Posts Tagged ‘David West’

Heat, Pacers and the fight for No. 1

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Miami Heat and Indiana Paces have been battling all season for that No. 1 spot in the East

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — LeBron James insists the collective health of the Miami Heat means more to him than chasing the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings.

Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel rested his entire starting five Wednesday night in Milwaukee, swearing that his starters needed a break (mentally, physically and emotionally) more than they needed to continue their season-long quest to wrest away that top spot from the Heat.

What do you take us for, gentlemen? Surely you don’t think we’re buying this business about the No. 1 seed in the East, and the home-court advantage that will come with it in the Eastern Conference finals, suddenly morphing into some trivial pursuit at this late stage of the season.

We all know what’s at stake Friday night in Miami (7:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV) in your final regular-season matchup of the season. Don’t toy with our emotions because yours are frayed after a wild, roller coaster of a season that has seen both of your teams endure your fair share of struggles  (relatively speaking, of course, for two teams with a combined 107 wins and just 50 losses). It’s basically a winner-take-all showdown for that No. 1 spot, a chance for the struggling Pacers to make one last statement to the world about their intentions for the postseason and the Heat’s opportunity to remind the upstarts from Indianapolis that if they want the crown they better be ready to bleed for it.

“It’s going to be intense,” said Heat forward Chris Bosh, a man always good for an introspective word or two about the challenge at hand. “It’s going to be a hard-fought game. There’s something at stake. It’ll pretty much be the playoffs and I think it’ll be a great atmosphere. … We expect them at their best. Everybody we play, we expect them at their best because that’s what we get.”

It doesn’t matter that neither the Heat nor Pacers have looked like a championship team for much of the past six weeks. The Pacers have won just eight of their past 20 games and struggled to get most of those, while the Heat (playing without Dwyane Wade for eight straight due to a hamstring injury) have won just 10 of their past 21 while struggling to find the groove that guided them to 27 straight wins down the stretch last season.

This last regular-season game between to the top two teams in the conference sets up as a battle royale, with the Pacers holding a 2-1 edge in the season series and needing a third win for their collective psyche if nothing else. These past few months have been tumultuous, to say the least, for a fragile bunch that’s struggled with the weight of increased expectations brought on by their mercurial start to the season.


VIDEO: The Game Time crew weighs in on the Heat’s struggles

The way they’ve played recently doesn’t guarantee that either the Heat or Pacers will have what it takes to get past the Western Conference representative in The Finals. The San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers are all primed for a world-class tussle if they get that far.

But this is about the Heat and Pacers first and whether or not either one of them is psychologically prepared for what comes next. The Heat, grinding through a fourth straight season with a target on their chests every night, appear to be wearing down just a bit under that relentless pressure. The Pacers, who thought they knew what it took to be an elite team night after night, are finding out that it’s much easier to talk about it than to be about it.

“If I’m Indiana, I just want to get my mojo back,” TNT and NBA TV’s Chris Webber said, “go to wherever Stella went and get my groove back. Right now, they’re not playing well and it’s obvious to everyone in the league.”

TNT’s Reggie Miller knows this rivalry game from the inside out, having spent his entire Hall of Fame career with the Pacers. He knows the politically correct thing for all involved to say is that they want that No. 1 spot, but …

“Both will say, ‘We want the No. 1 seed.’ You always want Game 7 in your building, but when you’re the two best teams, you can go on the road and actually get a win. If I’m Miami and I’m looking at the landscape of the Eastern Conference, you get by that first round, you’re very well going to play either Chicago or Brooklyn, and Brooklyn has won four straight against Miami this year. I’m not quite sure you don’t want to get that No. 2 spot and take a little bit road less traveled to the Eastern Conference finals.”

That’s blasphemy in Miami, of course, where Heat boss Pat Riley and coach Erik Spoelstra demand that the Heat walk through every fire necessary to reach the summit that is hoisting that Larry O’Brien trophy at season’s end. No challenge is too great when you’re aspiring to be one of the game’s all-time great teams.

That said, the Heat learned a valuable lesson last season while chasing history and that 33-game win streak. They spent so much energy during the regular season that they were riding on fumes midway through their postseason run. They had to survive themselves and the Pacers in the conference finals and then barely survived the Spurs in The Finals.

They know that controlling your own destiny based on home-court advantage comes at a price. That regular-season grind is expensive, it takes a toll on the body and mind, one that the Heat are a bit reluctant to pay when they know that they have an extra gear they can get to in the postseason.

“It’s not controlling our destiny about the No. 1 seed,” LeBron told reporters after the Heat lost in Memphis on Wednesday night. “We want to get healthy. That’s all that we care about, going into the postseason healthy. Once everyone comes back, then we can get everything rolling.”

Why wait for the playoffs when you can get it rolling against the Pacers one last time? The playoff-level intensity is already embedded on both sides. They cannot stand each other and play like it every time they suit up against one another. This fourth time this season will be no different.

And keep in mind, the only way these two will see each other again after this regular-season finale will be in the Eastern Conference finals … provided they both make it there.


VIDEO: Round 4 of Pacers-Heat this season should be as intense as ever with all that’s on the line

 

Panic button pays off for Pacers

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Copeland’s last-gasp shot lifts Pacers over Bucks

MILWAUKEE – By the end of the night, the players and coaches of the Indiana Pacers could look you in the eye, smile ever so slightly and shrug, “What?”

As if it was the most natural thing in the world to play an NBA game that still mattered – the top seed in the Eastern Conference bracket still TBD – with all five starters healthy but banished to the bench.

But nobody was fooling anybody. This was a risky move, risky on the verge of panic, for coach Frank Vogel to sit down – to rest, en masse – the five guys who have defined the Pacers’ largely successful season. But there they sat: Paul George, David West, Roy Hibbert, Lance Stephenson and George Hill, from beginning to end, mere spectators and cheerleaders Wednesday night at BMO Harris Bradley Center.

After multiple consultations between Vogel and the players, among Vogel and President Larry Bird and the coaches — and a heads-up courtesy call to NBA headquarters in hopes of avoiding any fines — the Indiana coach shortened his bench by whacking his starters. He did, from the rationale he gave, what he should have done in February or March, if only the alleged wear, tear and fatigue from season’s first five months had shown itself before the sixth.

If you asked Vogel in February or March about his starters’ workload, the answer was the same: None of the Pacers was averaging more than a tick beyond 30 minutes a game. They were healthy, young and they could handle it.

Until, that is, they couldn’t. It took five losses in their six most recent games, eight in their last 11, a 20-18 record since Jan. 20 and a 23-point first half against Atlanta on Sunday to push Vogel to the unusual and non-guaranteed homeopathic remedy of enforcing a day off.

That loss at home to the Hawks had been “disturbing,” Vogel said 90 minutes before tipoff Wednesday against the bottom-feeding Bucks. What he was doing was a “dramatic move,” primarily to give the starters a breather but also to rattle the backups’ cage a little.

It could have backfired massively, losing to the team with the league’s worst record, “sacrificing” a winnable game while ceding even more ground to the Miami Heat in the East. But it did not.

By the end of the night, after Chris Copeland‘s drive to the rim with 1.2 seconds left won it, 104-102, after everyone in the Indiana dressing room exhaled and after the Memphis Grizzlies put down Miami 107-102, the Pacers could pinch themselves over this:

1. Indiana, 54-25, .684
2. Miami, 53-25, .679

They were headed to south Florida next, a 2-1 lead in the series already, with a chance Friday (7:30 p.m. ET, NBA TV) to pretty much seal the deal. After so much gnashing of teeth over their tumble – in the standings, yes, but also in confidence, trust and other team qualities – the Pacers were able to act like they knew this outcome was coming all along.


VIDEO: The Pacers discuss their thrilling win in Milwaukee

“We accomplished the purpose,” said George, who spent the game in warm-ups after getting in some conditioning and shooting. “We felt very comfortable with the group we had, that they were going to go out there and get us a win. It wasn’t like we were sacrificing the game. We game-planned. Coach really drilled and worked hard with the unit he put out there.”

The Pacers’ All-Subs put up good numbers against a Milwaukee team down to eight players itself through injuries and the start of Larry Sanders‘ five-game suspension (drug-policy violation). Luis Scola scored a season-high 24 points with nine rebounds, flourishing like he seldom has off Indiana’s bench this season. Same thing with Evan Turner, the trade-deadline acquisition who had to be feeling Philadelphia after logging more than 41 minutes, jacking 18 shots and finishing with 23 points, nine assists and seven boards.

Copeland missed just one of his eight shots, scored 18 and was good for four of the Pacers’ 11 3-pointers. Backup point guard C.J. Watson returned after missing 13 games, and his impact shouldn’t be understated; Indiana is 47-14 when he plays, 7-11 when he doesn’t. The Pacers outshot the Bucks and had 26 assists to 11 turnovers.

“Served the purpose,” said Vogel. “We got the starters the rest that hopefully will help them find their rhythm, and we let our bench guys get extended minutes so they could get comfortable. Evan Turner hasn’t been that comfortable in a Pacers uniform.”

