Posts Tagged ‘C.J. Watson’

Pacers need a lift from their bench

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew previews Game 4 of the Heat-Pacers series

MIAMI – Stop me if you’ve heard this before.

The Indiana Pacers’ starting lineup has outscored the Miami Heat (by 29 points) in its floor time in the Eastern Conference finals. But when the Pacers have had one or more reserves on the floor, they’ve been pretty awful (minus-34). And thus, they’re down 2-1 with a need to get Game 4 on Monday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Yes, this is the same story as we had in last year’s conference finals, when the Pacers’ starters were a plus-49 in seven games and all other Indiana lineups were a minus-77.

With that in mind, reworking the bench was the focus of the Pacers’ summer. They traded for Luis Scola and signed C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland. But in the regular season, lineups that included at least one reserve were only slightly better (plus-2.0 points per 100 possessions) than they were last season (plus-1.8).

In February, the Pacers signed Andrew Bynum and traded Danny Granger for Evan Turner, moves that somehow threw their starters in a funk. They’ve been better in the postseason, but the bench is back to bringing the Pacers down.

The playoff numbers aren’t as bad as they were last season, but Indiana lineups with at least one reserve on the floor have been pretty dreadful offensively and have been outscored by 4.4 points per 100 possessions in 16 games. In this series, they’ve been awful on both ends of the floor and have been outscored by 30.3.

Scola scored eight straight points in the second quarter on Saturday, but has shot 2-for-11 otherwise. Ian Mahinmi has played just 23 minutes in three games. Turner has played just three, and managed to dribble straight into a triple-team upon entering Game 3. Watson has the worst plus-minus (minus-31 in 58 minutes) in the series.

The only reserve that hasn’t hurt the Pacers in this series is Rasual Butler. Meanwhile, the Heat have gotten lifts from Ray Allen, Chris Andersen, Norris Cole and Rashard Lewis, all of whom have been trusted and empowered much more than anyone on Indiana’s bench.

That’s why some of this has to come back on Pacers coach Frank Vogel. In a sprint for the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage (which they lost in Game 2) from the start of the season, the Pacers weren’t willing to sacrifice games to develop their bench. Over the last two seasons, the Indiana starting lineup has played almost twice as many minutes (3,429) as any other lineup in the league.

Part of that is health. They’ve been fortunate that none of their starters have missed more than eight games in either season.

Part of it is dependence. When the starters are much better than the reserves, teams tend to stick with them for longer minutes.

But part of it is a lack of foresight. Scola, Watson and Mahinmi had regular roles during the season, but guys like Copeland and Butler were basically used in garbage time.

And so, while the Heat can adjust their lineup however they need to according to the matchup or who’s playing well (witness Cole and Allen helping them destroy Indiana in Saturday’s fourth quarter), the Pacers are rather rigid.

When his team is struggling to match up with Miami’s small lineup in transition and David West is chasing Allen around multiple screens, there’s little Vogel can do. He isn’t going to take West off the floor, because he’s his most stable and dependable player. If he benches Roy Hibbert, Vogel has lost his rim protection against the best rim attacker in the league.

Foul trouble is another problem. With George Hill and Paul George forced to sit extra minutes in Game 3, the Pacers’ defense didn’t hold up. Lance Stephenson was forced to play all of the final three quarters and looked gassed as the Heat pulled away in the fourth.

In its last six wins, Miami has outscored its opponents in the fourth quarter by an average score of 26.5-19.5. The Heat haven’t been superb all game, every game, but they get it done when they need to.

Might the Pacers’ starters be able to hang with the champs better in the fourth quarter if their reserves had given them a little more production and rest earlier in the game?

That question may still linger if Indiana doesn’t turn this series back around on Monday. To do that, they’ll need more production from the bench.

Film Study: Allen takes advantage of matchups, lapses to put Pacers away

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com


VIDEO: All of Allen’s clutch 3-pointers from Game 3

MIAMI – Ray Allen is the all-time leader in both regular season and postseason 3-pointers, a fact that the Indiana Pacers might want to remember when Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals tips off on Monday night (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Allen’s four fourth-quarter threes helped turn a two-point game into a comfortable Miami Heat win and a 2-1 series lead. The Heat’s comeback from an early 15-point deficit was keyed by defense, but they put the game away with another big fourth quarter. Miami has scored a ridiculous 132 points per 100 possessions in the fourth quarter over the last two rounds.

It’s not a coincidence that that’s the quarter when Allen has played his most minutes. Against Brooklyn and Indiana, Allen has played 32 minutes in the first quarter, 65 in the second, 32 in the third, and 85 in the fourth.

When you have the league’s best attacker and you complement him with the best shooter of all-time, you’re going to score some points. As such, LeBron James creates open shots for Allen … and Allen creates space for James.

