Posts Tagged ‘Frank Vogel’

Morning Shootaround — April 10


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 9

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Vogel’s gamble pays off | Casey unhappy with Raptors’ defense | Brown: Sixers need a ‘star’ in Draft | Cavs look ahead to next season

No. 1: Vogel’s gamble plays off for Pacers — The NBA world was abuzz yesterday afternoon after word came that Pacers coach Frank Vogel was benching his entire starting five of Paul George, Lance Stephenson, George Hill, David West and Roy Hibbert to give them some rest against the Bucks. Milwaukee gave Indiana quite a fight, but thanks to a late shot from little-used reserve Chris Copeland, the Pacers took home the win. That, coupled with Miami’s loss in Memphis last night, gave Indiana the No. 1 spot in the East again and may have proven Vogel’s move to be worthwhile. Our Steve Aschburner was on the scene in Indiana and has more on the game:

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.

“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.”

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 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.”


VIDEO: Pacers score a close win in Milwaukee

***

No. 2: Casey fretting over Raptors’ defense — No team has been more of a surprise in the Eastern Conference this season than the Atlantic Division-leading Toronto Raptors. The team is just one win away from both clinching the franchise’s second-ever division crown and also tying the record for wins in a season. Despite all the good feelings of the season, though, coach Dwane Casey is a bit concerned about Toronto’s defense as it barrels toward the playoffs. Doug Smith of the Toronto Star has more:

They are a game away from matching two historic moments in franchise history; a win away from a division title, a victory away from equalling the win total of the best Raptors team ever — and the anticipation is building all around them.

But having watched his team scuffle through another bad defensive night against a vastly inferior opponent, coach Dwane Casey is more worried than celebratory.

“My whole goal now is to get better defensively going into the next couple of weeks because if we don’t, it’s going to be a short ride,” Casey said after the Raptors beat the Philadelphia 76ers 125-114 at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday, Toronto’s second straight stinky defensive performance.

“Collectively, our defence has to step up. We can’t expect to outscore people 125-114 and have a game like that,” he said.

“It’s a mindset. You can’t look at their records, whoever we play. New York (Toronto’s next opponent) will be a little different but the other teams (minnows Detroit and Milwaukee also remain on the Raptors schedule) that are not in the playoffs, we can’t look at that. We have to play our game and look to improve.”


VIDEO: Raptors coach Dwane Casey discusses the team’s win over the Sixers

***

No. 3: Brown: Sixers need a ‘star’ in the Draft — As a former longtime assistant coach of the San Antonio Spurs, Philadelphia 76ers first-year coach Brett Brown knows how drafting a go-to superstar can shape a franchise. He saw what Tim Duncan has done for the Spurs over the years and now that he’s leading his own crew, Brown knows that Philly needs a star in the 2014 Draft if it hopes to keep its rebuild project moving along quickly and smoothly. He talked with Tom Moore of the Bucks County Courier-Times about that, Michael Carter-Williams, Nerlens Noel and more:

“I think it’s important,” Brown said during a 10-minute interview after Tuesday’s practice. “I think it’s really important.

“Stars want to play with stars. And it’s too early to say anything about Michael (Carter-Williams) or what you can project Nerlens (Noel) out to be. Just because somebody’s chosen high in the draft doesn’t mean they’re going to be a star, either.”

The Sixers, who are likely to finish with the second-worst record, would have a 19.9 percent shot at the No. 1 overall pick and a 55.8 percent chance to choose in the top three. They also own five second-round selections.

One potential top-three pick, talented Duke freshman forward Jabari Parker, who said he might come back to school after an early NCAA tournament exit, has arranged housing for his sophomore year, according to a Duke source. While that doesn’t mean he’ll stay, it shows he’s seriously considering remaining a Blue Devil for another season.

Brown is eager to see rookie center Noel, who sat out the year as he recovered from a torn ACL, play one of the Sixers’ two summer leagues. Noel and Carter-Williams won an AAU national title as members of the Boston Amateur Basketball Club (BABC).

The Sixers acquired Noel with the No. 6 pick in last June’s draft from the Holiday deal and Carter-Williams went No. 11.

“They have had such a great history together in their Boston AAU days,” said Brown, a Maine native. “I can see how they have a bond, a connection, a relationship. Those things are priceless.

“I think it’s ‘hoop karma.’ To get two young players that are used to playing with each other at such a young age as our first-round draft picks last year and my own experiences in Boston — maybe something’s aligned where we can pull off something special together.”

Brown is adamant that Carter-Williams, who leads all first-year players in scoring (16.7 points), assists (6.3), rebounds (6.1) and steals (1.9), should become the Sixers’ first NBA Rookie of the Year since Allen Iverson in 1996-97.

“Absolutely zero (doubt in my mind),” Brown said. “And forget my opinion — look at his game and look at the stats. You can easily say — some people will — it’s because he played on a poor team or he played with the fastest (offensive) pace in the league or he got 34 minutes a night to do his thing. Those are true facts.

“But when you go a layer deeper and you say look at his game. Look at what he actually does. Project him out.”