How badly have the starters needed a breather? The math says very: the five Pacers have averaged 2,521 minutes, which might not seem excessive (32.8 per game). But compared to the deftly managed San Antonio Spurs, the difference is considerable. The five Spurs who have played the most have averaged 1,934 minutes. That gap of 587, doled out 30 minutes at a time, is nearly 20 extra games’ worth.

It just could be that the Pacers are more ground down because their key guys haven’t had significant injuries.

“I don’t know if I’ve seen any guys ailing,” Copeland said, “but I know they needed a rest, because it’s a grueling season. A lot of ‘em are playing through a lot of things. You look at David West, he’s playing with Rocky’s glove, y’know? That shows the type of guys we’ve got. Nobody’s complaining about playing with injuries, but trust me – all five who sat out have something going on.”

Hibbert, in a robin’s egg blue sport coat and tan slacks, was officially listed as inactive because someone had to be. The other four watched in game gear but budged only to root, clap and mill around on the fringe of timeout huddles.

“It was a weird feeling, sitting out a game,” Hibbert said. “But I was really happy for those guys. They’ve been working extremely hard the whole season. To see them go out and play, and not have to worry about making mistakes and having the starters come back in, I was really happy for ‘em.”

Hibbert said getting the game off was both a physical and mental health day, and none of them seemed to need it more. The big fella hit some sort of wall Sunday against Atlanta, playing just nine minutes, going scoreless with no rebounds, then languishing on the bench through the second half in some sort of bad body-language funk. He was way more engaged in this one, encouraging the reserves, snarling toward the crowd a few times.

When Indiana visits the Heat on Friday, its starters will have gone five days – more than 120 hours – between games.

“We probably haven’t had that since the season started,” Stephenson said. “Any rest can help us right now.”

Nothing’s guaranteed now, either, except a big dose of irony: The Pacers’ staked out that No. 1 seed as a goal back in training camp so they wouldn’t have to win a big game in Miami come springtime. Now, in order to actually claim it, they have to win a big game in Miami come springtime.

Morning Shootaround — April 9


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 8

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Pacers to rest starters down stretch | Nowitzki now a top 10 all-time scorer | Nash’s hits milestone, but will he play again? | Kupchack won’t consult Kobe on D’Antoni | Noel says knee is ’100 percent’ healthy

No. 1: Pacers to rest starters down stretch — In Sunday’s eventual blowout loss at home to the Atlanta Hawks, Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel decided to bench/rest All-Star center Roy Hibbert in the second half to give him rest. Could more of the same be in store for Indiana’s other starters as the season winds down? It seems so, writes Zak Keefer of The Indianapolis Star, who reports that Vogel is more interested in the Pacers playing well than he is in their chase with the Miami Heat for the East’s No. 1 seed:

In an unusual turn of events, Pacers coach Frank Vogel gave his starting unit their second consecutive day off Tuesday, and said after practice he will continue resting some of them during the team’s final four regular season games.

“I think rest and healing up is part of the solution,” Vogel said. “It’s not the whole solution, but it’s part of it.”

The only Pacers’ starter at practice was recently-benched Roy Hibbert, who watched in street clothes from the sideline. He did not speak to the media following practice.

Vogel, long a proponent of the team’s stated goal – to earn the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed and gain home court advantage throughout the conference playoffs – sounded more like a coach focused on healing his roster in the final week of the regular season than finishing with a better record than the Miami Heat.

He was asked if his team has ceded the No. 1 seed to Miami, which leads the Pacers by a full game heading into Indiana’s date in Milwaukee on Wednesday.

“No,” Vogel said. “We’re two games back right now. Obviously it was a goal, it is a goal of ours, but at this point, playing well is our top priority. Part of that is being fresh going into the playoffs.

“We feel good if we have the No. 2 seed, and we still feel we can attain the goals we have.”

Vogel added that he will rest some of his starters over the regular season’s final stretch, and did not commit to starting Hibbert (or any of them) on Wednesday.

More than one starter – including Paul George and David West – came to him recently and asked for some additional rest down the stretch.

“A couple of them said they think that would help,” Vogel said. “They said it in a very positive way. (Our) group came in very encouraged after the other night.”

***

No. 2: Nowitzki passes ‘Big O’ for No. 10 on all-time scoring list — Dallas Mavericks star Dirk Nowitzki has been toiling as a top-flight scorer in the NBA for the last 14 or so seasons. With each game — and each solid scoring performance — he’s climbed the all-time scoring charts and, last night, reached another milestone in his future Hall of Fame career. He’s now the 10th-leading scorer in NBA history after passing Oscar “Big O” Robertson last night with a free-throw line extended jump shot. Our Jeff Caplan details Dirk’s magical moment:

Dirk Nowitzki, with a patented fallaway jumper from a few feet off the right elbow, surpassed Oscar Robertson as the NBA’s 10th-all-time leading scorer.Nowitzki, 35, joins the most exclusive of NBA clubs in which each member is recognized simply by first name or nickname. Dirk, the Dallas Mavericks’ sweet-shooting 7-footer and an original stretch-4, certainly has that covered.

“Amazing, amazing. I mean top 10 is unreal,” Nowitzki said following the 95-83 victory at Utah. “It’s been a crazy ride. Passing Big O, who obviously averaged triple-doubles numerous seasons, is unbelievable. It feels surreal still. All night I wasn’t really trying to think about it, I was trying to concentrate on the next shot. I knew how many points I needed, but I wasn’t really trying to think about it. I was trying to think about the next shot and how I could get open.”

Nowitzki, the 2007 regular-season MVP and 2011 champion and Finals MVP, now has 26,714 career points. He has also surpassed 30,000 total points that includes 128 postseason games.

Fresh off being named the Western Conference’s Player of the Week, a four-game stretch in which he averaged 25.3 ppg, Nowitzki has propelled Dallas to a 4-0 road trip that has it in the driver’s seat to secure one of the final two playoff spots.

The Mavs (48-21) have three games left. They play San Antonio at home on Thursday and then finish with critical games against Phoenix at home on Saturday and then at Memphis on Wednesday.

Nowitzki, who struggled to regain his All-Star form last season after undergoing knee surgery during training camp, was devastated when the Mavs missed the playoffs for the first time since 1999-2000.

He started this season, his 16th, at No. 17 on the league’s all-time scoring list. Along the way he’s moved ahead of Jerry West, Reggie Miller, Alex English, Kevin Garnett, John Havlicek, Dominique Wilkins and now the Big O.

Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant, No. 4 on the all-time list with 31,700 points, 592 behind No. 3 Michael Jordan are the only active players in the top 10.

This is Nowitzki’s final year of his contract, but he has made it clear that he plans to re-sign with the Mavericks for another two or three seasons.

“This is my 30th year in the NBA and one of the few times I’ve truly been in awe of an accomplishment,” said Mavs coach Rick Carlisle, who has been with Nowitzki since the start of the 2008-09 season. “Top 10 all-time scorer is an unbelievable accomplishment because it’s a level of excellence that’s beyond belief, and then it’s being able to do it over an extended period of time with consistency. So one of the really unique accomplishments.

“And he’s going to keep eating up more people. He’s got a long way to go.”


VIDEO: Dirk Nowitzki runs wild against the Jazz in Salt Lake City

***

No. 3: Nash has milestone moment, but is career nearing end? — With a nice little dish to streaking teammate Jodie Meeks off a Houston Rockets turnover last night, Steve Nash passed Mark Jackson for No. 3 on the NBA’s all-time assists list. That dime further bolstered Nash’s already rock-solid Hall of Fame career and provided a bright spot in what has been a disappointing rebuild of a season in Lakerland. However, as ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Dave McMenamin points out: could this game be not only Nash’s last one this season, but of his career?

With his fifth assist of the night coming on a lead pass to Jodie Meeks for a fast-break dunk with 2:13 remaining in the second quarter, Nash moved past Mark Jackson for No. 3 on the all-time assists list, giving him 10,335 for his career.

Nash was subbed out of the game a minute later, and the 18-year veteran received a standing ovation from the Staples Center crowd as public address announcer Lawrence Tanter acknowledged the achievement.

It could very well be the last time the former two-time MVP is on the court this season — or perhaps in his career.

Nash finished with three points, five assists and three rebounds in 13 minutes in the Lakers’ 145-130 loss to the Rockets and did not play in the second half after suffering what he described as a “bite” in his hamstring when he tried to “open up and sprint” early in the game.

“Since I had a pretty good setback today, I probably won’t play again [this season],” Nash said after the game. “But if I get a good recovery over the next week, I’d love to play again. But again, a big goal for me was to not go into the summer injured, and the fact that I had a setback today is kind of frustrating. But hopefully it’s something that I can work through quickly here, and if I work through quick enough, I’d love to play again. But it’s probably doubtful.”

Nash was playing in just his 15th game of the season after being sidelined for extensive periods because of nerve root irritation in his back and hamstrings. He has one year remaining on his contract with the Lakers, set to pay him $9.7 million, but Lakers coach Mike D’Antoni expressed doubt regarding Nash’s chances of returning for a 19th season.

“It’s too bad everything comes to an end, and he’s had a great career,” D’Antoni said after the game, adding several times he felt “lucky” to have coached the eight-time All-Star in both Phoenix and L.A.