And sometimes, the defense makes it easy for them. According to SportVU, all four of Allen’s threes in Game 3 were uncontested. According to the video evidence, they were mostly a result of Pacer mistakes. (more…)

Blogtable: The Vogel dilemma

Each week, we’ll ask our stable of scribes across the globe to weigh in on the three most important NBA topics of the day — and then give you a chance to step on the scale, too, in the comments below.


BLOGTABLE: Winners, losers so far | The Vogel dilemma



VIDEO: Inside the NBA looks at the Hawks’ last win over the Pacers and the rest of the series

> We’ve asked before, but it’s critical now: Is there anything Frank Vogel can do?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: It’s awfully late, perhaps too late for Vogel to make a bold move and stop his team’s freefall. But the straw he can grasp at is sitting down Roy Hibbert completely for what’s left of the Atlanta series. The big fellow has a bad matchup defensively vs. Pero Antic in the Hawks’ “stretch 5″ attack and doesn’t have a comparable edge at the other end because he’s not a go-to low-post guy. Get Chris Copeland or Luis Scola in there and see what happens, Hibbert’s fragile confidence be darned. Vogel soon enough will have either a new series – or a long offseason – to rebuild it.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Vogel could take one of those hammers out of the bag from my previous answer. Or he could try to find a jersey that would fit 57-year-old Larry Bird. Or call the bowling alley for Andrew Bynum.  It’s not exactly the time to turn the season over to Ian Mahinmi. All you can do is appeal to their pride and their professionalism — if there’s any left — and go back to the fundamentals of training camp.

Frank Vogel (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE)

Frank Vogel (Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: I’m not a religious man. But I pray.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: No, it was critical before. We know this with hindsight because whatever funk the Pacers fell in, they never really came out. An occasional good moment, a lot of bad moments as the problems lingered. As for now, I would obviously consider a lineup change. That’s the natural reaction, and it’s not like I would have anything to lose at this point. Keep digging for answers.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: He has to play small and short. By “small,” I mean that he should play David West at center, give Chris Copeland some playing time, space the floor, and defend the floor-spacing Hawks. By “short,” I mean to limit the rotation to guys that might actually contribute in a positive fashion. Play George Hill, Lance Stephenson, C.J. Watson and Paul George on the perimeter, with West, Copeland and Luis Scola up front. Evan Turner’s been as much of a disaster defensively as Roy Hibbert has been offensively.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Critical? How about a Code Red? If you’re Vogel, all you can really do is pray the Hawks stop knocking down 3-pointers. Seriously, I don’t think there is any coming back from the humiliation that the Pacers are drowning in against the Hawks. Vogel is a good man, a good coach and probably doesn’t deserve everyone piling on him right now. That said, it’s ultimately his responsibility to make sure his team is prepared for the challenges of the playoffs. And the fact that the No. 1 seed Pacers cannot solve the No. 8 seed Hawks speaks volumes about the disconnect between Vogel and his locker room.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball Blog: As a lifelong Hawks watcher, the most chilling thing to me was at the end of Game 5 when Vogel finally put in Chris Copeland and the Pacers suddenly looked alive. He’s had that option tethered to the bench most of the season — playing smaller and creating more drive-and-kick space. But that mostly requires Hibbert on the bench. Maybe they stumbled into it, but the Pacers seem to have found a lineup concerned with action than reaction. Whether or not Vogel can commit to go small and seat franchise center Roy Hibbert on the bench the rest of the way against the Hawks is another matter altogether.

Pacers’ Game 7 Quest A Worthy Goal


VIDEO: Paul George scores 36 as the Pacers take down the Clippers

Be careful what you wish for.

As adages go, it’s not the most inspiring, right? Chase your dream, go for it, you only live once, flyin’ high now … except maybe you’ll regret it later. It’s the kind of conflicted message that, imparted at just the right time in a person’s life, keeps the shrinks’ and therapists’ kids in private schools.

The Indiana Pacers aren’t worried about all that. They want what they want. And they want home-court advantage in the NBA playoffs, specifically in the Eastern Conference finals (should they manage to get there).

They want it for the same reason they’re supposed to want Andrew Bynum – so the Miami Heat can’t have it. The value of being at home for the ultimate game in a best-of-seven series was seered into the Pacers’ brains June 3 – Miami 99, Indiana 76 – and has been the clearest, most shining goal in their tear through the season’s first half with the league’s best record.

The obvious downside, potentially, is that chasing that regular-season goal might sabotage the Pacers in their pursuit of the bigger prize: the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Coach Frank Vogel, breakout star Paul George, center Roy Hibbert – the ViceRoy of Verticality – and the rest have been asked about the potential for stubbing their toes almost as much as they’ve been asked about the championship itself.

Yet here they sit, nearly halfway through the grind, with a 3.5-game lead over the Heat and 1.5 over San Antonio and Portland in the Western Conference. None of the Pacers has broken down, no one has come up lame. They open their longest trip of the season Monday night at Golden State, a five-gamer bouncing through the West, showing no signs of flagging or peaking too soon.