***

No. 4: Cavs try to look forward to next season — The Cleveland Cavaliers tried to make a big splash in the offseason, signing center Andrew Bynum, guard Jarrett Jack and swingman Earl Clark months after drafting Anthony Bennett with the No. 1 overall pick. The thinking was adding those pieces to a core that included All-Star Kyrie Irving and budding frontcourt player Tristan Thompson would equal a playoff berth. The exact opposite happened as Cleveland sputtered out of the gate, dealt with Bynum drama mid-season, fired its GM and, in short, failed to live up to every expectation. The Cavs’ playoff hopes officially ended last night and as Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon-Journal writes, being home for the playoffs stings a little more this time for the Cavs:

It seemed almost poetic in this season of uncertainty that one of the Cavs’ finest performances would be tarnished by their ultimate demise.The offensive efficiency was brilliant Wednesday, the ball movement was electric and the outcome was emphatic. Only none of it matters anymore, since the Cavs’ 122-100 victory against the Detroit Pistons was washed away 36 minutes later by the Atlanta Hawks’ victory over the Boston Celtics, thereby officially eliminating the Cavs from postseason contention with exactly one week left in the season.

“It’s an empty feeling you have now that your chances are done,” Kyrie Irving said. “You think about the things you could’ve done, should’ve done — it’s inevitable.”

“That type of basketball, the stuff we saw out there tonight, that’s the way we want to play most of the time,” Mike Brown said. “We’ve played that way quite a bit. We’ve taken our lumps at times, but our guys have gotten better and it shows.”

Only it all came too late to save their postseason lives.

The Cavs will be haunted this summer by their 4-12 November that included losses to the woeful Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. They lost twice to the Boston Celtics and were embarrassed at home by the injury-ravaged Los Angeles Lakers.

Those are the types of losses that ultimately will deny the Cavs their first trip to the postseason in four years.

“One of the things that eats at me is the first couple of months, the transition we went through just not being able to win a few more games,” Brown said. “It’s tough and you have to play almost perfect basketball. It puts a lot of pressure on you as the year goes on. You wish you had some of those games back so we could experience playing past April.”

The Cavs were mathematically eliminated from the postseason before March concluded last season, and while a huge assist for their extension this season is the woeful Eastern Conference, the fact remains the Cavs played meaningful games in April and remained in the hunt until exactly one week remained.

That is progress from a team that won only 24 games last season …

“I feel good about the direction we’re going,” Brown said. “We have to keep understanding that every time we step out we have to grow and get better. … There will be times we’re going to take some steps backwards, but hopefully we don’t take too many steps backward these last few weeks of the season.”


VIDEO: Kyrie Irving talks about the win and missing out on the playoffs

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: The Bulls are reportedly close to signing former reserves Mike James and Lou Amundson to deals … Pau Gasol confirms it is unlikely he’ll play again for the Lakers this season … NBA commissioner Adam Silver sees ads on jerseys as both a “viable” source of revenue and an “inevitable” thing … The Bobcats’ Michael Kidd-Gilchrist talks about his ex-high school teammate Derrick Gordon, the UMass basketball player who recently came out as gay … Timberwolves coach Rick Adelman knew that Bulls center Joakim Noah was primed for a big game last night … Aaron Brooks has enjoyed his time in Denver and wouldn’t mind re-signing with the team

ICYMI of the Night: The Bulls’ Taj Gibson is one of the better finishers around the rim in the NBA, but Ronny Turiaf of the Wolves was having none of that last night … 


VIDEO: Ronny Turiaf gets up to deny Taj Gibson’s dunk … and his follow-up attempts

 

 

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.

2014 Pacers flashing back to 1969 Cubs

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: The GameTime crew discusses Indiana’s late-season swoon

Cue the black cat at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

It really is the only thing left, a symbol of the rotten luck that befallen the Indiana Pacers lately — well OK, poor performance is the real culprit — but more so a link to the sort of sports swoon the Pacers are experiencing as they flail to finish the 2013-14 regular season.

It’s a famous picture – an ominous black cat set loose at old Shea Stadium, scampering past the visitors’ dugout as Chicago Cubs third baseman Ron Santo gawked from the on-deck circle. And it has served ever since as shorthand for the collapse of the 1969 Cubs, one of the worst ever in U.S. team sports history. And one that seared itself into the memory of a mere lad whose sports enthusiasm was just beginning.

Right: Mine. Growing in the near-suburbs, my family had taken me to Wrigley Field a few times that summer, which wasn’t so much a baseball season as it was a festival. Of Ernie Banks‘ smile, of day baseball, of ivy-covered walls, of Santo and Billy Williams at the plate, of the Bleacher Bums, of Ferguson Jenkins’ work from the mound, of Ken Holtzman‘s first no-hitter and, mostly, of winning. The Cubs grabbed first place with an 11-inning victory on Opening Day and held it for 155 days, slipping to second with just 20 games left in the 162-game season.