“It was great he got that tonight. You hate that he has to do it on one leg. He was literally playing on one leg tonight,” D’Antoni added.

D’Antoni would not definitively draw the curtain on Nash’s career, however.

“I don’t think anybody, they can’t tell that,” D’Antoni said. “He’ll try, I’m sure. A lot of it’s mentally, whether he can do it mentally, because it’s going to take a lot, a lot of work and some luck and then the franchise and the management and Steve will sit down and they’ll make that determination.”

When asked whether Nash displayed any emotion in the locker room as if it were his last game, D’Antoni said, “I don’t think he’s there yet at all.”

After accomplishing the mark, Nash reflected on his journey through the sport of basketball.

“All of this is beyond my imagination and wildest dreams,” Nash said. “So to be able to share that end of the assist ladder with some players that I looked up to and emulated, and to be in their company, is phenomenal. I don’t play for the records. I play because I love to play, I love to play and be a part of a team. But I guess it’s something that maybe one day I’ll appreciate, all hours I spent, all the extra hours I spent trying to get better.”

Nash was almost unable to play long enough to set the record Tuesday.

“He came to me during a timeout and said he tweaked it and his hamstring’s on fire,” D’Antoni said. “And then I go, ‘Well, you want out?’ And he goes, ‘If I come out, I might never go back in.’ So, I go, ‘Well, OK, so it’s either the record or we’ll carry you off the floor.’ And that’s kind of the way it went.”


VIDEO: The Inside the NBA crew discusses Steve Nash’s accomplishment last night

***

No. 4: Kupchak won’t consult with Kobe on D’Antoni’s future — The recent state of the Lakers in the Western Conference hierarchy has given their fans reason to question the front office at times. But those in power in Lakerland are apparently happy with the job that GM Mitch Kupchack has done over the years and agreed to a multi-year extension with him yesterday. As Kupchack and the rest of the Lakers’ brass attempt to lead L.A. out of this rare dark period, many decisions must be made. One of those revolves around what to do with coach Mike D’Antoni, who may or may not have star Kobe Bryant‘s full support. Kupchack, however, told USA Today‘s Sam Amick that Kobe’s view on D’Antoni won’t shape what the Lakers choose to do with the coach:

On the night that news of his multiyear extension was first reported by ESPN, Kupchak sat down for an extensive interview with USA TODAY Sports to discuss the storied franchise and its uncertain future.He may not be different, but he fully expects the current climate to change over time. Yet as he knows as much as anyone, it’s just a matter of how long it might take.

Q: Your fans are going through culture shock right now. They’ve had a good run, but this generation hasn’t seen a season like this.

A: Well, I don’t know how you define ‘generation.’ I guess you could say that, but 10 years ago we had a year like this. But we haven’t had a year like this in the last six or seven years, that’s for sure. But we’ve had a bunch of years like this since I’ve been here. I’ve been here since ’81, and there were three or four years in the early ’90s, and then we had that year in ’04. But we haven’t had a year like this in eight or nine years, that’s true.

Q: So that being said, Mitch, what’s your outlook? Is it a situation where you have that experience from the past and you’ll apply it here and move forward with confidence that this too shall pass, or where is your head at?

A: I’m confident that over time, that we’re going to be able to assemble a team that’s competitive, fun to watch. The advantages that this franchise and this city have always had remain, which is our fan base, it’s a great city, players like playing here, there are a lot of diverse components of this city that attract players. The organization itself, its legacy. So those things don’t change. Now the collective bargaining agreement changed considerably (after the 2011 lockout) the playing field. That’s just the way the owners wanted it, and as a manager all we’ve ever said is just give us the rules and we’ll play with the rules. But for example, when we signed Shaquille O’Neal (in 1996), Orlando made an offer and we topped it, and then Orlando topped it, and then we traded two players and got more cap room and then we topped it. They could have topped our offer and they chose not to.

So it could have kept going back and forth because there was no max salary, and there was no home-team advantage — 7½ percent (annual) raises versus four (percent), a five-year deal versus a four-year deal, those rules didn’t exist (the current CBA gives the incumbent team this edge). So the playing field is considerably different. But having said all that, our advantages remain the same. And considering where a lot of teams have ended up in this kind of position, we have a lot of flexibility going forward. We don’t have a lot of players that are good players but not great players who are on long-term deals. Those kinds of contracts can sometimes bury an organization for four or five years. Going forward it’s pretty clean, so it’s up to us to use that money wisely. We are going to have a good (draft) pick this year, so those are the advantages that we have. The short answer is that yes, I’m hoping to be very competitive in a year or two, but the key really is over time.

Q: So on my short list of things to get clarity on is the dynamic between management and Kobe. You guys give him the extension, and I think the question a lot of people have now is that — because of what he has done for the organization, because of what you think he can do in the next couple of years — you do the extension but maybe Kobe doesn’t still have the same voice that he had in the past and now it’s time for the bosses to be the bosses. He’s the one pressing the agenda, saying he’s not going to wait and be patient (during a rebuild).

A: Not really.

Q: You don’t think so?

A: He had that one outburst, but I think he got caught up in all the sensation of the moment — is Phil going to stay or is he going to go? He wants the same thing we want, which is to win as much as possible as soon as possible. I meet with him. (It’s) not on a regular basis, but in the last two or three months we have met several times, and he gets it.

Q: Is that the norm or is that more than normal?

A: Well, it’s more than normal because he’s more available. He’s hurt. I see him in the locker room, we talk. So that’s all that was. That’s all it was.

Q: Will he factor in on the decision about Mike?

A: We will not consult with him. No, we won’t consult with him.

Q: Because when he was asked about Mike last week, the perception was that he didn’t go to bat for him publicly. That started the storyline of “Well, Mike’s not coming back because it doesn’t seem like Kobe wants him back.”

A: We won’t consult with him. Our decisions going forward — we’re not going to do knee-jerk stuff. We’ll let the season end, and take some time. We’ve got a lot of injuries and surgeries to sort through. That’s a lot to accomplish. We have the draft coming up?

Q: Do you have clarity on that (D’Antoni) decision yet?

A: No. No. In fact, I told Jimmy [Buss] let’s get to the end season, take some time off…then review the season. Look at our roster. I mean we have a plan. We’ve aligned our contracts in such a way where we’re at a position where we’re not financially stuck. But there’s a lot we don’t know. We don’t know where we’re going to get our pick. Are we going to be sixth, are we going to be eighth, are we going to be two or three? We don’t know. We know who may be a free agent, but we don’t know for sure until June 30.

So we know a lot, and we’re set up to take advantage of the situations — whether it’s to make a trade, take back a player, get a good draft choice, pursue free agency. But once again, it’s a different world than it was 20 years ago. And as much as we’d like to be very competitive and competing for a championship next year, it may or may not happen, ok?

Q: So how’s Kobe going to handle that?

A: He’ll be fine. He’s got no choice. He’ll be fine. When we lose, he’ll rant and rave and be upset and be hot and won’t talk to anybody, but that’s the way it is. You’ve got to take the good with the bad.

Q: But with all the talk about Phil here, those people don’t often talk about how you’re still here and what you’ve accomplished. Does that ever hit your ego, that idea that there’s not more talk about “In Mitch we trust”?

A: Well the people that I need to know trust me, and they made it clear that they do. I understand from the public’s point of view that Kupchak doesn’t hold a candle to Jackson. Once again, it’s a good story so that didn’t really bother me. But the people in the organization certainly — Jimmy, and I know Jeanie — trust me too. And for over 30 years, Dr. Buss showed incredible trust and loyalty to me. So to me, that’s what was important. That was it.

Q: Was there any internal discussion about Phil coming back, and where did you stand on that? How did that go?

A: Yeah. Yeah. I mean there was nothing formal. This went on for a year or two.

Q: But the most recent one.

A: Well I don’t know when the most recent one was. We discussed a year or two ago about how could we — and this was Jimmy and I and I know he may have discussed it with his family — and it was open for discussion. And it was kind of a standing understanding, but I think Jeanie said it best two weeks ago. At the end of the day, there was no position for a person of his stature.

Q: What does that mean? Can you translate that? Because what it sounds like to me is that Phil is a larger-than-life figure and if he’s coming he wants final say. Was that a factor?

A: Well I’m not sure that it got to that, but what we talked about was involvement and being a piece, a part of it. But based on where he ended up and what he got, it’s easy to see why he did what he did. It’s a no-brainer. Before you even get to the money, he got a wonderful — a challenging — but a wonderful opportunity. Logistically, he has got to work it out but, um, you know, it’s one of those things where I’m not sure if it’s what he was looking for but when it came on the table you can’t turn it around.

***

No. 5: Noel says his knee is ’100 percent’ healthy — The Sixers, last we reported in this space, seemed to be pretty convinced that rookie big man Nerlens Noel won’t be hitting the court until the Summer League. Noel, understandably, wants to play sooner than that. But in his first comments to the media in months, said he understands Philadelphia’s reasoning in taking it slow with him as he recovers from a torn ACL injury suffered in Februrary 2013. He also told the assembled media that his knee is ’100 percent’ and he’s jumping higher than before, too.

