NEWS OF THE MORNING
No. 1: Pacers-Heat rivalry? It never existed — Paul George‘s less than rousing endorsement of “No. 1” aside, the Indiana Pacers left Miami late Friday night filled with mixed emotions about finishing three straight seasons on the wrong side of the ledger against the Miami Heat. They’d call it a rivalry, their annual tussle with the Heat. Others, however, wouldn’t go that far. Not when the Pacers have fallen in this proposed rivalry in each and every battle that truly mattered. Michael Wallace of ESPN.com points out the differences between a rivalry and what amounts to bullying and why it’s time for everyone to move on:
Make no mistake about it: The Pacers were nothing more than a solid group of antagonists, instigators and irritants that pushed, poked and provoked Miami these past few seasons. But they were never really the Heat’s equal.
At least not when it mattered most.
The East might as well start taking applications now for a new so-called “rival” for the Heat. Because these Pacers were officially relieved of their duties after being dismantled and shoved aside in a 117-92 season-ending loss in Game 6 of the conference finals.
It’s clearly time to move on.
The Heat are headed to the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive season as they pursue a third straight championship. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have known no other outcome since they became teammates before the 2010-11 season.
And for the third postseason in a row, including two straight in the conference finals, the Heat propelled themselves into the championship round after breaking down and eventually stepping over Indiana. The Pacers are all too familiar with the bitter flavor they’ve had to taste after being served and dismissed by the Heat.
Considering some of their actions, antics and comments over the course of the series, I completely expected the Pacers to be defiant in defeat when their locker room was opened to the media after the game. But a team that’s been full of surprises and bucked expectations — both high and low — throughout a turbulent season was true to its unpredictable form late Friday.
It’s difficult to describe just how deflated the scene was inside the visitors’ locker room. As reality sank in that the season ended well short of expectations for the 56-win team that held the No. 1 seed in the East, the Pacers were things they hadn’t been all series.
Sadly accepting that their best, despite three seasons of motivation, isn’t good enough. Not against James and the Heat. Not back then, not now, probably not ever.
“We know what they’re going to do in these moments,” Pacers forward David West said of the Heat as he slumped into his stall and stared at the floor. “And [we] weren’t able to, again, match what they’re capable of. I thought they just were the better team. We got right back to where we got to last year, and they’re just a better team. They’ve got a gear that we can’t get to.”
No. 2: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich made his, now it’s your move Scotty Brooks— Gregg Popovich made his move before Game 5 to right things for his San Antonio Spurs, starting Matt Bonner and then Boris Diaw after halftime in a must-win scenario. Now the pressure is on Thunder coach Scotty Brooks to make a tweak to inspire his team in time to save the season in Game 6 tonight in Oklahoma City. Berry Tramel of the Oklahoman debates the next move in this master game of chess that is playing out in the Western Conference finals:
“I think every series you have wrinkles that you put in,” Brooks said. “Some of them were very subtle that a lot of people don’t see. You have to be able to change things up on whether it’s a scheme or a particular play that we run. We know their plays, they know our plays, and we just have to be able to execute with maximum effort to give ourselves a chance to get a stop. That’s what it comes down to.”
But that’s the point. Those lineup changes have helped execution.
Jackson’s insertion into the starting lineup relieved pressure off Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. The Thunder no longer provides the Spurs a place to hide defensively deficient Tony Parker. Parker has to cover Jackson. The defensive requirements mounted on every Spur.
Increased roles for Bonner and Diaw meant Ibaka’s defensive responsibilities took him farther from the basket, opening driving lanes and limiting Ibaka’s shot-blocking opportunities.
“But it’s more about on that particular night who plays well and who is the aggressor rather than some kind of an O or X,” Popovich said.
