Defending Damian Lillard: How can Pacers slow down the Bucks star?

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The absence of Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo as he deals with a left calf strain presents a unique defensive challenge for the Indiana Pacers, at least in the interim.

For starters, it naturally shifts attention on the scouting report toward star guard Damian Lillard, who isn’t quite 100 percent as Game 1 edges closer.

But without confirmation on Antetokounmpo’s status — or Lillard’s — game planning for what should be an intriguing series becomes increasingly difficult. How much stock should Pacers head coach Rick Carlisle put on the possibility that Antetokounmpo misses a few games versus potentially the entire series? How does a defense that has ranked in the bottom 10 for most of the season tweak its approach from zeroing in on forming a wall and protecting the paint to mitigating perimeter play?

“We’re just preparing for the inevitable, whether he plays or doesn’t play,” Pacers wing Aaron Nesmith told The Athletic. “We’re going to be ready either way.”

Even without Antetokounmpo, the Bucks should not be overlooked. Lillard is a dynamic, defense-shifting sharpshooter. He’s not Steph Curry, but he’s not far off. With elite three-level scoring, range and underrated ball handling, Lillard’s gravity has a habit of pulling on everything around him, even as he’s adapted to a new universe in Milwaukee. In eight games this season without Antetokounmpo on the floor, Lillard averaged 29.9 points per game (with a tidy 26 made 3s) and dished out 7.6 assists — First team All-NBA-level production.

Ironically, Lillard didn’t look the star against Indiana during the four meetings in which he played. His production fell to 20.3 points per game on just 5.5 made field goals per game, shooting 32 percent from the field and 26.5 from 3 and 2.5 turnovers. But there are some differences between the regular season and the playoffs, just as there are differences between the Bucks team the Pacers beat then and now, that can’t be ignored. 

“I’m not going to give away too many secrets,” Nesmith said on Lillard’s struggles versus Indiana. “They’re a very different team when we played them earlier in the year — different coaching staff, different roster a bit. There are things we’re going to do differently, but we’re excited — it’ll be fun.”

So, how do you go about stopping (or more appropriately, slowing down) a force like Lillard? When scouting or game planning for players, it’s best to work backward. It’s easy to look at the Bucks in a vacuum and see a team that has struggled to score efficiently without Antetokoumpo. According to PBPStats, Milwaukee’s offensive rating — scoring 123.9 points per 100 possessions when both Lillard and Antetokoumpo are on the floor — plummets nearly nine points without the Greek Freak. That’s the equivalent of the best offense in the NBA falling to 21st.

Looking at Lillard’s effective field goal (.516 to .500) and true shooting percentages (.589 to .582), there are relatively small differences seen when Antetokounmpo is off the floor. This can point to several things. In conjunction with Milwaukee’s overall offensive drop, this could be seen as head coach Doc Rivers failing to unlock all facets of the Lillard-Antetokoumpo pairing (not only when they both share the court, but in their staggering). It could also be seen as Lillard being a similar player with or without the presence of another star.

Lillard will have the ball in his hands more, but how much more is the question. During the regular season, Lillard’s usage jumped by 10 percent in the time without Antetokounmpo. A 34.9 usage rate has a strong correlation with his days as a Blazer, surrounded by ill-fitting players who consistently looked for Lillard to bail them out (Khris Middleton’s usage also skyrockets.)

This also impacts Lillard’s shot selection. One of the benefits of having Antetokoumpo on the floor is the ability to create shots for others, not only with his passing but his screening ability. Antetokounmpo’s gravity is different from a shooter like Lillard’s, but it lends itself to his teammate’s relocation ability. Opposing teams expend considerable energy trying to form walls for Antetokounmpo, so much so that they can temporarily forget about Lillard.

Advanced stats can be murky sometimes, but 60 percent of Lillard’s 3s are assisted when Antetokounmpo is on the floor, compared to 30 percent when he’s off. This tracks, considering he can look for his shot more without Antetokounmpo soaking up pressure. When you juxtapose that with his increased usage, it’s fair to assume 70 percent of Lillard’s 3s are self-created pull-up jumpers. And for good reason, he’s connecting on 38.4 percent of his nearly nine attempts per game (Curry’s numbers are 38.0 percent, 8.0 attempts).

This is a dangerous, crafty player we’re talking about. The playoffs are about finding any advantage within the margins. Is that possible against a player like Lillard, who is aware of the attention coming his way? How do you slow him?

“Just showing your hands,” Nesmith said. “Not fouling, not letting him get easy and early ones. Mixing it up, making sure he’s not seeing the same things over and over.”