Calling his rookie season “a great learning experience,” Philadelphia 76ers center Nerlens Noel said Tuesday he still hopes to make his NBA debut in one of the team’s final five regular-season games but realizes the team’s cautious approach with him has been for the best.

“Obviously I do want to play,” Noel told reporters in Philadelphia. “I’m a 19-year-old who’s been sitting down on the sideline really wanting to get out there and show my abilities and to be able to play ball.

“It’s been tough, but it’s something we had to do.”

Noel was cleared for “limited on-court work” in January, but Philadelphia at the time said he still needed to meet “several benchmarks” in order to play for the team “to ensure a long, productive NBA career.”

On Tuesday, Noel deemed his knee “100 percent,” saying he’s gained over 3 inches on his vertical leap since before the surgery and overall is “stronger and moving around well.” He’s also overhauled his shot with the help of 76ers coach Brett Brown.

“I am very encouraged,” Noel said. “Through the past year since I had my injury, I have pushed myself through thick and thin and I’ve had some struggles and I’ve just stayed with it.

“I definitely worked my butt off to get where I am at now.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Kansas star center, Joel Embiid, is expected to announce he’s entering the 2014 Draft … The Rockets still aren’t sure when Pat Beverley or Dwight Howard will return to the lineup … Is Evan Turner the “selfish dude” center Roy Hibbert was referring to a few weeks ago? … Shotblocking legend Dikembe Mutombo says that a legendary story about him in college is untrue … Last night might have been the final matchup between Spurs coach Gregg Popovich and Timberwolves coach Rick AdelmanRay McCallum is getting a ton of experience in his rookie season with the Kings

ICYMI(s) of the Night: Two future Hall of Famers — Dirk Nowitzki and Steve Nash — etch their names deeper in NBA lore, and, oh yeah, a game-preserving block by a rookie on the league’s reigning MVP. Not a bad night at all in the NBA …


VIDEO: Dirk Nowitzki scores to pass Oscar Robertson’s as the NBA’s 10th all-time leading scorer


VIDEO: Steve Nash records this assist to pass Mark Jackson for No. 3 on the all-time assists list


VIDEO: Mason Plumlee gets up to reject LeBron James’ dunk on the game’s final play

 

Hang time podcast (episode 154) … the franchise player debate and featuring pacers coach Frank Vogel

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS —  A quick list of the NBA’s best and most complete players includes names like LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kobe BryantChris Paul and Tim Duncan, just to name a few, at the very top.

The best of the very best.

Winners.

Difference makers.

Proven stars.

Franchise players.

So where does that leave guys like James Harden, Paul George, Dwight HowardKevin Love and Steph Curry, just to name a few, who are stuck in that superstar middle ground. They look like franchise players and get paid like franchise players but in the eyes of some, namely their predecessors who now serve as pundits, aren’t quite on that level, just yet or anymore.

The franchise player debate (is it just someone whose mastered a certain part of the game or someone who has mastered many?) has gone on forever and will continue to do so. We weigh in on Episode 154 of the Hang Time Podcast, which also features an interview with Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel, whose team is struggling right now as George attempts to make that transition from All-Star to franchise player.

As the playoffs get closer and closer, the true franchise players will reveal themselves. And once the postseason hits, there is no hiding …

Dive in for more on Episode 154 of the Hang Time Podcast … The Franchise Player Debate and Featuring Indiana Pacers coach Frank Vogel …

LISTEN HERE:


As always, we welcome your feedback. You can follow the entire crew, including the Hang Time Podcast, co-hosts Sekou Smith of NBA.com,  Lang Whitaker of NBA.com’s All-Ball Blog and renaissance man Rick Fox of NBA TV, as well as our new super producer Gregg (just like Popovich) Waigand and the best engineer in the business,  Jarell “I Heart Peyton Manning” Wall.

– To download the podcast, click here. To subscribe via iTunes, click here, or get the xml feed if you want to subscribe some other, less iTunes-y way.

Morning Shootaround — April 1


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 31

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Pacers lose No. 1 spot in East | Griffin likely to sit out vs. Suns | Cavs readying for major deal? | Gasol recounts ‘scary’ vertigo bout | Gay weighing next move

No. 1: Pacers lose grip on No. 1 in East — Practically since the Eastern Conference finals ended and the Indiana Pacers walked off the court as the losers in Game 7, they have focused and told anyone who will listen how getting No. 1 in the East is their goal in 2013-14. And for every day of the season heading into last night’s Spurs-Pacers game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indiana held up its end of the bargain. But the Pacers have stumbled of late and after last night’s embarrassing 103-77 loss to San Antonio (and the Miami Heat’s win vs. the Toronto Raptors), they no longer have that lofty perch. Our Steve Aschburner was on the scene in Indianapolis last night and takes stock of a locker room that is in a true funk:

Be careful what you wish for. Someone might snatch it away. That’s not quite how the saying goes, but it’s the queasy version that applies now to the Indiana Pacers.All season long, from back in training camp through the many trips and back-to-backs, despite the physical dings and emotional drain of trying to go wire-to-wire, the Pacers had staked out the No. 1 playoff berth in the Eastern Conference as their goal within a goal. They get that, and any Game 7 against their rivals from Miami would be played in Indiana.

It was a marvelous carrot for an 82-game schedule that wields some serious sticks. A rabbit to chase and, once claimed, to flex. A fix for what slipped away last year, when the Pacers did so many things right in Game 6 against the Heat, only to step on that plane to South Florida for one more.

And then, on the final night of the season’s fifth month, it was gone.

The Pacers just hit the snooze button on their own nightmare.

“Good for them. We don’t deserve it,” center Roy Hibbert said in a home dressing room that was more demoralized than angry. “We’ll see, in the playoffs. But we’ve got to figure things out. Miami is a good team. They’ve had a couple hiccups themselves. But we don’t deserve that No. 1 seed.”

Indiana forward David West, who hinted at a variety of basketball and chemistry issues ailing his team now, said: “We’ve got to concede that we haven’t played basketball well enough to deserve the top spot. That’s pretty much it. We haven’t played well enough. We haven’t been a good-looking basketball team for quite some time now. That’s on the guys in this locker room.”

Not “a good-looking basketball team?” West was given another crack at his description of the Pacers at the moment. “We’re probably the most downtrodden, 50-plus win team in the history of the game,” he said. “We watch film from a few months ago, we don’t even recognize ourselves.”

Said Hibbert: “We should all go to group therapy. … We’ve been spiraling. Now we’re splintering a little bit.”

“We’re not playing the game the right way right now,” Paul George said after scoring 16 points on 5-for-13 shooting and, later, citing a severe lack of screen-setting. “We’re not playing for one another. It’s tough to score on any team in this league when you’re trying to do it against the whole team.

“San Antonio is the perfect example. It’s hard to guard them because they move the ball, they share the ball. And it’s regardless of who’s shooting. They want the best shot on offense. That’s the problem we’re having right now.”


VIDEO: David West and others talk about Indiana’s loss at home to San Antonio

***

No. 2: Griffin likely to sit out vs. Suns — As was pointed out by our own Sekou Smith in this week’s Kia Race to the MVP Ladder, Clippers star Blake Griffin has solidified his place of sorts as the NBA’s third-best player this season. So when Griffin suffered a back injury that took him out of the game in Houston on Saturday (which L.A. won), concerns were raised about whether or not he’d be healthy for the Clips’ playoff run. Griffin sat out last night’s win in Minnesota and plans to do more of the same so he will be ready come playoff time, writes Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times:

Blake Griffin stood erect with his back up against the basketball stanchion for support, contemplating whether it was wise to push through back spasms that forced him from the game Saturday night in Houston or to rest.

Griffin decided to rest rather than play against the Minnesota Timberwolves on Monday night. He probably won’t play at Phoenix on Wednesday.

The Clippers have seven regular-season games left before the playoffs start in about three weeks, and they want make sure Griffin is 100% healthy.

“This part of the season is important, obviously, as far as [playoff] positioning and everything else,” Griffin said. “The last two years in the playoffs, I’ve been banged up. I haven’t been 100%. I don’t want it to be that way this year. So I’m trying to be smart about it and I’m trying to be proactive and not do anything to make it a prolonged, healing process.”

Griffin suffered a sprained right ankle before the Clippers played Game 5 of the Western Conference first-round playoff series against the Memphis Grizzlies, limiting his effectiveness.

Over the last few weeks, Griffin has had his back wrapped up in ice and heat because of off and on back spasms.

“Most of the time it’s manageable,” Griffin said. “It felt like Saturday wasn’t really manageable. That was the reason for not coming back in.”


VIDEO: The Clippers win in Minnesota without Blake Griffin

***

No. 3: Cavs positioning selves for major trade? — When a playoff-hopeful team (like the Cleveland Cavaliers) signs a player who has never been in the NBA (in this case, Scotty Hopson), it might be seen as a move to add some last-minute depth. But according to Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com, the Cavs’ signing of Hopson yesterday is about anything but that. According to Windhorst, the Cavs’ roster move was one made with an eye toward allowing Cleveland to possibly pull off a major trade this offseason:

The Cleveland Cavaliers are trying to put themselves in position to make a major trade around June’s NBA draft, sources told ESPN.com.