Pop doesn’t really believe that, else he never would have started Bonner, who can’t really defend anyone and who long ago fell out of the San Antonio rotation. Brooks doesn’t believe it, either. He’s already shown himself capable of making serious changes in mid-series. So what are Brooks’ options for these two games the Thunder must have to extend its season? Here are three:
1. Play a small lineup with Serge Ibaka at center. Brooks often uses a lineup with Durant at power forward. But in the 71/2 minutes Brooks used the small lineup in Game 5, he always had Kendrick Perkins or Steven Adams in the game. But if Ibaka is the center, he would be on Tim Duncan, not chasing anyone past the 3-point line and thus positioned to better protect the paint.
Such a lineup puts some stress on Durant, who would have to deal with the burly and creative Diaw in the post, but Durant’s interior defense has shown itself to get better the longer the game goes. He’s guarded Marc Gasol and DeAndre Jordan for stretches of these playoffs. Don’t be scared of Boris Diaw.
Heck, such a move could have residual benefits. Durant might save some energy, not chasing a perimeter around screens for 20 seconds a possession.
2. Bring back Thabo Sefolosha from exile. Not to start, but to guard Manu Ginobili off the bench.
The Thunder is having a terrible time defending Ginobili, who absolutely torched Jackson in a 51/2-minute span of Game 5’s second quarter, with nine points on 4-of-4 shooting. That’s when the game got away from the Thunder.
When he was benched, Thabo was in a defensive slump as well as an offensive slump. I don’t know if Sefolosha can slow down Ginobili. But I’d find out.
3. Play Russell Westbrook more.
Funny, how all we hear from Brooks is that Westbrook is tireless. As fresh-legged in the fourth quarter as he is in the first. And we see nothing in Westbrook’s play to dispute that.
And yet, even before the knee injury of last spring and resting Westbrook for precautionary reasons this season, Westbrook always played less than did Durant. In big games or playoff games, Durant routinely has played 45 minutes. Westbrook often dips under 40 minutes.
I’d stop that. Play Westbrook the whole game, unless you need to remove him for instruction or to settle him down.
No. 3: Professional, composed Heat lay waste to Stephenson, Pacers — It’s safe to say Lance Stephenson will go down in Miami lore as one of the true public enemies Heat fans have ever seen. The Pacers’ shooting guard didn’t do himself any favors with all of his antics aimed at LeBron James during the Eastern Conference finals. In fact, all he did was highlight his own immaturity and make the Heat look like the consummate professionals that you would expect the two-time champions to be. Greg Cote of the Miami Herald points his finger directly at the scapegoat from the conference finals:
This was what the full force of a two-time defending NBA champion looks like. This was the Miami Heat when it is challenged, and motivated, and disrespected, and rightfully angry.
And now this is the Indiana Pacers and dirty Lance Stephenson, slinking back to a fan base that should be ashamed by what they have just seen from their team and from the punk who volunteered himself as the ugly face of it.
I don’t mean ashamed because the Pacers lost this Eastern Conference Finals series to Miami 4-2. I don’t even mean because they lost Friday night’s crucial Game 6 here in a 117-92 blowout.
I mean ashamed by the outrageously clownish, unsportsmanlike antics of a player and a frustrated team that has now been eliminated from the postseason by Miami for a third consecutive season.
What a contrast on display Friday in the downtown bayside arena, which rocked as loudly as we have heard it and booed Stephenson with rabid decibels, in a game that simmered on the edge of a boil.
The composed, professional Heat, in search of a three-peat championship, was advancing as expected to the NBA Finals for a fourth consecutive season — the first team to do that since Boston in 1984-87.
And Stephenson, on the other side, was relegated to being an embarrassment to Pacers president Larry Bird, to the basketball-proud state of Indiana, and to the NBA.
Now the Heat await San Antonio or Oklahoma City for a shot at a third title in a row, while Indiana measures its shortcomings.
“It’s bitterly disappointing to lose to this team three years in a row, but we are playing the Michael Jordan of our era, the Chicago Bulls of our era,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “They played at a championship level. They have a way to raise it to a point it’s too much to overcome.”
Miami collected the Eastern Conference championship trophy Friday night. Greater hardware is expected.
Now the Heat turns sights to the Finals, but that anticipation can wait. I doubt anything gave James and Heat players more immediate pleasure as Friday’s rout wound down than finally shutting up an ultimately helpless Stephenson in the manner they did.
