it's a 48-minute game. Keep everybody calm, keep chipping away at it. That's what we were able to do."

Joseph's greatest display of poise came at the 1:19 mark on Wednesday, that fading 17-footer with the shot clock running down. It brought the Pacers within two points, a deficit Oladipo erased two possessions later.

"I've practiced that move a thousand times since I've been in the league," he said. "I've been in that position a lot over my career."

Joseph's shooting has improved steadily throughout his seven NBA seasons. He's now hitting a career-high .453 percent of his shots from the 3-point line. His minutes and shot selection have limited his attempts to 64, but if his percentage holds up it would be the third-best single-season performance in franchise history, behind Chris Mullin and Al Harrington. He's also hit 26-of-29 foul shots, for a team-best free throw percentage of .897.

Joseph also bring a calm to the proceedings, something he gained from his four seasons in San Antonio. He might be playing frantically on defense, but he's playing with poise on offense, both on the ball and off. Joseph is often paired with fellow backup guard Lance Stephenson, who commands the ball. That means Joseph has to play off the ball more than he's done in previous seasons, but he's adjusted.

"He knows how to play," Burke said. "When he doesn't have the ball, he knows where to be. He has a great feel for spacing.

"He's in a tough spot, because he's out there with Lance, and Lance is just thirsty for that ball. So it's 'What do I have to do off the ball?' He has a good feel for that. And then when he has the ball, he'll say, 'OK Lance, we'll run Loop Two, we'll get you the ball that way.

"He brings a calmness and a quiet confidence to that second group."

Joseph exemplifies the strength of this Pacers team, its camaraderie and unpredictable nature. Nobody, coaches included, know going into a game who will finish it. It all depends on matchups and who's going well at the time. Joseph played all 12 minutes of the fourth quarter on Wednesday, but starting point guard Darren Collison often gets the closing minutes. Stephenson is sometimes in the game and sometimes not. Same goes for all the starters except Oladipo and Young, who are the most difficult to take out of the end of a close game.

"You have to do that with this group," Burke said. "We're looking for guys who fit. We're looking at developing the culture here. We're talking about winning, we're looking for sacrifice."

Joseph is fine with a chameleon's role.

"I just play hard," he said. "That's always my game, from Day One. Every game is different. Some games I score a little more, some games I get assists, some games I need to play lock-down defense.

"As a player, you never know. I just try to keep on playing until I get pulled. Or not."

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