To help facilitate it, the team made an unorthodox but strategic move Monday by signing point guard Scotty Hopson to a two-year, $3.8 million contract. Hopson has never played in an NBA game but will get a check for $1.35 million just for the Cavs’ final seven games of the regular season, sources said.

The Cavs are interested in Hopson, a 6-foot-7 University of Tennessee product who went undrafted in 2011, as a prospect after he played well in Turkey this season. But this move is also aimed at expanding the team’s options in June and July.

Team owner Dan Gilbert approved the last-minute spending in an effort to set his team up to be hunters over the summer. It’s the second significant move made by acting general manager David Griffin, who traded for Spencer Hawes at the trade deadline.

The second year of Hopson’s deal, worth $1.45 million, is nonguaranteed. The Cavs now have a stockpile of nonguaranteed or partially guaranteed contracts that could be attractive in trades around June’s draft.

Combined with the contracts of Alonzo Gee, Matthew Dellavedova and Anderson Varejao, the Cavs have a trove of options to use as trade bait for a team that wants to clear salary-cap space. In addition to their all their own draft picks, the Cavs also own future first-rounders from the Memphis Grizzlies and Miami Heat.

At this time of year, teams routinely sign prospects to contracts with nonguaranteed second years. For example, the Brooklyn Nets signed guard Jorge Gutierrez to such a contract last week. The Heat signed center Justin Hamilton to such a deal two weeks ago.

But these contracts were given out at the league minimum, which is commonplace. The Cavs are taking the extra step of using their more expensive mid-level exception, known as the “room exception,” to create a larger contract for Hopson so he becomes a more valuable trade piece.

***

No. 4: Gasol recounts ‘scary’ bout with vertigo – The Lakers host the Blazers tonight as part of TNT’s doubleheader (10:30 ET) and L.A. should have forward/center Pau Gasol back on the court. The big man’s return to the lineup hasn’t been easy and his season overall has been marred by injury, with his last injury being perhaps the most frightening. Gasol hasn’t played since a March 23 home win over the Orlando Magic as he dealt with a bout of vertigo. ESPNLosAngeles.com’s Dave McMenamin has more on Gasol’s return and more:

The Los Angeles Lakers big man recounted the “scary” experience Monday.

“Just really light-headed, dizzy, drowsy state for five to six days at home without really moving much,” Gasol said. “Just laying (down). Let my system kind of readjust. Because it was scary. A scary moment for me and my family and the ones that love me.”

Gasol left the Lakers’ 103-94 win against the Orlando Magic on March 23 at halftime because of dizziness and nausea. The 13-year veteran received immediate medical attention in the locker room and was taken by ambulance from Staples Center to a local hospital for overnight observation.

“It was a nightmare,” said Gasol, who has missed the Lakers’ last four games because of the illness. “I was feeling terrible. Everybody that saw me, they felt bad because I was extremely pale. I was kind of shivering. I couldn’t really move. I had three liters of IV fluid. I couldn’t get up. I couldn’t sit. They had to take me to the hospital on a stretcher. So, the whole experience was not pleasant.”

The cause of Gasol’s vertigo is undetermined. He does not believe that he was struck in the head against the Magic. Doctors surmised that it could be related to the persistent upper respiratory infection that plagued him for much of the first half of the season.

Or, it simply could have been a new virus that caused the inner-ear infection that threw off his balance and brought on the vertigo.

“They could only guess a couple things but nothing for sure,” Gasol said.

“It was scary,” Gasol said. “Luckily I’m a pretty calm person. I usually take things lightly for the most part. I don’t react emotionally very easily, so that kind of plays in my favor. Because I don’t dwell. I don’t overthink. I don’t think of the worse-case scenario. I don’t get nervous. So that kind of helped me out. But a lot of things could have gone through my mind at that point where after a few hours, I couldn’t really move. I couldn’t really move my eyes even because it would make me nauseous or I would vomit and stuff like that.”

The 33-year old has been visiting an ear, nose and throat specialist on a daily basis since being released from the hospital last week after an MRI on head came back normal. He went through a non-contact practice Monday and will test how he feels at shootaround Tuesday to determine if he will play against the Blazers.

“We’ll see how my body reacts when I get up tomorrow after the exercise today,” Gasol said. “I would love to (play).”

Gasol wore a medicinal patch behind his left ear on Monday and continues to do treatment to recoup his balance.


VIDEO: Pau Gasol talks about his bout with vertigo

***

No. 5: Kings’ Gay weighing next contract move — Swingman Rudy Gay has played in 68 games this season, the last 50 of which have come as a member of the Sacramento Kings. The team picked him up in an early December trade with Toronto Raptors and the move has somewhat paid off for Sacramento: Gay is third in points scored (1,012) and second in ppg (20.2). Sacramento, however, has the third-worst record in the Western Conference and must make decisions about its future and roster. That’s where Gay comes in: he has a player-option on his contract for next season and as he tells our Scott Howard-Cooper, he’s weighing what his next move will be:

He says he has not made a decision on the $19.3 million on the table or whether he wants to remain with the Kings at any price. He has so not made a decision, Rudy Gay insists, that he is asked to list a couple factors that will go into the final call and responds, “I don’t know.”It is long after another loss at Sleep Train Arena, this time to the Knicks, in a near-empty locker room after most teammates have left. Gay is sitting in front of his stall, showered and changed and contemplating the unexpected search for career stability.

Memphis for 6 ½ seasons, and then suddenly Toronto and Sacramento in a little more than 10 months, and the career intersection over whether to stay in the current contract with $19.3 million on the books for 2014-15 or declare himself a free agent is approaching. In that setting, feeling so undefined about the future is actually understandable.

“What does my gut tell me?” Gay says of the looming decision and possibly decisions, plural. “I don’t know. My gut tells me different things every day.”

There is this, though: A lot of his comments land on the side of staying with the Kings, whether under the existing deal or by becoming a free agent that would mean giving back a large portion of the next season’s money in exchange for a the security of a larger payout over longer time. It’s light years from Gay committing to Sacramento — and in fact he says he doesn’t want to put numbers on the chances he stays “because right now I’m giving it my all and for me to tell them I’m going to be gone next year, that wouldn’t be fair” — but it is interesting.

The thought of another life change? “It’s tough moving around when you have a family. I have a kid on the way. It’s tough. I want to be settled, obviously, and I want to be comfortable. That has a lot to do with it.” (Which is double-sided, of course. Gay may decide to hit free agency now to get the next move out of the way, rather than another season in Sacramento and the open market in summer 2015.)

And the money. Of course the money. No way he walks away from $19.3 million, right? He’s staying in the deal and will be a King at least next season, right?

“I don’t think about that at all,” he says. “I love this game. I don’t play it for money. Obviously it’s a very big plus that we make a lot to play this game, but I think it’s more important to be happy.”

But people say no one leaves that kind of money on the table.

“They’re not in the NBA,” Gay says. “Those people don’t do the job and work as hard as I do.”

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Kevin Garnett plans to return to the Nets’ lineup next week … Last night, Celtics star guard Rajon Rondo made his debut as a TV analyst for the team’s games … ICYMI, the Kings and DeMarcus Cousins put on an early April Fool’s Day gag … Raptors reserve big man Patrick Patterson has his review of “300: Rise of an Empire”Jay-Z‘s Roc Nation sports agency may end up representing ex-Kansas star Andrew Wiggins in the 2014 Draft … The Lakers might just keep Steve Nash and Kendall Marshall around next seasonOur own David Aldridge and ESPN.com’s J.A. Adande with some must-read views on Kobe Bryant‘s recent comments about Trayvon MartinLou Williams put on a performance reminiscent of his Philadelphia days against the 76ers last night … Amar’e Stoudemire didn’t play against the Jazz last night so he could rest his knees

ICYMI(s) of the Night:One thing we love around here is good passing … and a good dunk … and, while we’re thinking about it, a great call from someone on the broadcast team, too. Thankfully, we’ve got all of that on one sequence here from the Bulls

And, impressive as that Taj Gibson play was, LeBron James (of course) had a play last night that kind of one-ups whatever anyone else did …


VIDEO: Taj Gibson finishes off the Bulls’ passing clinic with a power jam


VIDEO: LeBron James makes the amazing happen with this and-one layup vs. Toronto

First spiraling, now splintering, Indiana loses grasp of its No. 1 goal

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: GameTime discusses the Pacers losing grip on No. 1 in the East

INDIANAPOLIS – Be careful what you wish for. Someone might snatch it away. That’s not quite how the saying goes, but it’s the queasy version that applies now to the Indiana Pacers.

All season long, from back in training camp through the many trips and back-to-backs, despite the physical dings and emotional drain of trying to go wire-to-wire, the Pacers had staked out the No. 1 playoff berth in the Eastern Conference as their goal within a goal. They get that, and any Game 7 against their rivals from Miami would be played in Indiana.

It was a marvelous carrot for an 82-game schedule that wields some serious sticks. A rabbit to chase and, once claimed, to flex. A fix for what slipped away last year, when the Pacers did so many things right in Game 6 against the Heat, only to step on that plane to South Florida for one more.