Their nosedive had begun a month earlier, though, their nine-game cushion in the NL East saving them for a while but dialing up the stress, too, as it dwindled. On Aug. 13, the Cubs were 74-43, nine games up on St. Louis and 10 in front of the soon-to-be “Miracle” Mets. Chicago went 18-27 the rest of the way while the Mets finished 38-11. It wasn’t even close – an eight-game gap – by the end.

The Pacers, at the moment, look to have passed their tipping point. Rock bottom has come yet again, the 107-88 mess against Atlanta in which Indiana scored 23 points in the first half and couldn’t get out of its own way, either on the court or on the side. That’s where center Roy Hibbert, a sensitive fellow, splayed his 7-foot-2 frame on the bench for most of the game after being yanked by coach Frank Vogel. The body language, the blank stare, the lack of interest in his teammates’ comeback quest or Vogel’s timeout huddles – you’d have sworn Hibbert had seen a black cat cross the Pacers’ path.

Still to come, perhaps: One Pacer airing out another in public, the way Santo screamed at centerfielder Don Young after a game-busting dropped fly ball.

It’s too early to rank what’s happening in Indiana among pro sports’ all-time collapses, such as the 1995 California Angels, the 2007 Mets, the 2003 Minnesota Vikings or others. The NBA and the NHL are tricky that way, because a front-runner like Indiana that loses its way – the Pacers had staked out the No. 1 seed from the get-go and looked capable of going wire-to-wire until a few weeks ago – still ends up qualifying for the playoffs.

That gives it a chance against a lower-seed team to right itself, and avoiding a first-round upset tends to restore some measure of confidence. In the NBA, it’s the teams that cough up potential success in the postseason that get remembered for their big fails. Like the 1993-94 Seattle SuperSonics (losing to No. 8 seed Denver), the 1999-2000 Portland Trail Blazers (blowing a 15-point lead in the fourth quarter of Game 7 vs. the Lakers) or the 2006 Dallas Mavericks (up 2-0 in The Finals before losing four straight to Miami).

But who’s kidding whom? Indiana’s game has gone south in almost all areas, offensively and defensively. The trust level in the locker room has bottomed out, and Vogel’s job security now is a daily topic in local and national media – anything less than a return to the East finals, or maybe The Finals, might bring a pink slip, insiders say and outsiders speculate. The Pacers are 13-13 since the All-Star break – there’s been no “Miracle” out of Miami, 16-9 in that time, but it has been enough to chase down a front-runner gone sideways.

It’s still a swoon rather than a collapse, but if the Pacers don’t already feel enough pressure to fix all that ails them, they should know this: There are little kids throughout Indiana on the brink of being traumatized for life as sports fans.

What, you say that isn’t likely to help the situation?

Morning Shootaround — April 7


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 7

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Frank Vogel under fire in Indy? | Durant passes MJ … Suns pop Thunder | Warriors Jackson knows winning cures all | Battier still intent on proving his worth after all these years | Trail Blazers bolster Olshey’s bid for Executive of the Year

No. 1: Pacers coach Vogel under fire as slide continues – The Indiana Pacers’ 20-18 record over the past three months has thrown not only their season into a tailspin but also raised questions about their future under head coach Frank Vogel, at least in the eyes of some. Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star raises some startling questions about Vogel’s future with the franchise after yet another disastrous performance, a drubbing at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks Sunday night on their home floor. Benching Roy Hibbert for all but nine minutes, and Hibbert’s bristling during and afterwards, certainly adds more fuel to the drama that has become the Pacers’ season … one that doesn’t appear to be headed for a positive finish:

We know the Indiana Pacers are in trouble, big trouble, BIG trouble, but the question must be asked: Is Frank Vogel in trouble?

That might sound absurd given the job he’s done since he took over as an interim coach. The feeling here is, he’s this team’s long-term coach and should be allowed to correct the many things that have gone wrong with his team the last two months.

But know this: Vogel is not Larry Bird‘s guy.

Bird was hesitant to fire Jim O’Brien in the first place, and even after Vogel turned the team around and got them to play competitively in the playoffs against the Chicago Bulls, it took a couple of months before Bird was willing to give Vogel the full-time job. If you remember, Bird wanted Vogel to hire a big-time, experienced assistant, specifically Brian Shaw, before giving him the job.

Remember, too, that in mid-March, Bird took a swipe at Vogel during a four-game losing streak, opining that Vogel wasn’t hard enough on his team at times. Vogel said the comments didn’t bother him; I’m not convinced that’s the truth.

Would Bird come down from the front office and take over for the post-season?

Would he put it in the hands of Nate McMillan, the former Seattle head coach who is a Vogel assistant?

Bird didn’t put this team together to watch it go into the tank. From the moment the season began, he said, “We’re all in” while saying anything short of the NBA Finals would be a disappointment.

It was interesting, then, that in the midst of the Pacers’ humiliating 107-88 home loss to the Atlanta Hawks – winners of eight of their previous 29 games, by the way – Vogel channeled his inner Bird. With the Pacers trailing 17-3 and 6:05 remaining in a brutal first quarter, Vogel benched the entire starting five.

Hallelujah.

“They’re not getting it done,” Vogel said. “They’re not getting it done, we have to go to someone else, see if someone else can get it done.”

