NBA Film Study: The Sabonis Black Hole, Darius Garland Fun, Where Knicks’ Offense Works

Another week of NBA action, another set of tidbits in the film room. As we think about what we’re thankful for this holiday season, I’m very thankful for Synergy, the video and statistical service that allows us to quickly and neatly dive into these tidbits.

While this week has a heavy emphasis on offensive sets and individual tendencies, we are diving into those niche categories that often can fall under the radar.

Domantas Sabonis vs. Indy’s 3-point desires

Nate McMillan is a product of the tough, rugged 1990s. He was a very good player for the Seattle SuperSonics, serving as a defensive specialist in the backcourt and a high-volume 3-point shooter for the era. McMillan played for George Karl for a chunk of his successes; Karl was known for his high-octane offenses and those Sonics teams were the epitome of up-tempo.

Given that context, McMillan’s Indiana Pacers are all the more puzzling. In the pace-induced and 3-point crazed league, McMillan’s teams are dead last in attempts from beyond the arc. They’re also 25th in pace, per Basketball Reference.

Thus far, the Pacers are 12-6 and the ultimate test in “glass half-full or half-empty.” On one hand, they’ve gotten out to a strong start without All-Star Victor Oladipo, and with injuries to Myles Turner and Jeremy Lamb as well. On the other, they’ve played the NBA’s easiest schedule, going only 3-4 on the road with two of those wins coming at the cost of the injury-depleted Brooklyn Nets (the third road victory was against the Orlando Magic).

What do we make of these Pacers and their auspicious start?

Regardless of your view, there’s a distinct level of untapped potential within this offense that is tied to the shot profile. With some tinkering, the Pacers could ensure they continue to perform while their schedule gets tougher.

We’ve already started to see this change take place. On Monday, November 25th, the Pacers went 18-33 from 3-point range against the Memphis Grizzlies. Starting guard Malcolm Brogdon sounded off to good friend J. Michael of the Indy Star after the contest on McMillan’s willingness to change:

“Coach has been preaching not to be hesitant shooting the ball,” said Brogdon. “We’ve got to shoot more threes to stay up to speed with some of these other teams in the league. We’re good 3-point shooters.”

On its face, the comments from McMillan and Brogdon are accurate. The Pacers have strong shooters, and in order not to lose the mathematic battle to their competitors, they have to take more cracks at it behind the line. But there’s a discord in a few areas that prevent them from doing this, especially Domantas Sabonis.

Indy is sixth in elbow touches, 13th in post-ups and 18th in paint touches. If they aren’t taking threes, what is their emphasis on? They’re not creating free throws, not getting in the lane and not necessarily pounding the rock inside through Sabonis time and time again.

When he does get touches, he zaps the shot clock and drains the possession by slowing down, eyeing his man up one-on-one and bullying through him to the rim.

The biggest issue with that? He’s not kicking it out to open teammates when he’s swarmed with bodies. He gets tunnel vision on drives pretty badly, trying to finish over two and sometimes three defenders:

Double teams don’t deter Sabonis from forcing difficult shots. Instead, he tries to dribble through and around them, sometimes resorting to daring a defense to trap as a badge of pride to see if he can score against it.

More often than not, he’ll over-dribble and turn it over.

When you watch the clips of Sabonis against these post-up doubles, ask yourself a few questions: How long does he have the ball for each possession? Are there any open teammates on the perimeter? What is the reasonable chance of success of an attempt by Sabonis were he to get one off?

The answers to those should be disheartening.

If you’re struggling to see where the kicks should come from Sabonis when he faces extra coverage, allow me to help:

How do you take more 3-pointers when the guy you play through most often isn’t willing to create them? The return of Myles Turner has further stretched the Pacers’ offense—as in, when Sabonis doesn’t have the ball he’s occupying the space around Turner to be more than just a spot-up threat.

There’s no reason to necessarily panic about this offense. Indy’s converting at the rim and missing its best player. Things will likely figure themselves out.

