NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Pacers’ woes start from within — To hear Indiana coach Frank Vogel, his team’s claim on the NBA’s best record this season put a target on the Pacers’ backs, turning them into every opponent’s favorite target. While that might be true to some extent, the slump in which Paul George, Roy Hibbert, David West & Co. find themselves now – after suffering their third consecutive loss in the 112-86 rout at Houston Friday – owes more to what Indiana isn’t doing at either end of the court the way it had through the schedule’s first four months. Only the Rockets and the Los Angeles Clippers have avoided a three-game losing streak now, with the Pacers turning to post-game meetings and some mirror-gazing to check theirs, as ESPN.com’s Brian Windhorst wrote from Houston:
The Pacers have now lost three in a row for the first time all season and fallen back into a tie with the Heat in the loss column for the best record. But the chase for that top seed, which has been a Pacers priority all season, was not on their minds as midnight passed in that quiet locker room.
“We haven’t talked about the [No. 1 seed] in awhile,” Hibbert said. “We just need to win games at this point. Something has got to change. Something is going to be addressed.”
There were warning signs even when the Pacers were on a five-game winning streak recently as they had to work harder than expected to beat bottom-feeders like the Boston Celtics, Utah Jazz and Milwaukee Bucks.
“Every team we play is playing above themselves,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Our guys can talk about being the hunted but it’s a different thing to feel it. These teams are coming at us with great force and we’re going to have to rise to the challenge.”
Teams running up the score against the Pacers is not normal. But over the last 10 games their league-best defense has not been league best.
They are allowing 46 percent shooting and 100 points per game in that span. In the first 40 games of the season when they distanced themselves from the rest of the league, they allowed just 41 percent shooting and just 88 points a game.
“We have to get back to what the Indiana Pacers used to be,” George said. “When teams came to play us, they knew it was going to be a long night.”
No. 2: Other side to that coin was Rockets’ payback — Twenty-six points isn’t 34, the number Houston’s players had in mind as a way to avenge their 33-point smackdown by Indiana in Indianapolis in December. The Rockets “only” pushed their lead to as many as 32 before settling for the final margin. But as Jonathan Feigen wrote in his Houston Chronicle blog, team and individual payback was very much in play, as the league’s hottest team in calendar year 2014 starts to sniff its potential:
“That’s all we talked about, every time out, every possession, how they blew us out,” Dwight Howard said. “We didn’t want that to happen. We wanted to get payback.”
Yet, as the Rockets put together a stretch [James] Harden would call their best on both ends of the floor, he could have been thinking of much more than just the third-quarter run to a 30-point lead.
“Always wanted to get back against them,” Harden said after scoring 16 of his 28 points in the knockout punch of a third quarter. “The third quarter was probably the best I’ve seen us play offense and defense in one quarter. We were rolling. These last weeks we’ve been rolling on both ends.”
At that moment, as the Pacers called time out the rout was certain, Harden could have been celebrating his own turnaround against the Pacers. When Harden was done for the night before the third quarter had ended, he had made 10 of 17 shots, including 4 of 7 3s. In his seven previous games against the Pacers, he had made 28.4 percent of his shots, just 24.6 percent in his three games against them with the Rockets.
He could have been thinking off the credibility the Rockets had added to their 2014 rise to a 22-6 record, the NBA’s best since New Year’s, a season-best seven-game home winning streak or their 12-2 record since the start of February when the only losses were in the second half of back-to-backs.
Had he thought of it with the pairing of a win against Heat to go with the blowout of the Pacers, he even could have been marking their season-long dominance of the Eastern Conference in Houston, with the Rockets 14-0 against Eastern Conference teams.
In many ways, however, he might have just enjoyed the clearer-than-ever signs of how much the Rockets have progressed in the months in between.
“We’ve been playing well since the beginning of the New Year,” Harden said. “We kind of got a feel for each other now. We’ve gotten better. We’ve gotten healthy.
“When we hold the ball and let them set up defensively, then they’re great. But if we play fast like we did and make plays for each other, it’s hard to beat.”
No. 3: Phil Jax rumors blow up in New York — The man had taken sabbaticals before. He roared off on his motorcycle after helping Chicago win its sixth NBA championship in eight years in 1998 and sat out the following season before acquiescing to coach Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant with the Los Angeles Lakers. He stepped away again in 2004-05 to recharge and get healthy, then came back for six more seasons and two more Lakers championships.
But Phil Jackson is going on three years now off the NBA stage and out of the daily sports spotlight, so it’s totally understandable that he might be getting a little restless. That restlessness might or might not – remember, we’re talking both rumors and Jackson weighing multiple options at this point in his life (age 68) – land him in New York, running or coaching the Knicks. Here’s some of what ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne wrote on the topic:
Phil Jackson is “ready to go back to work,” a source with knowledge of his thinking told ESPN.com on Friday.