Indiana targeted its brass ring for the season and methodically has gone after it. It has given them an identity and a purpose, and imposed some order on what – for the best teams, the ones likeliest to be playing in June – can be an amorphous and ponderous six months.

This has not been a burden, George said Saturday after a 106-92 victory over the Clippers.

“Not really. I don’t see it within this whole locker room,” the Pacers’ All-Star guard said. “It feels great going out there. I really don’t see it draining us. We just want to build habits for our team right now.”

The Miami Heat can scoff, wag a finger and remind the Pacers and their fans that one false move in a Game 1 or Game 2 come springtime – a squandered lead, a fluke play late – can flip the home-court advantage back to them. The two-time defending champions also can talk ominously about burnout, overuse injuries or other ills that could befall Indiana as a result of pushing so hard through 82.

Now, the Heat didn’t much heed such talk when they were winning 27 in a row last winter. But they have earned the right to “manage” the schedule and, given Miami’s roster, discretion rather than over-exertion is the better part of valor. The same might hold for San Antonio with its wrinkled wonders, though pacing the Spurs through the regular season hasn’t brought a ring home lately. The last time San Antonio won (2007), its main guys still were relatively teething.

Biggest difference, DefRtg vs. league average
Team Season DefRtg Lg. avg. Diff.
Indiana 2013-14 92.6 102.9 -10.3
Boston 2007-08 96.2 104.7 -8.6
San Antonio 2003-04 91.6 100.0 -8.5
New York 1992-93 97.1 105.3 -8.2
New York 1993-94 95.8 103.6 -7.8
Detroit 2003-04 92.5 100.0 -7.5
San Antonio 2004-05 95.8 103.1 -7.3
San Antonio 1998-99 92.1 99.2 -7.1
Chicago 2010-11 97.4 104.5 -7.1
Chicago 2006-07 97.0 103.7 -6.7
Since turnovers started being counted in 1977-78
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions

Developing habits, throwing victories on the pile and working game-by-game through the schedule as if building something magnificent brick-by-brick suits these Pacers. They’re young enough: George and Lance Stephenson are 23, Hibbert just turned 27, point guard George Hill is 27, and they’re the only guys averaging 30 minutes or more. They’ve been healthy: with the exception of Danny Granger, Hill (three) is the only member of their top nine who has missed more than one game.

Besides, it’s not as if they’re going to suddenly decide: “Nah, never mind. Not worth it.” Indiana is 21-1 at home this season. The Pacers have had a home-court edge like few teams, dating back to before several on this season’s team were born: 25 consecutive winning seasons in Indianapolis.

Bankers Life Fieldhouse was packed and crazed Saturday, on a snowy January night despite whiteout conditions on the highways leading downtown. And before Game 7 last June, there was Game 6, a blowout Pacers victory in which LeBron James was a minus-22.

By the way, in that game, Indiana’s reserves chipped in just eight points on 3-of-5 shooting. But that was then – this season’s bench is one reason Vogel and the Pacers feel they can push hard and go deep. Where once there was Tyler Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin and Sam Young, there is Luis Scola, C.J. Watson and Granger, renewed after his knee and calf layoffs.

Scola is shooting 50.2 percent and matching his career best of 10.4 rebounds per 36 minutes. Watson has been shooting 51.3 percent in fourth quarters, including 43.9 percent from 3-point range, with 46 percent of his makes coming in that quarter. Granger patiently probed the Clippers defense Saturday, gave Doc Rivers‘ crew another threat to account for and wound up with 12 points, scoring in double figures for the ninth time in 14 games back.

“We’ve got a lot of weapons in this locker room and we’ve always had a next-man-up mentality,” said power forward David West, who seemingly put Indiana in harm’s way Saturday with his flagrant-2 foul on Blake Griffin at the end of the second quarter. “If a guy goes down – like tonight, I got ejected, or a guy gets injured – the next guy’s got to be ready to step up.”

Every team and coach in the NBA says that, and it’s easy for the ones that have stayed healthy. Then again, real depth is real depth.

“I think we wear teams down,” backup forward Chris Copeland said. “We go as-many-players-as-you-want deep. Every lineup, every unit that [Vogel] puts on the floor is dangerous.”

Pretty much: Of Vogel’s top 10 heavily used lineups, only one (Hibbert, George, Hill, Scola and Orlando Johnson) has been “underwater” with a 79.9 offensive rating vs. 107.6 defensive rating. And they’ve been on the floor together just 30 minutes out of 1,877 this season.

Otherwise, the Pacers have been taking names and kicking rears. They have lost two games in a row only once so far, and of their seven defeats, five have come on the second night of back-to-back games. And guess what? There are no back-to-backs in the playoffs.

Look, be careful what you wish for isn’t bad advice. At its core, it suggests a cautious approach while, y’know, still wishing for something big. Literature, film and TV are rife with examples of great quests that end without payoff: The Maltese Falcon that inspired so much skullduggery ends up being a fake in the end. The ark that propelled Indiana Jones across continents is crated and warehoused by the end of Raiders. Don’t even get me started on Moby Dick.

