There are a million different reasons for the slow motion collapse of the Indiana Pacers over the last few months, but the heart of their problem against the Atlanta Hawks is simple enough - spacing. The Hawks, despite being far less talented, do a much better job of spacing the floor than the Pacers, which has allowed them to take a stunning 3-2 lead in their first-round series. Atlanta plays more guys who shoot 3’s, so they have an easier time getting open shots.
The low point for Indiana came in the second quarter of Game 5, when they were outscored 41-19. Leading the charge for the Hawks was Mike Scott, a second-year 6’8 240 power forward out of Virginia. Scott, who was drafted in the second round in 2012, went 6-6 from the field in the quarter, including 5 three pointers. Luis Scola, whom the Pacers acquired for a first-round pick, Miles Plumlee and Gerald Green, couldn’t stay attached to him on the perimeter.
Indiana’s No. 1 rated defense is built around packing the paint and preventing opposing teams from getting any open looks at the rim. They are one of the biggest teams in the NBA, with a 7’2 Goliath standing in front of the rim next to another 6’9 bruiser and three of the longest and most athletic perimeter players in the NBA in front of them. They were built to beat the Miami Heat, a team full of slashers, but they have no answer for an Atlanta offense that plays five out.
Hibbert has been rendered completely ineffective in this series, forced to defend Pero Antic 25+ feet from the basket and unable to get back to protect the rim. The Hawks top three big men - Antic, Scott and Paul Millsapp - can all step out and shoot three pointers, forcing the Pacers big men to defend out on the perimeter. As a result, the Atlanta guards can operate in a ton of space, with a ton of driving lanes to attack the paint or drive and kick for an open 3.
On the other side of the floor, Indiana hasn’t been able to get enough floor spacing for Paul George and Lance Stephenson to take advantage of their 1-on-1 ability. None of the Pacers top three big men - Hibbert, Scola and David West - can consistently shoot 3’s, so the Atlanta big men can pack the paint and stagnate the Indiana offense. In the first four games, Indiana tried to pound the ball inside and take advantage of their size, but they weren’t efficient enough to make it work.
It’s simple geometry. The Hawks' five out offense forces the Pacers to defend the entire length and width of the floor, while the Pacers two post offense allows the Hawks to clog the paint. All of Indiana’s size and talent has been negated by Atlanta’s numbers advantage. There’s no question that the Pacers are the better team, but in the crucible of a seven-game series, with their offense ground to a halt and Hibbert rendered ineffective, they have to change things up.
They were able to get back into Game 5 by downsizing and going small, moving West to center and bringing in Chris Copeland off the bench. Copeland, a 6’8 235 stretch 4, hasn’t played much all season and was only 2-7 from the field on Monday, but his presence changed the game completely. He was +17 in his 20 minutes on the floor - all of a sudden, Indiana had a guy who opened up driving lanes for their guards and was able to stick with Scott on the perimeter.
Neither Scott nor Copeland has the pedigree or statistics of a big-time player, but they have become two of the most important players in the series. While Scott was a second round draft pick and Copeland had to bounce around Europe for years before getting a shot at the NBA, their skill-set - the ability to stand behind a post player on defense and shoot 3’s on offense - is invaluable to their teams. Every team in the NBA needs at least one stretch 4 on their bench.
We’ve seen that on the other side of the bracket as well. The Golden State Warriors went small in Game 4, moving Draymond Green into the starting line-up and blowing the Los Angeles Clippers off the floor. Green, at 6’7 240, has just enough size to not be destroyed by Blake Griffin and his ability to shoot 3’s and put the ball on the floor put the Clippers defense in a bind. Playing in so much space allowed Steph Curry to go off, with 5 three pointers in the first quarter.
When Green got into foul trouble in the first half of Game 5, the Warriors were much more effective with Harrison Barnes at the 4 than Marreese Speights. In the second half, the Clippers were eventually forced to go small too, at least when DeAndre Jordan was on the bench. Rather than playing Glen Davis, a big-bodied bruiser who can’t shoot 3’s, Doc Rivers moved Matt Barnes to the power forward position and played Griffin as the Clippers backup center.
Adding more shooting is one of the easiest adjustments a coach can make in a playoff series. By the third or fourth game, the other team knows your plays as well as their own, so it becomes increasingly harder to execute in the half-court. You can either turn up the defensive pressure, force TO’s and play more in transition or you can stretch out the defense with more frontcourt shooting. Either way, the goal is for the offense to play in as much space as possible.
The good news is stretch 4’s aren’t that hard to find - Scott and Green were second-round picks that any team in the NBA could have picked up. Their lack of ideal size for the position caused them to slip in the draft, but their skill-set is so valuable that their flaws can be overlooked, especially on a second unit. They may not have the brand name value of a player like Scola or Davis, but the undersized stretch 4 has proven to be more valuable than the conventional 4.
One player in this year’s draft who fits that mold is Oregon senior Mike Moser, a 6’8 230 power forward who shot 38% from three as a senior. Once considered a first-round pick at UNLV, injuries and a transfer have caused Moser’s stock to plummet. He doesn’t have the physical talent of many of the power forwards ahead of him on draft boards, but his skill-set could help teams. If this playoffs have shown anything, it’s that you can never have enough tall shooters.