The former Los Angeles Lakers and Chicago Bulls coach has spent the last couple of years working to improve his health — which included several surgeries and a successful fight against prostate cancer — and writing a book. But the itch to return to the NBA in some capacity is strong.
While Jackson has made it clear to any team that has approached him that he prefers a front-office role that would allow him to shape and mold a franchise the way Miami Heat president Pat Riley has, he is open to the possibility of coaching for a short period of time if it was necessary in a transition period for a franchise with championship aspirations, the source said.
He would not consider any coaching position that did not have a significant guarantee of personnel power as well, sources said.
No. 4: Pierce sees Rondo as the next, well, him — Paul Pierce, the beloved forward who returned to Boston again Friday in the jarring black-and-white of the Brooklyn Nets, has seen this Celtics movie before. He knows what it must be like for former teammate Rajon Rondo, who is used to better times and has to endure the losing and no longer sees respect or fear in foes’ faces. But Pierce doesn’t worry about the feisty Celtics playmaker because he sees better days ahead, per A. Sherrod Blakely of CSNNE.com:
“They’re a young team,” Pierce said. “They got a mix of some veterans, some young guys developing. They’re only going to get better.”
And a significant part of that improvement in Pierce’s eyes, is point guard Rajon Rondo.
Rondo continues to look more and more like the four time All-Star that he is, and not the player on the mend from a torn right ACL injury in January of last year.
On Friday, he had a team-high 20 points to go with nine assists and seven rebounds.
“Rondo is ready to lead,” Pierce said. “He’s leading them right now, moving them into the next generation of Celtics. Their future is going to be very bright.”
But in order to fully appreciate what awaits them at the end of the journey, first they must navigate a path that, for now, will be difficult when it comes to winning games.
Seeing the big picture when he was a young player in Boston wasn’t easy for Pierce who admits Rondo’s better prepared for what lies ahead than he was.
“Rondo understands,” said Pierce, adding “He understands a little more than I did at the time. When I first got here (in Boston), I was in rebuild mode, made the playoffs and went back to rebuild mode. Same with him (Rondo). He came in, we were rebuilding. We went through a phase where we were winning. Now he’s back in rebuild mode, but he’s still young enough to see it out to still be in his prime. I know the Celtics are going to do whatever it takes, to get back to that top level again.”
No. 5: Noah bored by whines of “tampering” — So what if it was true that, at some point during All-Star weekend, Chicago center Joakim Noah teased, suggested or even downright pleaded with New York’s Carmelo Anthony to consider signing with the Bulls this summer rather than the Knicks or the Lakers? If that’s “tampering,” the SEC needs to throw a net over the entire NBA for insider trading violations. After the summer of 2010, when Miami’s Big Three of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh came together after huddles and strategy sessions great and small … after the Rockets’ Chandler Parsons inundated Dwight Howard with text messages daily leading up to his choice of Houston over the Lakers … the reports that Noah told Anthony he’d be best off by choosing Chicago seem like so much trash-talking or idle banter. Knicks coach Mike Woodson needs to focus on Xs, Os, Ws and Ls, too, more than on some alleged he-said, he-said distraction. Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times addressed some of what seems much ado about nothing:
Noah was asked about the Anthony rumor after the morning shootaround and never denied it, but he chalked it up as nothing more than March gossip.
“What are you talking about, the gossip going on?’’ Noah said.
“You want me to address that? I don’t feel like addressing it. I really have nothing to say.’’
When asked if the story was accurate, Noah said, “Doesn’t matter. What does that have to do with our team now? It doesn’t matter.’’
[Coach Tom] Thibodeau did take exception to Knicks coach Mike Woodson telling a radio station that Noah broke league rules and was tampering.
“You know, legally, nobody can recruit anyone,’’ Woodson said.
“To me, it’s just a bunch of nonsense,’’ Thibodeau said. “We don’t pay any attention to it, just get ready for [the next game]. . . . It’s all nonsense. We’re just concentrating on our next opponent.’’
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Whew! They must be breathing easier in Milwaukee now, knowing that veteran Drew Gooden, on his second 10-day contract with Washington, won’t have vengeance on his mind when the Wizards visit Saturday night for the way the Bucks warehoused him last season (while paying him a whole lot of cash). … If Sam Malone could do it, maybe Paul Pierce could too: Open a bar or restaurant back in Boston when his playing days are over. Pierce was pondering the future Friday night. … Will Saturday’s clash with UNC be Jabari Parker‘s final home game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, or might he return for his sophomore year rather than enter the NBA Draft pool? OK, we’ll play along. … Knicks center Tyson Chandler didn’t really mean to mock Kevin Love‘s defense, Chandler said via Twitter a day later. … Patty Mills listened to Spurs coach Gregg Popovich — wise move, Patty — and grabbed 10 rebounds.