But the Pacers’ hearts want what they want, and there’s no putting them off that goal now. If they get it, and even if Miami or someone else snatches away the home-court advantage early in a series, Indiana still will have at home – where its players, coaches and fans believe it matters – any Game 7 it faces.

That is worth chasing.

Augustin, Bulls Cozy Up In Marriage Of Point-Guard Necessity


VIDEO: D.J. Augustin misses the jumper but intercepts the pass and feeds Luol Deng for the layup

CHICAGO – Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls, supernova talent from the city’s South Side and NBA franchise in search of its 1990s championship pedigree again, is a match made in heaven (with a couple of recent hellish turns).

D.J. Augustin and the Bulls? Strictly a marriage of necessity.

But when someone needs someone to pick up the kids or the dry cleaning, and both someones need each other to get through a chilly winter night, those types of unions – borne of desperation – can be better than nothing.

Which is what Augustin and the Bulls essentially had a couple of weeks ago.

Augustin – the Texas point guard drafted by Charlotte eight spots after Rose in 2008 but worlds apart in NBA impact and arc – had been cut loose by the Toronto Raptors earlier this month in a post-Rudy Gay trade roster shakeout.

But it wasn’t just numbers; Augustin hadn’t played in nine of Toronto’s previous 12 games, sliding down and finally off the team’s depth chart. On the heels of an unsatisfying 2012-13 season as Indiana’s backup to George Hill – a role for which the Pacers sought out former Bull C.J. Watson – it seemed as if Augustin’s career might be Euro-bound or worse.

Then there were the Bulls, losing Rose to a season-ending injury for the second time in 19 months. Veteran Kirk Hinrich got thrust into Rose’s spot in late November but after 10 NBA seasons, Hinrich is only duct tape-and-baling wire durable, a race car in need of trainers-room pit stops every other lap or so.

That left Marquis Teague, little-used as a rookie last season and underwhelming enough lately to merit a redshirted sophomore year as well. And Mike James, 38, an insurance player exposed as inadequate even as a catastrophic policy.

So the Bulls turned to Augustin, the best of whatever bunch was available on the street or in the D-League. He played the night he arrived, logging 12 minutes and doing little else against Milwaukee, and in the five games since. In the past four, Augustin has started three and averaged 37.6 minutes, 13.8 points and 8.0 assists, while shooting 44.2 percent.

His career stats prior to Chicago: 24.1, 9.4, 3.9 and 39.9 percent. Augustin had 18 points and 10 assists, his first double-double since April 2012, to help the 10-16 Bulls beat Cleveland at United Center and snap a four-game losing streak (Kyrie Irving had 14 and 5).

“This is good for him but it’s good for us. We both need each other,” Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau said. “When you look at his entire career, his first two years in the league were terrific. Even last year, I thought he had some very good moments in the playoffs.

“He’s been a little up-and-down. Sometimes that’s not uncommon for a young player. But you can see that he has a lot of confidence. I like his skill set, that he can run a pick-and-roll, he can shoot, he can make plays. And I like the way he’s competing defensively. Each game, you can see he’s making a conscious effort to do the right things.”

All those things Thibodeau listed, other coaches with other teams eventually found lacking in Augustin. Their focus shifted to the negatives: Smallish, struggling to defend his position, shooting 36.5 percent since 2010-11.

But the Bulls were beggars, not choosers, when they scooped up Augustin after he cleared waivers. The players in their locker room were conditioned to follow their point guard’s lead. To them, in the moment of Rose’s latest knee injury, Augustin was the cavalry riding over the hill and they’re treating him as such.

“That’s an important leadership quality also,” Thibodeau said. “When you look at your point guard, you’re looking for someone who can unite and inspire your team. And I think he’s doing that with our guys.”

Augustin did that with Charlotte, under Larry Brown, for a couple of years, and then he didn’t. The way his play and minutes went with Indiana and Toronto, there wasn’t much uniting and inspiring going on when he took the court.

Now that he’s with his fourth team in three years, Augustin – in a puny sample size, admittedly – might be praying to Chauncey Billups, the NBA’s patron saint of early-career knockaround point guards, and hoping this run with the Bulls continues.

“I know how the NBA is,” Augustin said late Saturday, at the end of his from-disposable-to-indispensable week. “It’s a business. … You never know what can happen. The situation in Toronto, I didn’t get down on myself and I kept working hard and came here, and I’ve been playing a lot. I think if I got down on myself, I wouldn’t have been ready to play.”

There’s no way to get ready for 46 minutes, Augustin’s workload against Cleveland, other than gutting them out. The point guard has done extra work in the gym and with video, familiarizing himself with Chicago’s plays and his teammates’ tendencies. The tough head coach with the grind-it-out mentality Augustin saw as an opponent, but now he appreciates all that from the inside.

