The Memphis Grizzlies face the Indiana Pacers for the second time in 10 days Thursday. In the previous matchup Memphis ran Indiana out of Gainbridge Fieldhouse 135-102 behind 21 points from Indiana’s own Desmond Bane. The Grizzlies will be without superstar Ja Morant for a third straight game so I reached out to Indy Cornrow’s writer Caitlin Cooper to update us on the state of the Pacers and what to expect from the game.
1) The Pacers are 2-0 and have scored 120+ in the two games since they last played the Grizzlies. What has stood out to you in those high scoring performances?
Scheme changes and the level of competition. There’s a sizable difference between the chaos Memphis created and whatever Portland was doing on Sunday afternoon with attempted traps and missing weak-side rotations. Haliburton, for instance, only scored 10 points, but he got off the ball quickly, locating the screener for odd-man advantages. In Houston, Goga Bitadze and Jalen Smith were nearly flawless, combining to shoot 17-of-19 from the field, whereas the former wasn’t available against the Grizzlies and the latter, along with Isaiah Jackson, struggled to finish around the length of Jaren Jackson Jr. and strength of Steven Adams, while also wrestling on the glass at the other end.
2) The Grizzlies beat the Pacers 135-102 last Tuesday, what were your takeaways from that game and what adjustments do the Pacers need to make for Tonight’s game?
The Pacers lost by 33 points in a game in which they surrendered 33 fast break points. Since the trade deadline, Indiana ranks 25th in turnover rate and 22nd in points allowed per 100 transition plays – that’s a tough combination against a Memphis team that runs opponents out of the gym. Remember, the Pacers eventually resigned themselves to half-court trapping following halftime just to see if something (anything!) could disrupt the tidal wave-like flow of what was happening in that game. In that regard, while there were certainly some fixable gaffes where the frontcourt got inexplicably obliterated, their best defense may in fact have more to do with their offense: protecting the ball and avoiding the types of quick shots that can easily lead to run-outs.
Of course, the Grizzlies deserve some of the credit for speeding them up in the half-court, particularly during the second quarter, when Jaren Jackson Jr. started switching out at the five, with the Pacers getting outscored 42-24. For the game, Haliburton went 2-of-10 from the field and has a tendency to defer in isolation against mobile centers. He also seemed hesitant a few times with what reads to make even when Steven Adams was in drop, premeditatedly looking for skip passes when avenues to the basket were available, albeit harassed by Tyus Jones in rearview pursuit. If he can strike a better balance and some of the shot-variance evens out, with Indiana shooting 20 percent from deep compared to 15 made triples for Memphis, there’s a chance the next outing could be more competitive.
3) Tyrese Halliburton has averaged 17.4 points in 16 games with the Pacers but shoots it at 49.5% from the field and 41.2% from three. Looking ahead to next year do you see him as a 20 point per game guy or is his best role for Indiana as a facilitator?
As can also be said at times of Ja Morant, Haliburton doesn’t hunt shots. By nature, he rarely forces the action and often chooses to make the extra pass in a way that (typically) breeds both efficiency and inclusiveness. So far, his usage rate (23.5%) has nudged north of what he posted with Sacramento (21.6%), and he’s averaging roughly one additional shot per game over increased minutes.
Moving forward, depending upon how the roster shakes out, the Pacers will need him to be both a scorer and a facilitator; however, rather than specific bench marks in terms of points or assists, the impact of his progress should sooner be assessed by how he adapts against different coverages (i.e. creating advantages against switches in addition to space) and whether he makes strides in forcing defenses to commit, where he can occasionally be too quick to default to premature jump-passes
4) I think the story of Indiana’s season has been injuries, they’ve struggled to have all their guys able to go at once starting with T.J. Warren, now Myles Turner, while Brogdon and Duarte have been in and out of the lineup all year. Where would this Pacers roster stack up in the Eastern Conference if fully healthy?
The story of Indiana’s last several seasons has been injuries, which is why the front office has some big questions to answer this offseason regarding rebuilding versus reloading. The defense has taken another step-back from last season, falling from 14th to 26th, with the team struggling to muster any semblance of a consistent identity on that end of the floor while attempting to patch holes on the perimeter with whatever coverage fits whichever big happens to be playing.
Myles Turner’s presence will certainly be an upgrade in that area, not only as a rim protector but also as a communicator, and T.J. Warren was arguably the team’s best on-ball defender before going down with injury. That said, some of the struggles on that end of the floor predate Turner’s absence, stretching back to the start of December, when they were still defending above the level of screens. To that point, it will be interesting to see if the recent pivot to switching will stick when Turner returns or is merely intended as a temporary band-aid. Either way, strengthening that end of the floor and prioritizing togetherness were laid out as the two major goals for the season. If they can accomplish those objectives, albeit a year late in a more competitive Eastern Conference, the Pacers will improve on this season and perhaps position themselves to sneak into the playoffs/play-in tournament, while also prioritizing internal development.
5) I am fascinated with the Lance Stephenson phenomena, he started out so well this season in COVID relief but has now cooled later in the season. What has he brought to this young Pacers team?
Looking back to the first game the Pacers played against the Kings, when Tyrese Haliburton was still in uniform for Sacramento, Indiana had lineups on the floor featuring Brad Wanamaker, Justin Holiday, Torrey Craig, and Chris Duarte. In short, that is close to being the least amount of playmaking possible. There was also a long stretch this season where the team, and particularly Caris LeVert, had a strange allergy to actually using screens and finding the roll-man.
Enter: Lance Stephenson, who had pre-existing pick-and-roll chemistry with Domantas Sabonis from his prior stint in Indiana. Granted, Lance isn’t going to shoot the ball well enough every game to induce overs like he did when he scored 20 points in the first quarter against the Nets, and his ability to handle and facilitate isn’t in quite as much dire need with Malcolm Brogdon available to be staggered with Tyrese and Buddy Hield, but he reignited the fan base and recently triggered arguably the most memorable highlight of the season, feeding Oshae Brissett with a behind-the-back in transition for a reverse slam.