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Bulls vs. Pacers Game Preview and Open Thread

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NBA: Chicago Bulls at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The basketball world was set on fire this summer when the Pacers dealt Paul George to the Oklahoma City Thunder in return for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis. Heading into the season following the trade, the Pacers were ranked near the bottom of the league by most major news outlets. Oladipo didn’t get the message, as the change in scenery did wonders for the Most Improved Player candidate who likely has earned himself an All-Star spot with his play this season.

However, Oladipo is sidelined with a sore right knee, meaning the Bulls will face the same squad that just lost to the 11-25 Dallas Mavericks. Lance Stephenson has started in place of Oladipo in both games he’s missed this season and he is expected to get the nod again for this game.

The Pacers offense is eighth in the league in offensive rating at 107.5 points per one hundred possessions, and much of that is because they run one of the most prolific pick and roll offenses in the league. In fact, Myles Turner is second in the league in PnR possessions despite missing five games with a concussion, and Domantas Sabonis - Indiana’s backup center - is third. Turner is really what makes the Pacers’ PnR game so deadly, as he leads the NBA from that play at 6.9 points per game. Turner is what makes the Pacers’ high ball screens so deadly because he has the ability to step outside and nail mid-range or even three-point jumpers; Turner is pretty much the classic new-era big, with 68.5% of his field goals being jump shots and almost a quarter coming from beyond the three-point line. The Mavericks learned about the Pacers’ pick and pop game the hard way, as Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis stepped out after a high ball screen multiple times to knock down the jumper when both defenders went towards the ball:

  1. Sabonis steps out for the pick and pop mid-range jumper
  2. Myles Turner steps back for the J after setting a screen
  3. Myles Turner hits the 3 after Maxi Kleber leaves him open on a pick and pop
  4. Dennis Smith, Jr. fails to close out hard enough on a Turner mid-range jumper

Thaddeus Young joins Turner in the Pacers starting frontcourt, and, while he isn’t as dangerous of a shooter from the mid-range as his frontcourt counterpart, he can still knock down the triple at a respectable rate. Against the Knicks, the Bulls were able to counter the pick and roll by going under almost all screens because the Knicks are last in the league in 3PTA per game. Chicago won’t be able to do that against the Pacers and their league-leading 39.1% on three-point jumpers as Wesley Matthews learned the hard way on Wednesday night. A lot of that is because of Victor Oladipo and his ridiculous (and probably unsustainable) 42.3% 3PT%, but Indiana still has shooters behind him such as Bojan Bogdanovic, Darren Collison, and the aforementioned Turner.

The fast break is another major facet of Indiana’s offense. Indiana is top five in the league in points off of turnovers; luckily, the Bulls have done a decent job of taking care of the ball this season, ranking sixth in the league in TOV% at 13.7. Despite the low TOV%, Chicago is in the bottom half of the league in both opponent points off turnovers and opponent fast break points per game. Chicago needs to be sure to get back on defense to prevent the Pacers from getting those easy buckets. Furthermore, despite strong play overall, Kris Dunn has been rather turnover-prone this year at 2.9 TOV per game. It’s important that Dunn take care of the ball if the Bulls want to be in position to win this game.

Defensively, the Pacers are below average with a defensive rating of 110.2 point allowed per hundred possessions. Myles Turner is well-known around the NBA for his ability to block shots, and he once again leads the league in blocks per game with 2.4 a night. Despite Turner’s ability to block shots, the Pacers are struggling to protect the rim. Indiana has done a solid job of stopping outside shots this year, as they’re in the top half of the league in opponent 3PT%. However, the Pacers are in the bottom ten in opponent FG% within six feet and the bottom five in opponent 2PT%. It’s interesting that despite having at least average post defenders on paper (Myles Turner, Thaddeus Young, Domantas Sabonis, and Al Jefferson), opposing teams are still having their way inside.

A likely reason for this is the Pacers’ refusal to foul as they’ve allowed the lowest opponent FTA rate. Nate Duncan and Danny Leroux hit on this in one of their recent episodes, saying that while not fouling is normally a positive, it could also be a sign of a lack of aggressiveness. And, besides Turner, the Pacers don’t block too many shots; in fact, they’re nineteenth in the league in team blocked shots per game despite having the overall leader among players. If Chicago can pound the ball down low and avoid Turner (which is easier said than done), they should be able to take advantage of the mediocre rim protection and get some easy baskets.

Indiana likes to play contain on the high PnR by having whoever is guarding the screener show for as long as possible to allow the other guy to recover, then switching back onto the screener once the guard has recovered. Communication is key with this type of PnR defense. If the guard and the big fail to communicate on when the guard is fully recovered, it leads to an easy layup for the opposing team (as shown here by Domantas Sabonis and Cory Joseph). If the Bulls guards can get downhill right after the screen, it creates a 2-on-1 situation where the Indiana big has to guard both the ball handler and the roll man (like here, where Bojan Bogdanovic is slow to recover after being screened and the Mavs get an easy lob for a dunk).

Furthermore, the pick and pop can be difficult for teams who play this defensive style because a) communication must be near-perfect to stop it and b) if the pass goes to the big before the guard has fully recovered, most teams will be forced to switch the guard onto that big to contest the shot, which leads to a mismatch in the post with the offensive big on the defensive guard or an advantage on the perimeter with the offensive guard on the defensive big.

Overall, it’s been a surprising season for the Pacers in the best way possible. However, they’re missing their best player in Oladipo for Friday’s bout in Chicago. Indiana is 0-2 without Oladipo this season with losses to Boston (understandable) and Dallas (significantly less understandable). Let’s see if the Bulls can make it 0-3.

[Thanks to Jack for today’s preview. More games available for sign-up if you’re interested -yfbb]