Beats the alternative, too. Everyone wants to be wanted, particularly around the holidays.

“We’re a team,” Augustin said of his latest hoops home. “Every night we go out and fight as a team. They’ve been embracing me pretty well here. I love it, I love all my teammates, I love Coach Thibodeau. You know, I love it here.”

One Team, One Stat: Pacers Defend It All

From Media Day until opening night, NBA.com’s John Schuhmann will provide a key stat for each team in the league and show you, with film and analysis, why it matters. Up next are the Indiana Pacers, who were one game away from reaching The Finals..

The basics
IND Rank
W-L 49-32 8
Pace 92.8 25
OffRtg 101.6 19
DefRtg 96.6 1
NetRtg +5.0 7

The stat

1st - Where the Pacers ranked in defending the restricted area, defending corner threes, and defending above-the-break threes.

The context

Those are the three most important areas of the floor, so yeah, the Pacers had the best defense in the league. The last team to lead the league in defending the restricted area and the 3-point line was the 2000-01 Spurs.

Roy Hibbert was largely responsible for the Pacers’ success at defending the rim. Indiana opponents shot just 50.4 percent in the restricted area with Hibbert on the floor, the lowest mark for any defender in the league who faced at least 500 restricted-area shots from opponents. Indy opponents shot 57.2 percent in the restricted area with Hibbert off the floor.

The general idea behind the Pacers’ defense is that, with Paul George sticking to the opponent’s best wing scorer (even through screens), Hibbert was able to stay home at the rim and the other guys were able to stay at home on shooters. Of course, that’s a lot more simple than it really is, and the Pacers do help off their man. They just don’t over-help and make the same communication mistakes that we saw in the Nets’ video last week.

Here are clips from Game 6 of the first round, where the Hawks shot just 9-for-19 from the restricted area and 3-for-19 from 3-point range…


The Pacers’ biggest issue last season was their bench. But their bench defended the 3-point line a lot better than their starters did. In the regular season at least, Indiana’s depth issues were all about offense.

Pacers’ efficiency and opponent 3-point shooting, regular season

Lineups MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/- Opp3PM Opp3PA Opp3PT%
Starters 1,218 108.6 96.5 +12.1 +284 136 376 36.2%
Other lineups 2,698 98.5 96.7 +1.8 +42 304 968 31.4%

A lot of that is the opposing lineups the bench was facing. The were facing other reserves who didn’t shoot as well or even create as many open shots. But that 36.2 percent from beyond the arc that the starters allowed would have ranked 19th in the league. And every player in the Pacers’ rotation had a on-court DefRtg of less than 99 points per 100 possessions. After Tony Allen (94.3), Gerald Green had the lowest on-court DefRtg (95.1) among players who logged at least 1,000 minutes last season.

The playoffs were a different story though…

Pacers’ efficiency and opponent 3-point shooting, playoffs

Lineups MIN OffRtg DefRtg NetRtg +/- Opp3PM Opp3PA Opp3PT%
Starters 414 109.5 94.7 +14.8 +126 49 146 33.6%
Other lineups 502 94.5 107.4 -12.9 -123 85 231 36.8%

So the Pacers went shopping for a bench this summer. They said goodbye to D.J. Augustin, Green, Tyler Hansbrough and Sam Young, bringing in Chris Copeland, Luis Scola and C.J. Watson. The return of Danny Granger also boosts the second-unit offense, whether it’s Granger or Lance Stephenson coming off the bench.

The Pacers’ offense should definitely be better. But it will be interesting to see if the second-unit defense is as strong as it was last season. As both the Bulls and Pacers have shown over the last few years, ranking No. 1 defensively takes 10 guys.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions

Pacers May Look To Stephenson To Put A ‘Whoa!’ To Bench Woes

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CHICAGO
– Some phobias can be worse than others, depending on one’s circumstances. For someone who makes his living in the NBA, gigaphobia – a pathological fear of tall people – would be a problem. So, for that matter, would aerophobia, the fear of flying.

But the five players who started most often for the Indiana Pacers last season set clinicians’ tongues to wagging when they began to develop an oddly contagious case of kathisophobia.

Otherwise known as the fear of sitting down.

“There were times we felt like guys should stay in the game,” center Roy Hibbert said Friday night, “and that we always should have at least two or three starters out there.”

Sitting down became a scary proposition for the Pacers’ starters because no team experienced the sort of performance dropoff – primarily  offensively – that Indiana did when three, two or even just one bench guy subbed in.

When the first unit of Hibbert, David West, Paul George, Lance Stephenson and George Hill was on the floor in 2012-13 in regular season games, Indiana had an offensive rating of 108.6 and a defensive rating of 96.5 for a net of 12.1. When any other lineup was out there, the advantage flattened (98.5/96.7/1.8).

A group of reserves – primarily D.J. Augustin, Ian Mahinmi, Gerald Green, Tyler Hansbrough and Sam Young – that was supposed to develop into something reliable never did.

