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Playoff Assist: Jeff Teague shredded a Pacers' defense spread thin

By Zach Harper | NBA writer

Teague lived in the paint against the league's best defense. (USATSI)
Jeff Teague lived in the paint against the league's best defense. (USATSI)

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For most of the 2013-14 NBA season, the Indiana Pacers were an impenetrable defense. They had wingspans that squeezed the court and funneled everything to their waiting giant, Roy Hibbert, who was ready to turn away shots at the rim. It helped them post one of the best defensive ratings we've ever seen, and made them look like a contender.

For Mike Budenholzer and Jeff Teague, you're not going to break down this traditional defense in a traditional manner. When you're without Al Horford, the Atlanta Hawks' best player, for this series, you can either choose to be undermanned in a traditional basketball sense or you can adapt to today's basketball theory and go to the other end of the spectrum. The Hawks chose the latter, spreading the floor against the Pacers often with five players on the perimeter.

The Pacers can't funnel desperate shot-takers to the big man if he's lurking on the perimeter instead of protecting the rim. The Hawks used a game plan to keep the big men mostly on the perimeter and turn everything into beating man-to-man coverage off the dribble without the threat of second-tier help coming from the Pacers' other defenders. It worked to perfection and Teague carved up the Pacers' defense by getting into the lane whenever he wanted.

In Game 1, 12 of Teague's 19 shot attempts, en route to 28 points, came in the restricted area. He got there time after time by having the floor spaced out and seeing where he needed to attack. The Hawks employed a lot of pick-and-roll action against the Pacers, but Teague did a great job of knowing when to reject the screen, go the other way, and get wide-open lanes to the basket. Part of this was the scheme of Atlanta and part of it was the Pacers looking like fish out of water.

The first play here is a perfect example of the problems the Hawks presented for the Pacers. You've got five players on the perimeter and all of them are threats from outside. Normally in a situation like this, Paul George would be able to drop close to the lane as the weak side help defender. But with Kyle Korver in the corner, you can't leave someone that deadly accurate. This is what helps Teague attack so effortlessly.

If he uses the screen, he is driving toward Hibbert and David West, which would slow his attack. Instead, it's a quick move away from a defender expecting to run into a screen. West and Hibbert are out at the free throw line extended and not fast enough to get to the hoop to protect it. You can't expect Lance Stephenson to leave the strong side corner shooter, so Teague has an enormous driving lane to navigate.

The next play they put Luis Scola into the pick-and-roll coverage, which is already a great tactic to employ. Hibbert is defending the strong side corner 3-point shooter, instead of lurking at the basket. With DeMarre Carroll and Korver on the weak side, you know Teague will see daylight once he turns the corner.

Stephenson expected to move over the screen and chase Teague toward the corner or baseline. Once Teague rejects the screen and goes the other way, Stephenson literally has his back to the man he's supposed to be defending. That's not ideal positioning, unless you're boxing out.

Teague easily turns the corner and George isn't able to properly step into the lane because Carroll can knock down 3-pointers. George Hill has to be respectful of Korver's range and is probably already too far off of him. In this instance, Hibbert has to abandon Millsap in the corner and hope Scola or a chasing Stephenson can make a dash in rotation to help. Hibbert is just standing flat-footed 14 feet from the rim.

The Hawks set up so many of these plays by having their screener initially orbit the man they're setting up to screen. Once the screener picks a side, Teague is observing the floor and going away from the screen with a quick move to find a driving lane the Pacers didn't expect to cover on that possession.

Hibbert and George have to be deeper to protect against something like this. Millsap is 27 feet away from the basket right now and I'm sure you can live with West lightly contesting a shot from there if the pass is made. Korver is in the lane and moving toward West's position so you don't have to worry about him hurting you. If Antic comes down around the left side, you have Hibbert, George, and a chasing Hill there to possibly interrupt the scoring opportunity.

Instead, the Pacers play it in a soft manner and give up another layup inside to Teague.

Late in the game, the Pacers defended this better and actually got a decent challenge on the shot, but they still didn't come close to protecting the paint in the manner we're used to seeing. Teague attacked with a quick crossover on the strong side of the floor as West and George failed to converge on the dribble penetration.

Hibbert has to live with an Antic 18-foot jumper here and already be in the paint. West and/or George have to step into the path and risk needing to recover to the shooter. It would also help if Hill offered more resistance on the drive than a well-oiled saloon door.

This time, Teague uses the screen before hitting his defender with a hesitation dribble and then a crossover to get into the middle of the floor. The Pacers just gave up the middle so easily in this game and they never adjusted to the basic but brilliant attack the Hawks employed to get the ball into the middle of the floor and leave the defense at a disadvantage.

Hibbert should be cheating over on the floor more than he is. Scola should be taking a step in to take away the middle. Stephenson is quickly becoming the weak side defender as Teague drives away from his side of the floor, meaning he could drop down if he wanted to and have a teammate run out on Carroll if the tough pass moving the other way is made. Just look at all of that open real estate inside. Squatters would set up shop there.

Teague was even able to intelligently recognize a post-up denial by Hibbert as a pseudo side pick-and-roll situation to drive away from the post-up as if he were rejecting the screen. They come from a different angle on offense in this possession, but Teague still manages to get into the middle of the floor with ease.

Hibbert is tied up with Millsap and barely facing the basket with his body. George can't drop down any more because Korver is wide open and West never commits to standing in front of the rim like a bouncer with a velvet rope and a clipboard. You could park a Winnebago in the lane right now and not touch any Pacers players.

And just for fun, all of this driving into the lane Teague did set us up for him making Evan Turner into a turnstile on defense. He uses a pull-back crossover to leave Turner chasing a shadow or a ghost or the ice cream truck before realizing he needs to be on the guy with the ball.

This is not proper defense, Evan.

Overall, the Hawks' attack of the Pacers worked and worked efficiently. After the game, Hibbert spoke about being the weak link in the defense against this five-out, spread offense utilized by Mike Budenholzer. Frank Vogel wouldn't comment on adjustments he was going to make, but you can't exactly use a real zone against such a good perimeter team.

It will be fascinating to see how the Pacers adjust their defense in Game 2 and try to leave their rim protector around the rim. It will take more than schematics though to get back on track. Better recognition and effort are paramount to the best defense in the league looking like the best defense again.

If they don't have that, Teague will look like he's still in layup lines for the majority of Game 2.

 
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