Around this time last year, following Lillard’s career-high 71-point performance against the Houston Rockets, I sought insight from Jeff Bzdelik — noted defensive guru and former assistant under Mike D’Antoni — on what it took to find success against Lillard.

“If I remember right, he goes best to his left so we wanted to force him to his right,” Bzdelik said then. “He doesn’t shoot as well going to his right. The second thing was when we say force, it’s like an influence — we want to influence him to his right. We made sure we picked him up as soon as he crossed half court, possibly one step in the backcourt. You can’t let him just walk up and start hitting those long-range bombs.”

The Pacers will have to make some defensive matchup adjustments from the last time they faced Lillard a few months ago. Bruce Brown, jettisoned in the January trade for Pascal Siakam, was Lillard’s assignment — by quite a large margin. Brown defended Lillard for a total of 15 minutes and 104 possessions, 55 more than the next defender.

Figuring out what Carlisle does becomes less clear when you realize the “next man up,” who ranked below Brown, is T.J. McConnell — who had four starts this season, none against Milwaukee. McConnell spent eight minutes and 43 seconds latched onto Lillard, a total of 49.2 possessions.

(Buddy Hield, who now plies his trade in Philadelphia, ranked fourth on the Lillard list.)

By process of elimination — and assuming Carlisle doesn’t pull a trick out of his hat and insert McConnell into the starting lineup, all signs point to Andrew Nembhard stepping up to the plate. The second-year combo guard was the third-most used Lillard defender, guarding him for six minutes and 25 seconds and 34.6 total possessions. Nesmith should also receive his fair share, even though Middleton was his most common matchup. This season, Nesmith has emerged as a reliable, switchable 3-and-D option who should give Carlisle options on attack strategies.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Nesmith said playing under Carlisle, who won a championship with Dallas in 2011. “He’s been here before, he’s been all the way, knows what it takes to get to the highest level, the level we’re trying to get to. Just following his guidance, listening to what he has to say to us and taking it day by day.”

Rule No. 1: Switch, show and shade

The Bucks have several capable isolation players who can take advantage of mismatches (Lillard, Antetokoumpo, Middleton) so it makes sense why they would encourage screening. Even without Antetokoumpo on the floor, Brook Lopez causes several problems for opponents — not only because of his floor spacing and pick-and-pop ability but also because of his large frame and propensity to clear defenders out of the way with screens.

Per Synergy, 80 percent of Lillard’s pick-and-roll possessions come from the top of the key, and most of his isolations are from there. It’s a tough task to expect Nesmith to contain Lillard by himself, but watch Nesmith recover (initially tried to force him right) and shade Lillard towards the help (Myles Turner). Turner’s presence is enough to influence Lillard’s shot selection in the restricted area.

Rule No. 2: Length and strength 

Per Cleaning the Glass, Lillard turns the ball over on just 10 percent of his possessions, the 63rd percentile. Historically, he’s done a solid job of taking care of the ball. Indiana won’t have the benefit of relying on Bennedict Maturin’s 6-foot-9 wingspan like in the above possession, but Nesmith is even longer with a 6’10 frame from end to end. The key here is to force him to his right toward the help and rely on active hands to converge.

Rule No. 3: TJ. TJ. TJ. 

Let’s face it — the Pacers will have to get extra physical with the Bucks at some point. The league has seemingly allowed for more of this in recent weeks, and McConnell is up there with the best irritants in the league. He’s going to pick you up 94 feet away with a smile on his face. Lillard wants a switch as soon as he crosses half court to attack the middle of the floor, but he’s met immediately with length and is forced to take another wild shot. You live with these possessions if he makes a shot with this high degree of difficulty.

Rule No. 4: Crowd his airspace

Per tracking data, Lillard is shooting 39.9 percent on wide-open 3s and 35.0 percent on open 3s. On tightly contested looks, detailed by the nearest defender being two to four feet away, Lillard is shooting 28.9 percent on two attempts per game. The same trend exists on his two-point shots: The closer a defender is, the worse Lillard shoots. Now, if he makes tough shots with a defender draped over him, you tip your cap and keep playing. But at this point of the season, there’s truth in the math stemming from a great sample size.

The Pacers are heading into a hostile environment against a weakened opponent. There’s a great opportunity to steal a game on the road, but only if they adopt an aggressive proactive approach to slowing down Lillard instead of reacting to his presence.

(Photo of Aaron Nesmith and Damian Lillard: Stacy Revere / Getty Images)

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