“In the beginning of the year,” West said after the preseason loss to Chicago at United Center Friday, “we were playing 10, 11 guys, and I don’t know if that worked as well as we hoped. We made some adjustments, making sure there were a couple starters on the floor at all times. Found some lineups in terms of chemistry that worked, and things started to get better for us.”

Maybe, but it didn’t last. The dropoff got much worse in the playoffs: 109.5/94.7/14.8 for the starters to 94.5/107.4/-12.9 for the backups. And in the Eastern Conference finals against Miami, the simplest way to put it is that the Pacers’ first unit outscored the Heat by 46 points. But the bench guys got beat by 74. It only went seven games because the Hibbert-West-George-Stephenson-Hill group stayed on the floor longer than all other combinations put together.

Understandably, there have been changes. Augustin, Green, Hansbrough, Young and Miles Plumlee are gone. Mahinmi is back, but he has been joined by guard C.J. Watson, forwards Luis Scola and Chris Copeland and rookie Solomon Hill. Danny Granger is back, too, after missing almost the entire season with a knee injury, adding to what is hoped – no, actually what had better be – a deeper, more reliable roster. Top to nearly bottom.

The Pacers’ 0-5 mark with 11 days left in the preseason isn’t a cause for panic yet. Their schedule has been outrageous, with the longest of the NBA’s Global Games trips (Philippines and Taiwan) and now a stretch of four consecutive October road tuneups. Granger still is working his body and conditioning into game shape. Derrick Rose went on a 32-point romp in an early-comeback performance with a 2010-11 smell.

Still, the newness of all those freshly acquired Indiana subs has been showing.

“Obviously we’ve added some experience,” West said, “But we’ve got to get guys acclimated to the way that we play. It’s taking us probably a little more time than we expected, but we have faith in the guys in this locker room. And we know the [defensive] mindset, our approach every single day, is something guys have got to adjust to.”

Scola, for instance, was indecisive and out of rhythm against the Bulls Friday, shooting 1-of-5, committing three turnovers and holding the ball out top while desperately seeking unfamiliar teammates. The 6-foot-9 veteran is considered one of the prize pickups of the summer, an international star who has averaged 14.2 points and 7.5 rebounds in six NBA seasons. But he also started 371 of 386 games the past five years, so his preseason stats (9.0 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 36.4 percent shooting) can be attributed in part to his new role.

New system, new coaches, new teammates, new emphasis on defense, new role – it’s a lot.

“I hope I can bring a lot,” Scola said Friday. “I’m not sure. I’m trying to find a way to be more effective in this position. I’m not sure exactly how it’s going to work out. It’s just a different way to play.”

Watson is averaging 6.0 points with 11 turnovers to five assists. Copeland got on the floor for 12 seconds against the Bulls and has missed 26 of his 34 field goal attempts. Teams have outscored the Pacers 500-453 through five games.

The Granger-Stephenson decision eventually has to get made, too. Initially, lots of folks took the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach, suggesting Granger be used off the bench to avoid, at least, disrupting the bankable starting five.

Then again, Granger’s shooting range could be a big help to the first group. And Stephenson, who subbed in for the first time this preseason Friday, really asserted himself with the backups. He fouled out after missing some key free throws late, but Stephenson scored 11 points with seven rebounds and eight assists, playing 34:22 partly because Granger’s left calf strain flared up.

“I’ve always started, so obviously I’m more comfortable doing that,” Granger told NBA.com afterward. “And Lance, he’s more of a playmaker. So when he’s in the second group, I think he actually excels more. He has the ball in his hands, he can make plays. When he’s with the starting group, the ball’s going into the post or Paul [George] has it. I play off the ball a lot.”

Coach Frank Vogel said he called a play for Stephenson “nine or 10 straight times” against the Bulls. If the fourth-year wing can take a stride this season similar to what he did last season, he or Granger can bring serious relief to the Pacers’ backups.

The thing is, with expectations high for a run at The Finals, there really is no room for if’s.

“He’s just a load,” West said of Stephenson. “He’s a playmaker, a shot maker, a shot creator. Lance is a big part of what we’re trying to do, and he has to have a great year for us. He’s beyond that stage of kind of proving himself. It’s time for him literally to be who we know he is.”

Soon enough, it will be time for the Pacers’ upgraded bench to prove that it is, too.

Manila Thrilled, But A Tad Bit Subdued, With Rockets’ 20-Point Win Over Pacers

 

MANILA, Philippines — It was 2 1/2 hours before the historic first NBA tipoff in Southeast Asia when the Rockets’ team bus pulled up to the stage door entrance at Mall of Asia Arena and was greeted by a throng of several hundred Filipino fans.

This was the night that the NBA’s most rabid international following had waited more than six decades to see. The hope of catching a glimpse of the stars toting luggage was enough to create a noisy stir.