Vogel then did another un-Vogel-like thing to start the second half: He benched Roy Hibbert. Hallelujah, again. Hibbert was terrible, going 0-for-5 without a single rebound in 9 ½ minutes.

After the game, Vogel spun it by saying that he was thinking about resting Hibbert before the start of Sunday night’s game. Then, after watching Hibbert struggle – and watching somebody named Pero Antic light him up from the perimeter – Vogel pulled the plug.

Key word there being spun.

“I considered resting Roy before tonight’s game because he looks worn down,” Vogel said during a short, terse post-game press conference. “He’s a 7-2 player that’s played every game this year, which is very rare. He looks to me to be worn down. He’s giving good effort, but he looks to be to be worn down…I decided to play him, but when he got off to a slow start, I decided to rest him.”

Rest him? Now he’s just trying to spare Hibbert’s feelings. There’s no way Vogel would have rested Hibbert in a game that Pacers absolutely had to win in order to remain in the hunt for the No. 1 seed. No … way.


VIDEO: Paul George and the Pacers try to explain yet another humbling defeat

***

No. 2: Durant passes Jordan with 41st game of 25 or more but Thunder can’t stop Suns — What was supposed to be a night to celebrate Kevin Durant and his scoring streak — he passed Michael Jordan with his 41st consecutive game with 25 or more points — turned out to be yet another stellar performance from Goran Dragic, Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker and the stubborn Phoenix Suns team that refuses to exit the playoff chase in the Western Conference. The Suns win also highlighted a glaring deficiency the Thunder have been struggling to shore up with the playoffs just days away. Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman explains:

At a time when the Thunder is supposed to be fine-tuning for the playoffs, Oklahoma City still can’t seem to figure out how to be sharp defensively. Opposing guards are still slicing through the lane and opposing shooters are still left alone far too frequently.

Suns forward P.J. Tucker became the latest bit player to burn the Thunder, scoring 11 of his career-high 22 points in the fourth quarter. He made seven of nine shots, including four of five 3-point attempts. All four of Tucker’s 3s came from the corner, where Kevin Durant continuously got caught sagging off too far and closing out too slow.

The Suns sprayed in 11 of 23 3-pointers.

“We gave up too many open 3s in the corner,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “That’s a 40 percent shot, so we don’t want to come off on the corner. They roll hard. They penetrate so they get you in a position where you have to make sure you are stopping the ball first. And we didn’t get out to their shooters. But those are all correctable things, things that we’ve done well all year. We just had some bad moments tonight.”

Gerald Green, who erupted for a career-high 41 points in the Thunder’s last trip to the desert, finished with 24 points. He poured in 11 in the third quarter, nine of them coming on 3s.

When it wasn’t Tucker or Green taking it to the Thunder, it was Goran Dragic, the crafty point guard who gave Phoenix three 20-point scorers. He added a team-high 26 points, with 19 of them coming in a first half in which the Suns scored 62 points on 58.7 percent shooting.

Dragic was complemented in the backcourt by Eric Bledsoe, who missed the last meeting while recovering from injury. Bledsoe scored 18 points on 6-for-13 shooting.

“They give you trouble because they’re small, they attack, they get to the free throw line, they can make 3s and they’re desperate right now,” Brooks said. “They’re fighting for their playoff lives.”


VIDEO: Thunder star Kevin Durant surpasses Michael Jordan with his 41st straight game of 25 or more points

***

No. 3: Warriors Jackson knows he has to “just win baby” — Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson knows what he’s dealing with, and it’s a simple scenario. Win and all of the drama fades. It’s like the old Oakland Raiders saying goes, “just win baby.” (It certainly helps to have Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the Splash Brothers, working overtime for you.) And for Jackson’s self-preservation on the job, the Warriors need to keep piling up the wins (now and into the postseason) to secure Jackson’s situation. At least that’s the way Jackson sees it. More from Tim Kawakami of the Mercury News:

“My job will be determined on winning,” Jackson said before an easy victory over Utah. “I’m fine with that …

“The talk about what these two (ex-assistants) have done, that has nothing to do with me.”

Actually, the dispatching last month of Brian Scalabrine after a philosophical dispute with Jackson followed by the mysterious firing last week of Darren Erman for a team violation has something to do with the head coach.

Jackson is responsible for everybody in that locker room, and if there are problems and failures, he is at some point accountable.

He also has been rightfully credited for re-establishing a sense of unity and defensive purpose on this team and for getting the Warriors into the second round of the playoffs last season.

But there has been grumbling about the team’s occasional lack of urgency and Jackson’s offensive system, which often bogs down in isolation sets with little movement.

Some of that grumbling has come from people in the Warriors front office, by the way.

At times, Jackson has reacted to the chatter indirectly by declaring that this franchise has a history of losing, is winning now and should act like it knows the difference.

On Sunday, when I asked how he’d describe his relationship with co-owner Joe Lacob, Jackson said there are no problems between them.

“You know it’s interesting, I’m reading ‘the dysfunction’ or whatever the term is for my relationship with this front office,” Jackson said. “That’s brand-new to me. And I’d be the first tell you if it wasn’t.”