And then, on the final night of the season’s fifth month, it was gone. With the thud of Indiana’s 103-77 embarrassment against the San Antonio Spurs Monday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, combined with Miami’s home victory over Toronto, the top of the East looks like this:

1. Miami, 51-22, .699
2. Indiana, 52-23, .693

The Pacers just hit the snooze button on their own nightmare.

“Good for them. We don’t deserve it,” center Roy Hibbert said in a home dressing room that was more demoralized than angry. “We’ll see, in the playoffs. But we’ve got to figure things out. Miami is a good team. They’ve had a couple hiccups themselves. But we don’t deserve that No. 1 seed.”

Indiana forward David West, who hinted at a variety of basketball and chemistry issues ailing his team now, said: “We’ve got to concede that we haven’t played basketball well enough to deserve the top spot. That’s pretty much it. We haven’t played well enough. We haven’t been a good-looking basketball team for quite some time now. That’s on the guys in this locker room.”

It was only their third loss at home since Feb. 1 and their fifth at the Fieldhouse this season (33-5) but it was the worst one by far. Giving up 107 points? Very unPacers-like, with the Spurs free to score 42 in the paint and hit 8-for-17 3-pointers. Scoring a mere 77? All too Pacers-like. This was the fifth time in six games they failed to crack 80. The last team to do that, as noted by the Elias Sports Bureau, was the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats, who went 7-59 (.106) in that post-lockout season to set an NBA record for lowest winning percentage.

Not “a good-looking basketball team?” West was given another crack at his description of the Pacers at the moment. “We’re probably the most downtrodden, 50-plus win team in the history of the game,” he said. “We watch film from a few months ago, we don’t even recognize ourselves.”

Said Hibbert: “We should all go to group therapy. … We’ve been spiraling. Now we’re splintering a little bit.”


VIDEO: GameTime’s breaks down the Heat taking over No. 1 in the East

Pegging the start of swoon seems easier than explaining or solving it. Point guard George Hill claimed the mojo dipped about two weeks before All-Star weekend. Indiana won a few close ones, then dropped two of three right before the break; it is 12-11 since then. Hill had a heated timeout exchange with backcourt mate Lance Stephenson in the second half Monday, but chalked it up to “wanting to win.” Stephenson likened it to “brothers” squabbling but still being family.

Maybe.

But West sure seemed to be catching himself, declining to address the stress this stretch has put on what had been been Indiana’s strength, its bonds and chemistry at least in the good times.

“There’s things I’m not going to speak on, but we’ve just got to figure it out,” the veteran forward said. “We’ve got to change some things internally, inside the locker room, before we can even consider talking about winning and getting back the trust.

“As a group, we didn’t have the energy or the mindset to compete with that team tonight.”

Sure, that was part of Monday’s mess. When your offense is as sick as Indiana’s, facing the Spurs goes against every possible doctor’s order, especially if he’s named Erving or Rivers. San Antonio has won 18 in a row with its meticulous offensive execution and stifling work at the other end. The Spurs held their hosts to a season-low 26 field goals and zero fast-break points. They got 17 points off 12 Pacer turnovers just in the second half. Kawhi Leonard was so up in Paul George’s business all night, George would have had more elbow room flying middle seat, coach.

“We’re not playing the game the right way right now,” George said after scoring 16 points on 5-for-13 shooting and, later, citing a severe lack of screen-setting. “We’re not playing for one another. It’s tough to score on any team in this league when you’re trying to do it against the whole team.

“San Antonio is the perfect example. It’s hard to guard them because they move the ball, they share the ball. And it’s regardless of who’s shooting. They want the best shot on offense. That’s the problem we’re having right now.”

Keep in mind, Indiana just flopped over the weekend in games at Washington and Cleveland (minus Kyrie Irving), so no pedigree is required nowadays to pester the Pacers. Still, things went so badly Monday that criticisms and accusations that had lift before the game were dive-bombing and barrel-rolling by night’s end. Such as:

  • A couple of the Indiana players need to toughen up, with Hibbert and George hinted at as the likeliest culprits.
  • One or two of them want too much to be “the man,” without regard for the game’s actual outcome. George was fingered in our man David Aldridge‘s Morning Tip chat with Hibbert this week and Stephenson surely has tendencies to dominate the ball. The team’s high number of contested shots suggests that someone or somebodies occasionally force things, considering how many capable scores Indiana actually has.
  • They got too satisfied by their blistering start and haven’t had anyone, including coach Frank Vogel, hammering on them enough to keep them humble and hungry.

Well, guess what: Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, while minding his own business, spanked the Pacers a little by extension, simply by talking about his team’s historic disregard for the No. 1 seed. What has loomed so large for Indiana all year – and now is like a psychological sword hanging over their heads – didn’t matter one bit through 17 consecutive playoff appearances, five Finals trips and four NBA championships in the Duncan/Popovich era.

“Never,” Popovich said Monday evening. “This will sound really strange to you, but we’ve never had any numerical or positioning goals – ever. Not one time. We’ve never talked about it the entire time I’ve been here.

“The only thing we do is talk about trying to be the best team we can be come playoff time. That’s what we harp on, period. We don’t talk about anything else.”

Then there are the Pacers, who gave Miami – mildly disinterested as the two-time defending champions navigated through the regular season – something they could steal away, turning the screws some on these wannabes.

“It puts us in reality now,” said George. “We’re really missing out on an opportunity right now.”

So what’s the first step for the Pacers now to begin digging out, with seven games that include Miami, Oklahoma City and a trip to Toronto?

“If we knew that, I think we’d be a lot better than we are right now,” George said, appreciating the conundrum. “I think that’s the first step – identifying it.”

As George spoke a couple of times with reporters – with a long, solitary bowed-head-in-hands moment in between – a self-help book rested against the wall of the open stall next to his. You Can Make It Happen – A Nine-Step Plan. The author in pensive pose on the cover: Steadman Graham.

It looked uncracked, which might not be a bad thing. What ails the Pacers might be better addressed on his gal pal’s couch, if only it still were in business. Or on Dr. Phil’s.


VIDEO: Indiana’s players discuss Monday’s blowout loss to San Antonio

Pacers, Spurs arrive at East-West showdown in very different spots

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew previews tonight’s Spurs-Pacers game

INDIANAPOLIS – Contender vs. (wince) pretender.

A marvelous 17-game winning streak vs. all sorts of horrible losing shrieks.

A mastermind boss and a core of proven veterans quick to remind themselves they don’t have all the answers vs. a coaching staff and players who desperately are searching for pretty much any anwers they can find.

This is not, in short, what anyone expected for Monday’s late-season meeting of the San Antonio Spurs and the Indiana Pacers (7 p.m. ET, NBA TV).

Oh, the Spurs have held up their end of things, more than that really, in what technically is a rematch of the Pacers’ 111-100 victory in December. But the Indiana team that dominated that night and left AT&T Center with an 18-2 record is nowhere to be found today. Even the comfort zone of the Bankers Life Fieldhouse, where the Pacers are 33-4 this season, offers little, as rattled as they are.

San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich is said to be aching for a loss, eager to wrap up the nicety of the streak and lock in on what’s barreling toward everyone in a few weeks. Frank Vogel, his counterpart, is aching from the losses — five in their past seven games, an 8-9 March so far and five consecutive road defeats (the Pacers haven’t beaten a legit playoff team here in about eight weeks).

After their latest failures at Washington and at Cleveland, Indiana’s reputation nationally is teetering on the brink of mockery, its feel-good result against Miami Wednesday ripped off like a mere Band-Aid over the hemorrhaging. But in losing to the Cavaliers, after scoring only 154 points over the weekend and missing 100 of 157 shots against the Wizards and the Cavs, there’s no teetering in the Pacers’ locker room. They are flat. Pancaked. At rock bottom. That’s how Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star portrayed it:

“Yeah, I would say,” [David] West answered. “For us to be playing like this just as a group, just to be so out of sync and out of sorts – we just got to find an answer. Something happened and all of us are sort of searching for what that is and why we’re playing the way we’re playing and why we’re looking the way we look when we’re out there on the floor.”

Indiana, now 52-22, has played on the offensive end as if it’s an agonizing ordeal to simply put the ball through the hoop. For the fourth consecutive road game, the team could not eclipse the 37-percent shooting clip.

“We had trouble catching passes and trouble knocking down open shots,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “Our guys are out of rhythm right now.”

In the best of times, Indiana’s offense is workmanlike; lately it has been goldbricking with an emphasis on the bricks. All-Stars Paul George and Roy Hibbert in particular have sputtered, shooting 35.4 percent and 40.0 percent respectively the past 10 games. George’s breakthrough season looks broken, sagging under defensive attention, the workload of being his team’s top offensive threat and perimeter defender and fits of trying to do too much.

Hibbert’s regressing offense is locked in a mutually confounding struggle with his teammates’ inability to deliver the ball where and when he needs it, and he’s a 7-foot-2 rim defender who is averaging 6.9 rebounds.

The Pacers lack any lights-out shooters, so even backup point guard C.J. Watson‘s nine-game absence has stressed their offensive system. And the chemistry questions about shedding Danny Granger and adding Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum won’t cease until Indiana’s players offer tangible proof that things are OK again.