But if the Pacers are serious about changing their shot profile, the first guy they need to see it from is Sabonis.


The Denver Nuggets got a steal in Jerami Grant. On top of stabilizing what is now the NBA’s top defensive unit, Grant is scoring 9.2 points in only 21.9 minutes per game. He’s a great mismatch at the 3 or the 4, zipping past stiff defenders and finishing vertically. A master of simplicity, he knows not to overdo it with dribble moves, jabs or isolation scoring.

One quick jab and a lanky first step is all he needs to get into the lane and to the rim.

He’s gotten so good in these areas that the Nuggets will run a play for him specifically out of timeouts. It’s a nifty misdirection designed to get the defense jumping the other way and raise the help defense to where they can’t help at the rim. All that’s left for Grant to do is to make a simple crossover and then he’s suddenly throwing down a monster dunk:

I love when coaches utilize their role players in a featured way on occasion. Grant is a really good backup and needs his shine. Getting him in situations like this maximizes his use and keeps him engaged to play high-level defense.

Some Darius Garland Fun

I’ve been a pretty huge Darius Garland believer since last Spring.

He’s a natural-born scorer with an insane quickness and change-of-pace. He makes shots from deep, is an accurate passer and plays with a tempo that’s hard to match. Playing alongside Collin Sexton puts him in an off-ball situation more frequently than not, so Garland isn’t dominating the offense with the ball or getting the opportunities like Memphis Grizzlies rookie Ja Morant.

That doesn’t mean Garland isn’t really fun already. He’s impressing with his feel for dribble handoffs—essentially the same two-man action as a ball screen but faster. That means it can put more pressure on the defense if run well, though it also requires a ball handler that can make quick decisions on the fly.

Garland is such a handler. He needs to be making this shot with consistency in order to open up the other facets of his game:

This shot is incredibly important for Garland, who has been a dismal finisher at the rim to start the year.

Making downhill floaters at full-speed will prevent his thin body from taking a beating. Teams chase Garland over the top of screens and handoffs because he’s such a good shooter and, frankly, a poor finisher. He’s going to have defenders on his back a lot.

When he does get space in the lane to toy with the big, Garland has been nothing short of dynamic. He’s already mastered the hostage dribble, a tactic used to toy with bigs that step in his path, preventing them from guarding both the ball and the roller. Garland adds a little extra flair, playing with the bigs by shimmying his shoulders via a second deceptive move that is just out of this world:

Of course, the real prize is Garland’s potential to be a lethal shooter.

In those rare instances where defenders go underneath on handoffs and ball screens, even when they are deep behind the line, he’s making them pay and reading the play appropriately. He steps back and gets his quick wrist-flick shot off with room behind the screen:

At this point, no team should go under anything involving Garland. He hasn’t proven enough at the rim. That’s precisely why it’s exciting to already see growth with his floater and how he manipulates defenders near the basket. He’ll continue to improve and get a feel for the interior game. As it gets better, Garland will be a pretty complete offensive threat.

Inverted New York Knicks Ballscreens

Speaking of pick-and-rolls, the New York Knicks are running a lot of wonky combinations of screens from unique locations, including Julius Randle as the ball handler and a guard serving as the screener:

Good grief. When it’s a shooter like Wayne Ellington or RJ Barrett setting the screen, they are a threat to pop. Randle can either hit them to get an assist or barrel down the lane as the defense scrambles to take away the pick-and-pop opportunity.

A point guard like Frank Ntilikina pops and can facilitate, swinging to find the open man.

According to Synergy Sports Tech, ball screens with Randle as the handler produce 1.276 points per possession–good for the 99th percentile across the league. The Knicks have scored 55.2 percent of the time they’ve run these sets. For a team looking for an offensive spark, this might be a good way to get one. Part of what makes them effective is their rarity, though.

David Fizdale should find a balance between overkill and heightened incorporation.


Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of stats, Basketball-Reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of November 30, 2019.