Jackson then added that he and Lacob talked to each other for 15 minutes on the recent road trip.

Lacob told me in February that he was generally happy with Jackson’s performance but that he was disappointed by some of the home losses.

I also believe that Lacob would view a first-round loss as a sign that the team isn’t moving forward, which is death in the venture-capitalist universe.

“That’s not my call,” Jackson said when I asked him if a first-round loss this season should be considered a step backward.


VIDEO: Steph Curry and Klay Thompson run wild on the Jazz

***

No. 4: Battier proves his worth against Knicks – The Miami Heat’s win over the New York Knicks Sunday wasn’t a death-blow to the playoff hopes of Carmelo Anthony and his crew, but it was close to it. And as much as the Knicks can blame LeBron James (38 points), who outshined J.R. Smith on a night when the Knicks’ enigmatic shooting guard drained a franchise-record 10 shots from beyond the 3-point line,  they need to focus their attention on Shane Battier. The veteran forward’s defensive presence was a game changer for the Heat. Even after all of these years in the league, Battier remains intent on proving his worth to his teammates and coaches by playing the game the right way on both ends. David J. Neal of the Miami Herald explains:

The most eye-catching statistics from the Heat’s 102-91 win were from Smith, who attempted an NBA-record 22 three-pointers and made a franchise record 10 to finish with a team-high 32 points. The single-game record was previously held by Damon Stoudemire, who hoisted 21 three-pointers on April 15, 2005.

However, those numbers eventually meant little for the Knicks, whose playoff hopes were seriously damaged by the loss.

The Knicks trail the Atlanta Hawks by three games in the loss column with only four game left in the regular season for the Knicks.

Although Smith started the game sizzling, he went 0 for 5 from the field in the third quarter and 0 for 4 from three-point range. In that quarter, the Heat outscored the Knicks by that final 11-point margin, 25-14.

On the other hand, the Heat went ahead of Indiana by a game for first place in the Eastern Conference behind James, who finished with a game-high 38 points. Bosh added 14 and Allen 12 for the Heat.

Haslem recorded 11 rebounds, including three offensive boards, which tied him with Alonzo Mourning for the most in Heat franchise history with 1,505. Allen’s four three-pointers answered those by Smith. And Battier battled New York scorer Carmelo Anthony into 4 of 17 from the field and 13 points.

“He’s going to have big moments for us in the playoffs,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of Battier, one of his favorite players. “Does that mean it’s necessarily a consistent night-in, night-out rotation role, I don’t know. I can’t even attempt to answer that right now.”

The witty, erudite Battier — who played one second Friday against Minnesota and 5:31 last Wednesday against Milwaukee — said he laughed to himself when Spoelstra told him James would start the game defending Anthony then hand the sometimes unstoppable New York scorer over to Battier.

As they normally do, Battier and Anthony, who was playing with a sore shoulder, dished out hip checks and torso thumps to each other at a rate that, Battier said afterward, would have had both fouled out in five minutes if the referees called the game by the book.

“A game like [Sunday], I’m trying to prove myself to myself, and prove myself to my teammates,” Battier said. “That’s what keeps us all going. We’ve all been in that spot here unless you’re name is ‘James,’ ‘Wade,’ or ‘Bosh.’ But [that’s] the reason guys fight to stay in shape is this locker room. We owe it to each other.”


VIDEO: J.R. Smith went crazy from deep, but LeBron James and the Heat got the win

***

No. 5: Olshey’s case for Executive of the Year gains momentum – His name hasn’t been mentioned among the favorites. He’s avoided the publicity many of his peers have enjoyed this season, perhaps on purpose, choosing to retool the Portland Trail Blazers’ guts and gears without any of the fanfare normally associated with a rebuilding project of this kind. But Neil Olshey belongs in that conversation for Executive of the Year, writes Jason Quick of the Oregonian:

The Trail Blazers received a well-earned ovation Sunday after clinching a playoff spot with a 100-94 victory over New Orleans, the team’s 50th win this season with four more games left to play.

But nowhere to be seen, nowhere to be found, was the man who perhaps deserves the biggest ovation: general manager Neil Olshey.

They should start bubble wrapping the Executive of the Year trophy and addressing the box to One Center Court, because nobody in the NBA did more with less last summer than Olshey.

Robin Lopez. Mo Williams. Dorell Wright. Thomas Robinson.

It’s not Buck Williams for Sam Bowie, which still stands as the greatest offseason move in franchise history, but the haul in the Summer of 2013 will long be remembered as one of the most influential offseasons around these parts.

The beauty of it all is, few if any, saw it while it was happening.

The Blazers had a modest $11.8 million in cap room last summer and badly needed a defensive minded center, a backup point guard and some scoring pop off the bench. Getting a center figured to cost the Blazers most, if not all of their cap space.

Instead, Olshey got creative, and found a team that wanted to make a financially motivated deal: New Orleans. He worked a deal to get Lopez in exchange for Jeff Withey, who was the Blazers’ second round pick, a future second round pick and cash considerations. New Orleans, in turn, saved paying Lopez’ $5.9 million salary this season.