Beyond a game to be won Monday – with no assurance it would have lasting effect anyway – the Pacers have an opportunity to take some notes from an opponent they want to emulate. Who doesn’t, right? The Spurs get called “the gold standard” just about every where they travel, except maybe to south Florida.

“This is a well-oiled machine,” said Denver coach Brian Shaw, whose team faced the Spurs twice in 72 hours last week. “It doesn’t matter who the personnel is. They play the game the way it’s supposed to be played. If you don’t have a shot, swing it over to your next open teammate and make the appropriate basketball play. They do that probably better than any team in the league, and that’s why they have success playing any style, whether it’s up and down or a grind-it-out halfcourt game.”

Sure, the Pacers don’t have three future Hall of Famers – Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker – anchoring their attack but they do have veterans in key roles and more continuity than most NBA teams. They have a defense that, at least until recently, was comparable to San Antonio’s during its run of 17 consecutive playoff appearances.

Then again, you rarely (if ever) heard the Spurs staking out their conference’s No. 1 seed as the be-all and end-all for postseason success. In their five trips to The Finals, the Spurs have been the West’s top seed twice.

And with the exception of the first one (1999), the Spurs have ranked no lower than eighth in team offensive rating in their other Finals seasons. Defense wins in the playoffs, but only for teams that score the least fewer points.

At this point, both the Spurs’ and the Pacers’ priorities have something in common: they want to shake off an overemphasis on the present and focus on the near future. They’re just trying to get there from 180 degrees of separation.

“We don’t care what the streak is,” Duncan said of the 17 in a row. “We’re not playing each game trying to continue the streak. We’re just trying to play the best that we can and have a good rhythm going into the playoffs. Whatever that may be, whatever that turns into — if we win a bunch or we lose — we just want to feel good going into the playoffs.”

One team can leave the gym after Monday’s game feeling fine even with a loss (well, one coach anyway). The other team is reeling so, losing to someone with pedigree might go down easier.

The Spurs, as they do night in and night out, essentially will be facing the Spurs, probing and measuring against their own lofty standards. The Pacers will be facing the Pacers, too, overdue to like what they see in the mirror.

Heat-Pacers packs punch as playoff preview, palate cleanser

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Pacers edge Heat in chippy East clash

INDIANAPOLIS – Surely, Washington and Detroit would understand. Same with Cleveland and Milwaukee and the other teams on the Indiana Pacers’ and Miami Heat’s schedules over the short term.

If the NHL could shut down for a few weeks to accommodate the Winter Olympics, the NBA and its member teams no doubt would oblige by staging the Eastern Conference finals now, wouldn’t they?

This one – Pacers 84, Heat 83 – was that special. And raggedy. And nasty. And hot.

There were grimaces and grumbles in the visitors’ dressing room afterward, smiles and a couple of exhales over on the home team’s side, and for a night – portending, soon enough, a fortnight – all was right with the NBA world.

Not all right in the sense that Miami lost and, with it, an opportunity to squeeze the Pacers a little harder in that chase for the East’s No. 1 seed. But all right in the way storm clouds over both teams got shoved aside by the sun burst of playoff-worthy basketball from all involved.

No one mentioned doldrums. Whatever the bad math lately – seven losses in 12 games, or was it eight in 13? – it was rendered irrelevant. Both teams clinched their divisions, one by winning, the other by losing (thanks, Washington), and naturally that meant nothing to them either.

Getting a game like the one at Bankers Life Fieldhouse Wednesday, one that lived up to the hype and then transcended it, has the effect of a palate cleanser at this point in the regular season. Of course, that’s way too genteel a metaphor for what went on – clotheslines and elbows and flagrants, oh my! – unless we sub out the sorbet for a squeegee, a bar rag and some styptic pencils.

The Pacers and the Heat hadn’t faced each other in anger (and that’s no mere cliché in this matchup) since Dec. 10 and Dec. 18, back before the season had gotten much traction. The battle everyone expected, and still expects, them to have as the East’s last two standing was, well, out there somewhere.

Now it’s right there, in relative terms. And the margin was as slim as Indiana strongman David West‘s shocking 3-pointer on an inbounds play with 50.2 seconds left that made it 84-80, followed by Miami forward Chris Bosh‘s hurried 22-footer to win just before the buzzer on what Heat coach Erik Spoelstra admitted was a “gunslinger” play. The ball had come in to LeBron James with just two seconds left and he followed orders by shoveling it to Bosh. Two passes in two seconds, yeah, a little gunslinger.

But it was that sort of night.

“It was definitely a playoff game,” Bosh said. “Close, going back and forth. Each possession was crucial. We just had [19] turnovers and didn’t do a very good job of taking care of the ball. Especially down the stretch [two in 21 seconds late in the fourth quarter]. Against a good team like that, you have to get good shots. You can’t come away with empty possessions, because that puts them in position to really strangle you.”


VIDEO: LeBron James talks about Miami’s loss in Indiana

Strangle? Nah, that was one of the few forms of mayhem not on display Wednesday.

Emotions ran hot, as evidenced by the dueling technical fouls on Lance Stephenson and Dwyane Wade for barking close in the third quarter. Later, both were gone, done in by their respective fatal flaws: Stephenson’s immaturity and Wade’s assorted ailments.

The Pacers’ mercurial guard taunted Wade after a basket with 5:01 left in the fourth and foolishly got his second T, earning an automatic suspension. Wade grabbed at his left hamstring three minutes later and had to exit.

Physically, this was May, not March. James, one of the league’s brawniest players, was in the thick of it. On one play, he got dragged down by Indiana big man Ian Mahinmi. It was reviewed as a flagrant foul but recast as a shooting foul. Next, he was whacked hard by Luis Scola, his recently broken nose taking impact. It too was reviewed as a flagrant but recast as a common foul.

“I see me and Blake Griffin take some hard hits,” James groused afterward. “They call it how they want to call it.”

So naturally, when James drove strong soon thereafter, his right elbow caught Pacers center Roy Hibbert smack on the jaw, sending the big man to the floor and briefly on rubber-leg street. And that was ruled a flagrant-1 foul.

James, unhappy most of all with the outcome, clipped his answers to postgame questions off at three or four words. But he went longer when someone wondered if the hit on Hibbert was retaliatory.

“If I could jump in the air, elbow somebody in the face in the air and still try to finish the play, I must be a kung-fu master or something,” James said. “I mean, his face happened to hit my elbow or my elbow happened to hit his face.”

Bosh stuck up for his friend.

“Our guys are getting punched in the face and clotheslined out there and we’re getting two shots,” Bosh said. “Then we get an offensive foul called – and it’s a flagrant. I guess we really need to decipher what ‘flagrant’ means. Because I don’t feel they were going for the ball. Especially in those two situations.

“If you can come down and clothesline somebody, I mean, it’s open season. People are going to get hurt. I don’t know, we’re going to have to revisit what ‘flagrant foul’ means to see if it’s even. But they had one and we had none, even though LeBron got punched in the face and clotheslined.”

West, when he heard about Bosh’s complaint, was incredulous: “He [James] shot 15 free throws!”

How perfect was this stuff? There had been no handshakes before the game, no chit-chat or fraternity hugs. There certainly won’t be any next time, not now, not after the bodies spent sprawling and the blood spilled Wednesday.

West had an air of satisfaction about him as the Pacers’ locker room cleared. He and some teammates had given Stephenson a talking-to after the final horn, reminding him to knock off the foolishness. Their team, for the most part, also had eased some of Paul George‘s burden by getting the ball out of his hands, sending him through and around the Miami defense as a cutter and generally keeping the Heat guessing.

But best of all, as West saw it, Indiana matched Miami in rugged play and giving as good as they got. With the game in their gym, they felt they had a solid chance to stay even on the whistles.

“They’re a tough team and psychologically, against most teams, they have the edge,” West said. “They have the best player in the game. Wade and Bosh are Hall of Fame guys. They’ve got that pedigree, their entire organization. You understand what you’re gonna get.”

Better than that, fans of both teams and the league in general understand what they’re gonna get when these two teams meet again. And, soon enough, again and again and again.


VIDEO: Paul George and the Pacers discuss their big win over the Heat

For Scola and Pacers, it’s about fixing carefully what was broken barely

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Pacers stifle Bulls; George tallies triple-double

INDIANAPOLIS – There was a rush to judgment for some inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse Friday night, a desire driven by desperation to declare that the kids were all right. That the Indiana Pacers, in beating a good team (Chicago) in ways most familiar (stifling defense, balanced scoring, ball movement, sweeping of the boards), were back, baby.

It was easy to get drawn into the feel-good atmosphere in the moments soon after the Pacers’ 91-79 victory, a game they blew open in the third quarter and managed comfortably to the end. The numbers stacked up beautifully, an homage to Indiana’s 16-1 start that got everything rolling this season:

  • They held the Bulls to 79 points. The Pacers are 12-0 when doing that in 2013-14.
  • They limited the guys in black to 36.4 percent shooting. Anything under 40 percent, Indiana is 25-2.
  • They controlled the glass 51-36 against a normally sound rebounding team, grabbing 13 on the offensive end. When they’re in double digits at that end, the Pacers are 24-4.
  • They had 27 assists on 34 field goals. They’re 34-3 just cracking 20.
  • And when all five starters score in double figures, this generally kumbaya crew is 12-2.