“Rockets! Rockets! Rockets!” came the chant from behind the barricade. Then it was followed by “Harden! Harden! Harden!”

James Harden, the All-Star guard, had already entered the tunnel and walked up the ramp when he suddenly made a U-turn and went back outside with his cell phone raised to takes videos of the fans with one hand while pumping a fist into the air with the other.

It was thought to be a prelude to the general craziness that would consume the atmosphere out on the court. But the emotional intensity and anticipated craziness never materialized from the crowd of roughly 20,000 that paid anywhere from $13 to just under $800 face value for tickets. An early evening downpour tied up traffic outside the arena. The game began with large blocks of empty seats.

In the end, it was not exactly the Thrilla in Manila.

The in-game atmosphere  seemed to be more studying, nodding, learning and taking in the proficiency of the NBA teams than mass hysteria. The Filipino fans rarely came out of their seats. A glimpse throughout the building saw few hands full of snacks, drinks and beers as the fans focused on the event.

Omri Casspi led the Rockets with 17 points, Donatas Motiejunas had 16, while Harden and Chandler Parsons scored 15 points each as the Rockets went wire-to-wire for a 116-96 win. Dwight Howard had seven points, three rebounds and five fouls in 21 minutes. Paul George led the Pacers with 13 points.

There were plenty of red Jeremy Lin jerseys in the crowd, but no more than you’d see during a regular season game at Golden State or Portland. Lin came off the bench and generated the most energy from the fans, especially with a pair of strong drives in the fourth quarter. He finished with 14 points.

There were a number of Pacers fans in the crowd, but the loudest buzz for a member of the Indiana contingent came when team president Larry Bird was on the video screen sitting near mid-court.

The Pacers and Rockets were greeted warmly when both teams took the floor for and received a nice ovation when they were introduced. There were appreciative cheers for 3-pointers made by Paul George and C.J. Watson, shots blocked by Roy Hibbert and slick drives through the lane by Harden. The lines at the temporary NBA Stores set up on the mezzanine level were six and eight deep as fans gobbled up replica Pacers and Rockets jerseys. Most customers came through the cash register lines carrying plastic bags crammed full of merchandise.

“The Philippines has a population of 100 million or so, so they’re a very important part of our Southeast Asian strategy,” commissioner David Stern said during a pre-game press conference. “It is the most intense and robust and knowledgeable basketball market. I was going to say outside of the U.S., but it may lead the world. I’m not sure.”

However, the knowledgeable Filipino fans were far more polite than rabid or noisy, sounding more like an All-Star Game crowd, where the sound of the dribbling ball and the voices of Pacers coach Frank Vogel and the Rockets Kevin McHale could be heard echoing throughout the arena.

As if to prove that they have the attitude to match regular American fans, the crowd finally rose to its collective feet and let out a roar for giveaway promotions — NBA 2K posters and t-shirts — during a couple of second-quarter timeouts.

The controlled enthusiasm and overall politeness was in keeping with experiences by the two teams during the four days they’d spent in Manila. When George, Hibbert and George Hill of the Pacers and Parsons, Lin and other Rockets went out in public, the Filipino fans were excited and crowded round to get a look and snap photos, but also kept a respectful distance. There was none of the fear-for-your-life frenzy that marked the Rockets’ first visit to China with Yao Ming in 2004. Of course, the din should come Sunday when the teams make the hop across the South China Sea and Lin plays his first game in Taipei.

Bird Chases Heat, Still Never Feels It

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MANILA, Philippines – Fish swim. Frogs jump.

It’s good to know that two decades after his retirement, another constant in the world is that Larry Bird still flaps his wings and soars with his quick one-liners and trademark cockiness.

When asked by a Filipino reporter whether he feels more pressure as a Pacers executive than he did during his Hall of Fame career with the Celtics, Bird grinned.

“Pressure? I don’t know what that is,” Bird said to a roomful of laughter. “Obviously, you never seen me play.”

It wasn’t quite walking into the locker room prior to the 3-point Shootout at the 1986 All-Star Weekend in Dallas and asking the rest of the field, “Who’s comin’ in second?” But it was a peek at the old Bird who’s back in his role as president of basketball operations and wants his Pacers to take the next step after pushing Miami to a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals last season.

“Right now, the Miami Heat are the best team,” Bird said. “They’ve won two years in a row. They’ve been to the Finals three years in a row and until somebody beats them, they’re still the best team.

“What we’re trying to do is build a team that can compete on a nightly level…We have a lot of young players. I don’t compare this team to (my) Celtics teams because it’s a completely different style that we play. But I do think we’re good enough, we’re deep enough to compete for a championship.

“Obviously last year they got to the Eastern Conference finals and Game 7 against Miami, but until we make the next step we’re not there. I do like our chances.

“We’ve got a good starting five, but our bench has got to play better than it did last year. I know how hard it is to win these championships. It’s not easy. But we do have a group of good guys that play together and pull for one another. I think things we just have to get a little lucky.