Lopez, of course, has been awesome. Each time I watch him play, I appreciate him more. He rebounds, blocks shots, sets good screens, has a reliable jumper, and he’s durable, having played in all 78 games. He is averaging 10.9 points, 8.5 rebounds and has 137 blocks, the most by a Blazers player since Theo Ratliff had 158 in 2004-2005. And the guys in the locker room love him.

Olshey should win the Executive of the Year award on the Lopez acquisition itself.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Suns point guard Goran Dragic is a music video star … Clippers super sub Jamal Crawford might not see any action until the playoffs … The Spurs need Cory Joseph to step into the void for Tony Parker … The Hawks’ fast start helps boost their playoff cushion over the Knicks … Mavericks veteran Vince Carter bounces back in style … Oh, by the way, benched Pacers center Roy Hibbert‘s got “nothing for ya!”

ICYMI of the Night: Surely, you didn’t miss J.R. Smith’s 3-point barrage against the Heat Sunday …. but just in case you didn’t see all of his record 22 attempts, you need to see his makes … 


VIDEO: J.R. Smith goes off from deep in the Knicks’ loss to the Miami Heat

 

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.

Blogtable: How to fix the Pacers

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: Buying into the Spurs | Fixing Indiana | West 5-6-7-8



VIDEO: Sam Mitchell examines the recent freefall of the Indiana Pacers

> You’re Frank Vogel. Your Pacers are crumbling, inside the locker room and on the court. It’s time for some bold, major moves. Isn’t it? Got any?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Look, it’s probably too late for clever coaching tricks: a lineup shake-up, a mini-boot camp where there are 2-3 loose days in the schedule or even the counter-programming and pressure release of taking the team to Vegas for a night. Frank Vogel has fiddled with his rotation to no real result. At this point, all that comes to my mind is going all-in on inside-out play, demanding that the offense find Roy Hibbert and David West down low, pounding the ball down low and cutting the temptation for hero ball from Paul George and Lance Stephenson. Keep the wings and guards moving and cutting — Indiana has been standing around an awful lot lately. Get C.J. Watson back, because his outside shooting is a scarce commodity with this club. Oh, and if Andrew Bynum can get with the program and stay available, great. If not, bye-bye.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Major moves?  Like a UFO from Darryl Dawkins’ home planet of Lovetron landing in an Indiana cornfield and delivering a young Reggie Miller or Larry Bird?  Other than swinging a big club in the locker room, Frank Vogel’s only play is to calm things down, go back to basics and remind his team that they were good enough to build the league’s best record for most of the season.  Teams are always telling us that the regular season means nothing once the playoffs start.  Now the Pacers get to hit the reset button and walk that walk.  Maybe a team viewing of highlights of the 1995 Rockets (No. 6 seed) would help.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: All that’s left is for Frank Vogel to confront his team, demand they look each other in the eyes and ask them how they want to be remembered. Do they want to go down as one of the biggest collapse jobs ever, or as fighters? We can go through a litany of on-court issues, particularly on the offensive end, but this is now all about the players playing for one another and figuring out how to get their mojo back. If not, it’s lights out — maybe even in the first round.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Yes, it is time for something bold. No, I don’t have any. This is about attitude and approach, so Vogel needs to manage personalities. Seven games to go before the playoffs isn’t the time to make drastic changes to the offense that is grinding gears or to the lineup. The rotation has worked for much of the season, so it can work again. But Vogel has to be an assertive leader to ensure the locker room gets back to a good place. He can’t let this fracture more.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: “This was the best team in the league for four months with a defense that was able to stop the most potent offenses. They could certainly find their footing and get back to that level.” – John Schuhmann, March 26, 2014. Yeah, they stink right now, but April 2 isn’t the time to be making changes. The Pacers will never be a great offensive team, but they have a system that works well enough when guys are playing well and playing together. I don’t know if they’ll get there in time to make it out of the second round, but it’s more likely to happen if they stick to their identity rather than try to recreate it.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball Blog: Actually, I think it’s time for the opposite. The Pacers have gotten to where they are by mostly being deliberate. They’ve had this core intact for years, including coach Vogel, as the team organically developed into Conference contenders. This season, actually, has probably had more upheaval than any recent season, between signing Andrew Bynum and trading Danny Granger for Evan Turner. To me the last thing they need is something else to shake things up. I say they trust the infrastructure they have in place and let the new guys embrace their roles the last few weeks of the season. In many ways they seemed to treat this season like a sprint instead of a marathon, and perhaps they can use a few weeks “off” before the playoffs get started.

XiBin Yang, NBA China: First, I’d break the so-called privilege of a superstar. Maybe George could become a genuine superstar someday, but he has not reached that level yet. You could give him a chance to make it happen now, but that doesn’t mean he’ll get there…yet. He’s had a fantastic year, by and large, but he has not been ready to confront everything, which a superstar has to go through, such as how to deal with a double- or triple-team for a whole night, and get to the basket all by himself, or make clutch shots whenever the team needs. The Pacers were established by all kinds solid role players. Before George confirms to everyone that he is the guy that the front office of the Pacers wants him to be, he still ought to play team-first basketball. To break the spell, everybody needs to know his role and play within his role, just as the Spurs do.