So the ball was hopping, the Fieldhouse was hot (Indiana guys got the game’s three technical fouls, though Chicago was more frustrated) and the Pacers’ recent worrisome streak – four straight losses earlier this month in which they gave up an average of 106 points, and a clunker in New York Wednesday – was getting brushed off almost blithely. After all, didn’t even coach Frank Vogel embrace Friday’s performance as a statement game about how dominant his guys can be and how legit their aspirations are?

“I think we did remind ourselves of who we are,” Vogel said, “in terms of a potentially suffocating defensive team that plays together on the offensive end and shares the basketball. We have a lot of weapons.”

It was left to Luis Scola to throw a damp blanket over the evening.

“I don’t think we’re out of it yet,” Scola said, soberly coming down from one of his best games this season, a season-high 19 points with 12 in the second quarter when Indiana’s bench jump-started most of the good stuff that followed.

“We just played one good game,” Scola said. “I believe in us, as much as anybody else or more. But we just played one good game.

“It wasn’t just one bad game we had. The longer you’ve been down is probably the longer it’s going to take you to come out of it. … If we go [Saturday] and lose against Memphis, it doesn’t mean nothing. We need to play well. Then we need to go to Chicago and we’ve got to play well again.”

Scola has earned the right to be cautious. No one game this season has fast-tracked his adjustment to contributing off the Pacers bench as a backup and reasonable facsimile for starter David West. Acquired last July from Phoenix, Scola has been inconsistent in the role. At times, he even appeared to regress: he went from 19.1 minutes, 8.4 points and 4.8 rebounds in November to 14.9, 5.8 and 4.8 in February. Those February numbers were eerily similar to the 2012-13 production of Tyler Hansbrough, the fellow over whom Scola was supposed to be such an upgrade.

So far, March has gone a little better individually for Scola – he’s shooting 53.8 percent, after hitting 37.6 percent the first two months of 2014. But this business of fitting in with a proven group and somehow fixing what was, at worst, only slightly broken is tricky. Evan Turner has learned that since arriving at the trade deadline in the surprise deal for Danny Granger. Big Andrew Bynum‘s swollen knee has blocked him from finding out.

“How to fit in and not stop their rhythm,” Turner said Friday of the challenge with which he’s still grappling. “And at the same time not be too passive or overly aggressive. Each night I have to figure out which way I have to play, whether I need to be aggressive or some nights I need to play defense and just pass the ball.”

Vogel takes responsibility for Scola’s limited opportunities or minutes variations – West still is averaging 30 a night, with Scola playing a career-low 17.1. But the Pacers coach didn’t sound bothered or unhappy with the 33-year-old’s impact.

“Scola’s just extremely passionate about playing great basketball,” Vogel said. “I probably have not rewarded him enough when he has a good burst. [He] played the whole second quarter [against Chicago] because he was playing his tail off. He’s a great competitor, great warrior. And a really good basketball player who, when he gets opportunity, he’s going to produce for you.”

Early in the season, Scola was noticeably rattled by the pace of his Indiana learning curve, displeased with his contribution. He didn’t fess up to that Friday but, when pressed, did admit to a new set point for what he considers a good night’s work.

“I’m just happy to be on a good team,” Scola said. “That could be something I learned. I learned it’s more fun to play less on a team like this, vs. play more on a bad team. Which I didn’t know early in the year.

“Playing more was very important to me. And it still is, but if I have to play 30 minutes on a team that is not in the playoffs, it’s less fun than this.”

Forget the sweeping statements for the Pacers or for Scola Friday. Somebody could use the word “fun” in their postgame locker room, and for a night, that was progress enough.

Don’t expect Pacers to pace themselves

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: David West talks about the Pacers’ approach to the final stretch

INDIANAPOLIS – Tom Thibodeau, not given to chuckling, did just that as the question washed over him. The Chicago Bulls’ head coach shook his head and seemed truly flummoxed.

“I have no idea where that comes from,” Thibodeau said. “I really don’t. What, they should apologize for playing hard? Come on.”

The topic was the Indiana Pacers, the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 team and the Bulls’ opponents Friday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (7 ET, League Pass). There have been rumblings in the media and the Pacers’ fan base that, maybe, coach Frank Vogel and his guys ought to be, well, pacing themselves better as the regular season runs out and the postseason nears.

Asking Thibodeau about easing through something is like asking Richard Petty if Jimmie Johnson ought to take some pedal off the metal while making all those left turns.

“It’s a long season. There’s going to be some ups and downs. You’ve got to navigate through things. Hey, they’re a terrific team,” Thibodeau said. “You can’t pick and choose when you’re going to play hard and not play hard. When you look at the teams I know… From my own experience, with Boston, that team practiced hard every day, they played hard every day. That’s the way it was.”

It stayed that way when Thibodeau got hired by Chicago. In 2010-11, his team tore through the season at a 62-20 record, securing the No. 1 seed all the way through the Finals if only it had advanced that far (the Bulls lost to Miami in five games one step short). In 2011-12, Chicago’s 50-16 again topped the East, making Thibodeau the fastest coach in league history to rack up 100 victories, though Derrick Rose‘s knee blowout stopped them in the first round.

Thibodeau faces criticism annually for running up minutes on some of his players, certainly during certain needy stretches of each season, and takes heat at least indirectly for the Bulls’ injury history in recent seasons. Yet he and the Bulls are praised for their effort, their energy and their overachievements.

While shrugging that off, Thibodeau claims to have done his homework on workloads and doesn’t feel he – or Vogel, for that matter – is overdoing a thing.

“I don’t see any negative from practicing hard. I don’t see any negative from playing hard,” Thibodeau said. “You’re building habits every time you step out there. I think you’ve got to develop a physical toughness and a mental toughness along the way. Because down the road when you do get there, there’s going to be a lot of fire that you’ve got to go through. And you’ve got to be prepared to deal with it.”

Vogel swats away talk of fatigue and rest with facts. “We don’t have anybody averaging over 35 minutes,” he said. “So I don’t think we’re overplaying guys. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with trying to win every night. Anybody who tries to convince me otherwise is crazy.”

There was, for instance, a piece on CBSSports.com Thursday (after Indiana’s loss in New York the night before) headlined, “Did the Pacers push too hard, too soon?” It focused on the tightened race with Miami for the East’s No. 1 seed, a goal of the Pacers since Opening Night but one that might not be secured until the season’s final week. If at all, as Ken Berger of that Web site wrote:

Of all the things that the Pacers worked on to try to get back on track, rest hasn’t been one of them. And now, with two of their 14 remaining games against the Heat, there may not be time.

Vogel was off just a bit in his numbers. All-Star wing Paul George tops the Pacers at 35.9 minutes per game, but that’s down from his 2012-13 average of 37.6. Lance Stephenson (35.8) is the only other Indiana player averaging more than 32 minutes and, like George, he’s 23 years old.

The focus on finishing first in the East has driven Indiana most of the season but mocked them a little lately. Since beating Portland on Feb. 7 to reach 39-10, the Pacers have gone 11-8 overall and 0-4 against teams with winning records. This is no time to get well, either, with six of their next season against playoff-bound teams, including Chicago twice, Memphis, Miami and San Antonio.

Then again, panicking isn’t restful either, as forward David West was quoted in the Indianapolis Star:

“We talked in film session today about how we’re not going to overreact to the perception coming from the outside,” [West] said. “I have full confidence in this group. If we had given up the one seed or whatever, that’s one thing. But one of the reasons we got off to a good start was in case we had a stretch like this.”

Thibodeau – whose team has gone 14-5 during the Pacers’ slump, making up only three games in the Central Division – talks of overwork the way MLB war horses Nolan Ryan or Jack Morris might talk about modern hurlers’ pitch counts. No hand-wringing or mollycoddling allowed.

“When you study the teams that win it and you study the drive behind it… any team from when [Larry] Bird played or Magic [Johnson] played, Isiah [Thomas] played, [Michael] Jordan – all those guys had incredible drive. When you hear the stories about the incredible things they did – I know Kevin Garnett with us in Boston – there’s a driving force beind it. I think that’s necessary.

“There’s not a lot of difference between the elite teams,” the Bulls coach added. “It’s will, determination. That’s not something you develop once you get there. You’d better develop it all along the way.”

Vogel did admit to one area of overwork: George has been asked all season to lead the Pacers’ offense, while also serving as their best perimeter defender. It might be time to lighten his defensive load, Vogel revealed.

“Every time he goes 4-for-17, I tell myself we need to do that,” the Indiana coach said after Friday’s shootaround at the Fieldhouse. “So I would expect to see a little of that going forward.

“He’s such a competitive guy that he wants to guard the other team’s best player the whole game. So there’s a little bit of reluctance to take him off some of those guys, and that’s a good thing. But it’s also, I think, smart for our basketball team.”

Just don’t expect to see the Pacers pacing themselves.