“I really believe that we’re built for the playoffs. But when the playoffs come, we’ve got to be ready because there are gonna be challenges facing us.

“It’s not easy out there. Chicago got Derrick (Rose) back. The Brooklyn Nets, the New York Knicks and they’re all good. And, of course, there’s Miami. It’s a challenge, no question about it.”

Bird said he believes the necessary pieces are in place for the Pacers to go the distance, especially since they have added to their depth over the summer with three key moves.

“I think we’re pretty much set where we are right now,” he said. Last year, with the performance of our bench I think they (Miami) hurt us by not being able to score the basketball.

“We got C.J. (Watson) a good back-up point guard, Chris Copeland from New York, a dead-eye shooter, and of course Luis Scola. He’s a little bit older now, but for what we need, he’s perfect. Just three moves that we made we think are going to make us stronger. It looks good on paper, but we’ll see what happens. Look, I know how hard it is to win a championship. ”

Now, as then, Larry Bird just never feels the pressure.

Five Most Underrated Free-Agent Signings

By Jonathan Hartzell, NBA.com

The NBA offseason tends to be dominated by articles and information about the top players in the league. Often forgotten about are the fringe stars and role players on every team who do the little things to help win games.

With this in mind, here are the five most underrated free-agent signings of the 2013-14 offseason:

Earl Clark, Cleveland Cavaliers – 2-years, $9 million

Earl Clark should help the Cavaliers' bench.

Earl Clark should help the Cavaliers’ bench.

Clark instantly fills a void for the Cavaliers and he could help Cleveland make it back to the playoffs. The 6-foot-10 Clark had his best NBA season with the Lakers in 2012-13, averaging 7.3 points and 5.5 rebounds in 23.1 minutes. He will provide valuable length and athleticism off the bench at an extremely affordable rate and, at 25 years old, his game still has a lot of room to grow.

Jose Calderon, Dallas Mavericks – 4-years, $29 million

Jose Calderon's passing ability will be welcomed in Dallas.

Jose Calderon’s passing ability will be welcomed in Dallas.

The Spanish guard played eight seasons with the Toronto Raptors before being traded to the Detroit Pistons midseason. As a Raptor he experienced only one winning season, but he proved to be one of the best distributors in the league. He added a significantly improved 3-point shot last season to finish the season averaging 11.3 points and 7.1 assists on 49.1 percent shooting and a league-leading 46.1 percent from 3-point range. The contract he signed with Dallas this summer is arguably too long and expensive for a player who isn’t a stalwart defender. However, this will prove to be an important deal if Calderon is able to help Dirk Nowitzki lead the Mavericks back into the playoffs.

Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks – 2-years, $19 million

Paul Millsap may have a lot of reasons to smile in Atlanta.

Paul Millsap may have a lot of reasons to smile in Atlanta.

This is a great deal if the Hawks’ plan is to make the playoffs this season. Millsap is one of the most underrated power forwards in the league and incredibly Atlanta signed him to a practically risk-free two-year deal. The 6-foot-8 forward from Louisiana Tech played his first seven NBA seasons with the Jazz and averaged 14.6 points, 7.1 rebounds and 1.3 steals last season. The one negative about this signing? It pushes long-time Hawk Al Horford back to the center spot where he is nowhere near as dominant as he is as a power forward. But when you have the opportunity to bring in a player of Millsap’s talent level, preferred rotations and positions can be worked out later.

C.J. Watson, Indiana Pacers – 2-years, contract terms undisclosed

C.J. Watson

C.J. Watson significantly upgrades the Pacers’ guard depth.

Watson has proven to be one of the NBA’s best backup point guards over the last few seasons and his presence on the Pacers will significantly improve their depth. Watson allows the Pacers to not fall too far behind when starter George Hill rests. Plus, Watson’s ability to handle the ball and shoot from 3-point range (41.1 percent last season) will let Indiana occasionally run a Hill-Watson backcourt. The 6-foot-2 guard spent last season as the top backup for the Nets’ Deron Williams and before that, spent two successful seasons with the Chicago Bulls. Watson knows his role and his ability to consistently perform it makes this a great signing for the Pacers.

Mike Dunleavy, Chicago Bulls – 2-years, $6 million

Mike Dunleavy Jr.

Mike Dunleavy Jr. is a well-skilled and solid NBA veteran.

Dunleavy is an excellent floor-spacer who can consistently knock down 3-point shots at a high rate and provides the Bulls with solid bench depth after the departures of Nate Robinson and Marco Belinelli. His presence should help create driving and passing lanes for Derrick Rose, who is reportedly one of the major reasons Dunleavy wanted to play in Chicago. The 32-year-old Dunleavy spent the last two seasons with the Bucks, averaging 10.5 points, 3.9 boards and shot 42.8 percent shooting from 3-point range last season. This signing looks like a terrific deal for  Dunleavy and Chicago as it should help the Bulls reclaim their spot as a championship contender when Rose returns.