Philipp Dornhegge, NBA Deutschland: At this point, I think you have to roll with what you’ve got. You can just cross your fingers and hope that the guys will return to form come playoff time. You could, of course, think about taking Lance Stephenson out of the first unit, but I don’t really believe that it would resonate very well with him. And the Pacers need him. I think you can trust the guys that if the going gets tough in the first round against the Bobcats, guys will step up, overcome adversity and take some momentum into the next round(s). You have to.

Iñako Díaz-Guerra, NBA España: To me, a bold move was the beginning of their fall: the Evan Turner trade. I believe that this isn’t something that Vogel can fix, it’s a locker room issue. Perhaps the leadership of Danny Granger was more important than they thought and now they need one of their younger players to take control of the team. Is Paul George ready for it? Hibbert, perhaps? They need a new leader and the only thing that Vogel can do is wait and pray for it.

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.

Morning Shootaround — March 31


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 30

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Struggling Pacers have hit rock bottom | Knicks finally ready to close in on 8th spot | Win or lose, Lakers facing crossroads this summer | The age of analytics or overload? | Haywood says one-and-done kids hurt NBA game

No. 1: Struggling Pacers have hit rock bottom after loss to Cavaliers — The Indiana Pacers have officially hit rock bottom. Sure, it’s a strange thing to say about a team that currently occupies the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings. But there is no other way to describe what the Pacers are going through after watching them get taken apart by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Their current state of affairs is not conducive to a long and productive postseason run. And after warnings being sounded from every direction, including Pacers’ boss Larry Bird, the struggles continue. Their lead in the standings over the Miami Heat has dwindled to just one game. And the Pacers have no explanation for how things have unraveled the way they have. Candace Buckner of the Indianapolis Star paints the picture:

On Sunday afternoon at Quicken Loans Arena, the Pacers searched for their first road win since March 15 but could not find it. Then, after the 90-76 defeat, they searched for something to explain this most mystifying late-season plunge that has left them holding a scant one-game lead over the Miami Heat.

Again, the Pacers couldn’t find it.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do,” said Paul George, only after raising his head from his hands.

“I’m lost right now,” Lance Stephenson muttered under his breath. “I don’t know.”

“I don’t know,” David West said, the words struggling to escape from his gravelly voice, “what else we can do.”

The Pacers may not know what’s behind this latest stretch of basketball as they’ve lost five straight on the road, but know this – they have reached the lowest point of the season.

“Yeah, I would say,” 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. We got to figure it out. That’s what we gotta do.”


VIDEO: David West talks about Indiana’s loss in Cleveland

***

No. 2: Knicks close in on playoff spot — One huge road win could very well be the tipping point that allows the New York Knicks to finally catch and pass the struggling Atlanta Hawks for that eighth and final playoff spot they have been eyeing for months now. The gap has been closed, after the Knicks’ stunning win on the road over the Golden State Warriors. The way they did it, with Carmelo Anthony struggling through a 7-for-21 shooting night and with J.R. Smith, Amar’e Stoudemire, Tim Hardaway Jr. and others stepping up, only makes the stretch run more intriguing for the always dramatic Knicks. It’s down to one, as Marc Berman of the New York Post explains:

It’s down to one.

With Atlanta in free fall, the Knicks are lucky to be alive. And so they are very much, closing to one game of the final playoff spot with a 89-84 upset victory in a surprising defensive struggle over the Warriors at Oracle Arena, when they shut down Stephen Curry twice in the final 30 seconds.

The Knicks used rare gritty defense and a 15-0 run late in the second quarter to keep their postseason dreams alive. They had lost 10 of their last 11 games in Oakland before rising to the challenge — and bottling up Curry on the final possession.

“Our defense finally stepped up,’’ coach Mike Woodson said.

The Knicks moved to 2-2 on their five-game West Coast trip. With eight games left, the Knicks finish up the Western trip Monday in Utah. The Hawks face the Sixers.

“If we head home, get [Monday] night, it will be a great road trip,’’ Carmelo Anthony said. “We control our own destiny. I just hope we win and bring the same mindset and focus into Utah.’’

The Knicks had allowed 127 points in Los Angeles, including a 51-point third quarter, and 112 in Phoenix before buckling down in Oakland, where team president Phil Jackson continued to stay away.

Smith, who has been rising as a secondary scorer, finished with 19 points at halftime on 8 of 11 shooting and wound up with 21. Anthony finished with just 19 points but had four in the final 1:30. He shot 7 of 21. Amar’e Stoudemire was a beast on the boards, finishing with 15 points and a season-high 13 rebounds.

‘For us to bounce back after that loss in Phoenix, We did a great job tonight,’’ Anthony said. “It says a lot we can put this stuff behind us quickly.’’


