| Indianapolis Star
Indiana Pacers coach Nate Bjorkgren noticed a tendency in the Boston Celtics’ defense early in the game and did nothing to exploit it, at least not right away.
Bjorkgren knew that Sunday’s game against a quality Boston Celtics team would likely come down to the wire, and like a savvy poker player, he was not going to tip his hand too soon.
The first-year coach waited for the exact right moment late in the fourth quarter and drew up the perfect play for the situation. With the Pacers trailing by one with 11.8 seconds left, Bjorkgren finally struck the Celtics’ weakness.
Bjorkgren knew the Celtics had been lazy with their switches on the perimeter and drew up a play to get one of his best passers and screeners, Domantas Sabonis, an easy drive to the basket.
Justin Holiday inbounded the ball to Sabonis at the top of the key. Holiday curled around Sabonis and the Pacers big man faked a handoff to Holiday, forcing his defender Robert Williams to commit to Holiday ever so slightly. The brief hesitation by Williams allowed Sabonis to turn the corner and finish at the rim through contact for the winning basket.
“It takes a high-IQ coach and a patient coach to draw something like that up there,” guard Malcolm Brogdon said. “You’re getting Domas to his strong hand on the left side of the rim to finish, but at the same time, coach had been seeing them switch that the entire game and he saved it for the literally the last play.
“X’s and O’s and understanding the game like that, being able to make that adjustment at the end of the game, that’s championship basketball.”
Just three games into the season Bjorkgren’s basketball mind has won over his players. He came to the Pacers with a winning pedigree after studying under reigning NBA Coach of the Year Nick Nurse dating back all the way back to Bjorgren’s time as a player at South Dakota with Nurse as an assistant on the coaching staff. The two won an NBA title together in 2019, but making the move over one seat from assistant to head coach isn’t always a smooth transition, regardless of the coaching tree a coach comes from.
Bjorkgren impressed the Pacers players with his coaching acumen early in training camp, and his ability to consistently make the right adjustment fosters more trust in him.
“He’s been great all season so far preseason, training camp. He has a different play for everything and we trust every single one,” Sabonis said. “He knows who’s going off, who wants the ball in his hands at the right moment. … That makes it easier for the players. We all trust him and we just try to execute as best as we can.”
Bjorkgren’s coaching style and philosophies represent a clear shift from former coach Nate McMillan’s and the previous regime. The Pacers are eighth in the NBA in pace of play after ranking 22nd last season. The Pacers are taking more 3’s on offense and are making more in-game adjustments on defense.
Brogdon said they never practiced the Box and 1 defense they deployed to slow down Jayson Tatum in the first half. Even though the Celtics quickly shot them out of the defense with a mid-range jumper from Semi Ojeleye and consecutives 3’s from rookie Payton Pritchard, Brodgon said he appreciates Bjorkgren’s willingness to try new things on the fly to slow down the opposition.
The gimmicky defense did not work, but Brogdon’s ability to shut down Tatum on the Celtics final possession sealed the win. Brogdon said Bjorkgren gave him keys to look for when guarding Tatum and he used them to alter his potential winning 3-pointer.
Bjorkgren’s adjustments out of halftime have provided the Pacers with a spark as well. Through three games the Pacers have outscored their opponents 99 to 59 in the third quarter.
The strong play in the third is a testament to Bjorkgren’s ability to make quality adjustment, but the rookie coach is quick to praise his players for executing what he draws up.
“Credit to the players on (starting 3-0), they’re battling, they’re fighting and they’re not taking possessions off,” Bjorkgren said. “I think even on the offensive end it did get a little physical and sluggish there at times and standstill-ish but I liked it. We were flying around with pace and looking for each other.
“Guys know when somebody needs the ball and they do a good job of getting it to them. So again, a lot of unselfishness with this team.”
Follow IndyStar sports producer Akeem Glaspie on Twitter at @THEAkeemGlaspie.