The problem throughout most of the game, however, was that the Pacers had more shot attempts and were aggressive at the point of attack and with their excursions toward the rim. Forcing the officials’ whistles through rampant rim pressure and forcing mismatches in the paint against a smaller Warriors team covered up for the Pacers’ live-ball shot inefficiency — they attempted 31 free throws, 20 of which were in the first half alone.
And yet, the Warriors were able to squeak past with a 102-100 win, made possible by clutch offense and game-winning defense.
Domantas Sabonis giveth, Domantas Sabonis taketh away
Domantas Sabonis had all the advantages against a small Warriors lineup. By virtue of being taller, stronger, and also being an astute offensive operator, Sabonis powered his way to the rim on several occasions and lorded over the paint.
Sabonis finished with 30 points on 12-of-17 shooting from the field, with 11 rebounds — 6 of which were offensive boards. He was sublime with his rolls to the rim; exquisite footwork in the low-post provided him plenty of scoring angles; his positioning was almost always perfect, while he forced switches against smaller defenders that resulted in overhelping from the Warriors defense — an unusual trait from a squad that has so far strayed away from unnecessary overhelping over the course of this season.
But Sabonis’ offense — provided he’s being used correctly and situated well within his comfort zone — hasn’t been the end that has given some pause about his ability. His defense has typically been put into question. He is an easy target in the pick-and-roll, which is why the Pacers often disguise his troubles on that end with blitzes, hedges, and screen-level step-ups, in an effort to avoid drop-coverage schemes that open up looks for shooters.
The Pacers learned early on against the Warriors that dropping Sabonis back in actions involving Stephen Curry was a recipe for disaster. Dribble handoffs, give-and-go relocations, and the Warriors’ bread-and-butter low-post split action punished the Pacers’ highly conservative coverages:
The Pacers tend to avoid switching with Sabonis on the floor for as much as possible — lest they leave him on an island against someone who can take him off the dribble and feast on his deficiencies in lateral movement:
The Warriors were cognizant of this, and in an attempt to get ahead of the Pacers’ eventual adjustment — which involved high step-up hedges and screen-level coverages — they ran a couple of counters that punished aggressive on-ball coverages.
Emptying the weak-side corner to eliminate weak-side help is a powerful offensive tool that most teams employ, especially against aggressive coverages. The potency of such an action is magnified when the ball handler is Curry — it virtually eliminates the requirement of having an athletic, rim-gravity-generating big, due to defenses selling out and sending two to the ball against Curry.
Kevon Looney certainly doesn’t fit the mold of an athletic, rim-gravity-generating lob threat, but he feasted on a couple of empty side pick-and-rolls with Curry and Jordan Poole as his ball-handling partners.
Myles Turner — miles better than Sabonis as a defender — was victimized on one such possession:
If there is no help coming from anywhere else, the onus is on the roll-man defender to navigate the precarious middle ground between the ball handler and the roll-man — a tough task, even for a rim-protecting menace such as Turner.
What more for someone with little rim-protecting equity such as Sabonis?
Early in the fourth quarter, the Warriors went back to running an empty side pick-and-roll, this time with Curry running things on the ball — which magnified the potency of the action even further:
The quick-hitting nature of the possession above comes from the fact that it was after a defensive stop, therefore allowing the Warriors to run early offense against a non-set Pacers defense. Coupled with shooters occupying one side of the floor, the Pacers were hesitant to send help toward Looney, who had all the space to roll to the rim uncontested.
Sabonis was again victimized later on in the fourth quarter. With Draymond Green flipping the screen to set Curry loose, Sabonis had to scramble to close out against Curry. But Curry is far too quick with his release, and Sabonis — hesitant to fully commit to a hard close-out due to the threat of Curry blowing by — could not prevent Curry from pulling up with abandon:
Clutch defense from Gary Payton II
Clinging to a point lead with 13.4 seconds left on the game clock, the Warriors inserted Gary Payton II, Draymond Green, and Andrew Wiggins in an attempt to stop the Pacers in their tracks.
Payton deserves universal credit for his defense on Caris LeVert, but there was more nuance to the possession than just a straight-up defensive stop:
Went ahead and took a closer look at that clutch defensive possession from the Warriors.— Joe Viray (@JoeVirayNBA) December 14, 2021
GP2 is a defensive beast, but credit to Wiggins and Draymond for timely switching and forcing LeVert to drive to his left -- his weak hand -- which allowed GP2 to stop him in his tracks. pic.twitter.com/H0SNOP8dtZ
Payton (+5.0) and Green (+4.3) both occupy the top two spots in Dunks & Threes’ defensive estimated plus-minus (EPM) list, a testament to the impact that both of them have had defensively whenever they’re on the floor.
Payton has obviously seen fewer minutes than Green — he averages 14.3 minutes, compared to Green’s 30.2 minutes — which could potentially eliminate him from All-Defensive-Team ballots. But it’s hard to ignore the palpable effect he has had during his minutes.
The stop on LeVert, the numerous times he has roamed passing lanes and intercepted passes, and being the tip of the spear during the Warriors’ 1-2-2 zone possessions and box-and-ones speak not only to his versatility, but also to his ironclad dependability on that end of the floor.
No matter what the ballots may say at the end of the season, Payton’s pedigree and body of work make him an All-Defensive-Team-caliber player.