Pacers' Defense Elite Again, But In A Different Way

They have no stopper. Certainly nobody along the lines of a Ron Artest or Paul George.

They lack length, too. Their starting lineup likely is one of the shortest in the NBA.

Their collective personality isn't that of a nail-chewing, down-and-dirty team that wants to crush the opposition. They're nice guys by nature.

And yet, somehow, the Pacers have become one of the NBA's best defensive units.

They reiterated that point in Wednesday's 113-97 victory over Milwaukee, when they held an opponent to 97 points or fewer for the fourth time in the previous five games. The exception, Washington, scored 101 after benefiting from a Pacers letdown upon taking a 25-point lead in the third quarter.

The formula could hardly be more basic.

"It's a collection of a lot of good guys with great heart, and they play together," Dan Burke said.

Burke would know, having been a member of the Pacers' basketball staff since Larry Bird's arrival as head coach in 1997. Now the longtime assistant coach in charge of defense, Burke has molded some outstanding units. This one, he believes could wind up as one of the elites with continued improvement, but will have to rely less on raw size and athleticism.

The Pacers team of 2003-04 included an athletic, bruising frontline consisting of the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year, Ron Artest, non-scoring defensive specialist Jeff Foster and gifted shot-blocker Jermaine O'Neal. The backcourt of Reggie Miller and Jamaal Tinsley was at best adequate, but the overall unit finished third in defensive rating, which measures points allowed per 100 possessions.

The teams of 2012-13 and 2013-14 were long and physical. Paul George was the second-leading vote getter for the NBA's All-Defensive team in 2014, and could lock down many of the league's top scorers. Roy Hibbert was a 7-foot-2 wall in front of the rim whose reputation inspired a major feature article in Sports Illustrated. George Hill was one of the NBA's best defensive point guards, David West was a physical "linebacker" who called signals and Lance Stephenson was a bullish one-on-one defender. That unit ranked first in the NBA in defensive rating each season.

The current group has an elite shot-blocker in Myles Turner and a first-team All-Defensive team selection from last season, Victor Oladipo, who led the NBA in steals. But its starting five is small compared to most teams in the league and to the standout Pacers units of previous seasons – a total of eight inches shorter than the starters of five and six seasons ago, and nine inches shorter than in 2003-04. Still, it ranks second in defensive rating, behind Oklahoma City.

Thaddeus Young

Photo Credit: NBAE/Getty Images

More than the others, it relies on teamwork. One of coach Nate McMillan's mantras to his players is "look for each other." It's primarily spoken in relation to the offense, a plea to move the ball and look for good shots, but it applies to defense as well. They help one another by getting into passing lanes away from the ball and giving help on penetration. And they do it while keeping fouls to a minimum. Only three teams in the league have allowed fewer free throws.

"They're good team defenders," Burke said. "A couple of them said, 'Look, I'm not a good one-on-one defender.' I said, 'You don't have to be. Be a great team defender.'

"We don't have great length and we don't have great speed, but you're a lot faster when you're in the right place."

That was never more evident than in Wednesday's victory over Milwaukee, when Young limited Bucks' star Giannis Antetokounmpo to 12 points on seven field goal attempts. Young stayed in front of Antetokounmpo to keep him from getting to the basket for repeated dunks, and got help from teammates when he tried.

Turner stands out among the unit because of his shot-blocking. He ranks second in the NBA in blocks per game at 2.81, one-tenth of a block behind Miami's Hassan Whiteside. That average if carried out through the rest of the season would match the franchise record Jermaine O'Neal set in 2000-01. Hibbert's peak as a shot-blocker was a 2.6 average in 2012-13.

Many of Turner's blocks are of the acrobatic variety, such as by smacking shots against the backboard from behind a driving player. Hibbert, according to Burke, protected the rim. Hibbert's successor at center, Ian Mahinmi, protected the paint. Turner does both.

"I'm not sure he's even getting credit for all his blocked shots," Burke said. "But he's changing a lot of shots just by being in the right spot."

Turner has a stated goal of leading the NBA in the category this season, something a Pacers player has never done. Still, the Pacers' defense has been as much a team effort as the offense. The Pacers have six players ranked among the top 26 in individual defensive rating, which reflects the points they personally allow per 100 possessions: Turner (fourth), Domantas Sabonis (sixth), Oladipo (ninth), Tyreke Evans (19th), Young (21st), and Cory Joseph (26).

Communication has been a major element in knitting them into a cohesive unit. Not just between the players – Young and Turner are the most talkative - but between players and coaches. Young in particular will approach Burke on occasion and request a change in assignment or strategy, and usually gets a positive reception.

"D.B. has been really receptive to what we want to do out there defensively," Young said. "He listens to me a lot. Sometimes we'll be giving up shots we shouldn't be giving up because of certain things we shouldn't be doing defensively. He gives me the freedom to change some things and tell him no, we need to do this. And he'll say, 'Go with it.'"

Without much hesitation.

"They're the ones out there," Burke said. "They're in a whole room of experience I've never been in. They're in the dogfight. You have to trust them. He'll go off and do things on his own sometimes and I think he's earned that.

"He's guarded so many guys in this league and he's got a pure heart."

The communication comes during games, too. When the Pacers played in Milwaukee in the second game of the season, Bojan Bogdanovic started on Antetokounmpo. When things weren't going well, Young asked to switch on to him. Wednesday against the Bucks, Joseph asked to switch on to Eric Bledsoe in the second half when Bledsoe got hot.

"I love that," Burke said.

Here's what else Burke and McMillan love: the players aren't satisfied. Those asked after Thursday's practice at St. Vincent Center all expressed a greater desire to improve than satisfaction with the current status

"The numbers are pretty good but we can still be better," Turner said. "It's starting to come along but we still have a ways to go."

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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.

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