At 82-48 the TV cameras caught even stoic Heat president Pat Riley with a small smile. The lead at one point swelled to 37 before reserves came in late.
Michael Beasley, who was inactive, had been crooning an old Commodores song in the pregame locker room: “Easy like Sunday morning …”
Who would have believed the game would be easy like Friday night?
“It was just one of those games we always wanted to play from beginning to end,” Bosh said. “We wanted to make a statement.”
This was a complete beatdown, and the hub of the motivation for that was the Pacers player who grand-marshaled Indiana’s clown parade.
They are the Pacers against everybody else. Against Miami, call them the Indiana Pesters.
Stephenson, the punk who once directed a choke-sign at LeBron, this time said he saw signs of “weakness” in James, creepily blew softly into his ear, launching a million Internet memes and drawing an admonishment from Bird, who told him, “Don’t do that again.”
“That’s not really who we are,” Vogel said.
Well, but apparently it is, though.
No. 4: Phil asks ‘Melo to opt in, stick with Knicks — Phil Jackson couldn’t secure Steve Kerr‘s signature when he needed it, losing out on his first choice as coach of the New York Knicks to the Golden State Warriors. Time will tell if the Zen master can secure the signature of Carmelo Anthony. Jackson is asking Anthony to opt-in with the Knicks for the 2014015 season and allow him to build a team around the All-Star forward. It’s the only logical play for the Knicks, who need a staple for Jackson to craft the team around without a coach or any other franchise anchor available. Chris Herring of the Wall Street Journal has more on Jackson’s ask and Kerr’s decision to jilt the Knicks for the Warriors:
The Knicks’ president, speaking publicly for the first time since Steve Kerr opted to become the coach of the Golden State Warriors instead of the Knicks, said Friday that Kerr had made a verbal agreement to coach the Knicks but ultimately changed his mind.
Now Jackson is doing what he can to make sure Carmelo Anthony is still a Knick next season—and beyond. Jackson said that he asked Anthony to consider opting into the final year of his contract, as opposed to becoming a free agent this summer. Anthony, who has indicated for months that he would opt out of the deal and test the free-agent market, told Jackson that he would give the idea due consideration.
By playing one season in the Jackson regime, Anthony could take stock of whether the Knicks have made any forward progress, potentially make more money (his next deal could start at a higher maximum salary if he opts in), and have a better sense of any other big-name free agents he might be playing with in the future. The Knicks should have considerable salary-cap space come next season, and Anthony, who is due $23.5 million next season, could play a part in trying to recruit stars to New York.
“I’ve told him it might be a good idea to hang in here and see what it’s like for a year, and go on to next year,” Jackson said. “But that’s his option. That’s what he’s earned, and part of his contractual agreement. He has the right to [opt out]. But I just offered that to give him an opportunity to see how this is going to change…with the coaching, the system and the culture we impose.”
Jackson also said that losing Kerr threw Anthony for a bit of a loop, as Jackson had already told the Knicks’ star forward to expect Kerr to become the team’s next coach, as the Journal first reported last month.
“Unfortunately, I had told [Anthony] that Steve Kerr was coming in to coach the team when I felt it was the time to tell him. Then I obviously had to back off that. And we haven’t talked about coaches since,” Jackson said.
SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: What does indemnification mean for the NBA in the Clippers’ sale saga? A legal perspective … The view from Indy; the cause of the Pacers’ demise was emotional immaturity … Pacers’ locker room mixed on what to do with Born Ready … Can the Spurs win the big one without a big game from Tony Parker? … Swaggy P drops his style tips on NBA TV and NBA.com … Oh and yes, Donald Sterling has already filed his $1 billion lawsuit against the NBA …
ICYMI of The Night: Greg Oden will never reach the level of stardom predicted for him when he was the No. 1 pick in the Draft. But he did take center stage during the presentation of the Eastern Conference championship trophy. It’s good to know he has maintained his healthy sense of humor through all of the trials and tribulations he has been through …