VIDEO: Carmelo Anthony talks about the Knicks’ big win in Oakland

***

No. 3: Win or lose the Lakers facing dilemmas at every turn at season’s end — As enjoyable as that win over the Phoenix Suns might have felt for Lakers fans who have endured an unthinkable season, the sad facts of this season remain. No matter what they do between now and the end of this regular season, this summer is setting up as a critical crossroads for the franchise. There is so much uncertainty that some of the starch is taken out of any of the good vibrations Chris Kaman and Co. provided with that surprising rout of the Suns. Mike Bresnahan of the Los Angeles Times sets the table for what the Lakers are facing:

The Phoenix Suns were in town and handed the Lakers much more to ponder beyond another surprisingly rare and easy victory.

The Suns couldn’t control Chris Kaman, lost Sunday’s game by a 115-99 score and offered the perfect time to explore some big-picture questions involving their past employees.

What will the Lakers do with Coach Mike D’Antoni?

What will happen with Steve Nash, who won two NBA most-valuable-player awards in Phoenix under D’Antoni? And what of Kendall Marshall, a first-round bust of the Suns who found plenty of playing time with the Lakers?

The answers in quick succession as of now — undetermined, staying and staying.

The Lakers have a dilemma with D’Antoni, who coached the Suns for five successful seasons. They still owe him $4 million next season and don’t want to look like a franchise with a coaching turnstile.

But Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol don’t support his small-ball offense and Lakers fans don’t support him, period.

So the team will decide fairly quickly after the April 16 regular-season finale — pay him to not coach the team, just like Mike Brown, or try to make it work next season.

General Manager Mitch Kupchak said last week he thought D’Antoni was “doing a great job under the circumstances,” but how great would obviously be revealed in coming weeks.

Nash sat out another game, which is no longer surprising for a player who appeared in only 12 this season.

For financial reasons, the Lakers currently plan to keep him next season, The Times has learned, eating the remainder of his contract ($9.7 million) in one swoop instead of waiving him and spreading the money out over three years.

It would give them more money to spend in the summers of 2015 and 2016, when they figure to be active players in the free-agent market amid such possible names as Kevin LoveLeBron James and Kevin Durant.

***

No. 4: The new age of analytics … overload or advantage? – It’s one thing for fans and pundits alike to debate the merits of advanced statistics, or analytics (if you will). It’s something altogether different, however, when players, coach and front office types are still haggling over the merits of that information and what it means in the overall matrix of the game. In Boston, where the advanced metrics movement got its start in the NBA, there is no better context than the one painted by All-Star point guard Rajon Rondo, former Celtics coach and current Clippers boss Doc Rivers and Celtics president and brain waves guru Danny Ainge. Baxter Holmes of the Boston Globe provides this illuminating take on where things stand by framing the debate:

Rondo has savant-like math skills and a well-documented interest in advanced statistics. But he has his doubts about SportVU.

“I don’t think it means anything,” Rondo said. “It doesn’t determine how hard you play. It can’t measure your heart. It can maybe measure your endurance. But when the game is on the line, all that goes out the window.”

Rivers, on the other hand, considers himself a proponent.

“There’s a really good use for it,” Rivers said. “There’s a use for us, each team, depending on how they play and how they defend. You can find out stuff.”

And while Ainge is also a proponent, he remains cautious.

“You have to be careful with how you utilize the information that you have,” Ainge said. “It is sort of fun and intriguing and I understand why media and the fans are intrigued by it all, but I think it’s blown way out of proportion of how much it’s actually utilized.”

Ainge’s point was echoed by several analytics officials employed by NBA teams who corresponded with the Globe on the condition of anonymity.

Naturally, none of them could speak in specifics about how their teams use the data, but many said that numerous challenges — such as how many variables can affect a player on any play — keep this from being an exact science.

“Our sport is just not a pretty sport for isolating things,” one official said.

Above all, several officials emphasized that how the discussion is framed is key, as analytics are often discussed publicly in black-and-white terms — “they’re great” or “they’re pointless” — when reality is in the middle.

One official wrote in an e-mail, “People don’t understand the limitations of the data and only focus on the articles that are written about it and the way it is ‘sold’ by the NBA and the teams that use it. Some of the data is much more along the lines of trivia as opposed to something that can be useful for an NBA team. But make no mistake, there’s plenty of good stuff in there, too.”

Another said, “The underlying data, I think, is incredibly valuable in the way that diamonds or gold under a mountain are valuable, but it takes a lot of effort and infrastructure to get at it and then take advantage of it.”

***

No. 5: Haywood: These one-and-done kids aren’t ready for the NBA – Few people can offer the perspective on the one-and-done dilemma that Spencer Haywood can. He changed the landscape for early entrant candidates in 1971 when the Supreme Court ruled in his favor, after he starred for two seasons at the University of Detroit, and allowed underclassmen to enter the professional ranks. In an op-ed for the New York Daily News Haywood explains why one season on a college campus is not sufficient preparation for anyone with aspirations of joining the game’s elite. In short, Haywood believes the one-and-done rule has to go, mostly because the NBA game is suffering because of it:

I jumped to the ABA in what would have been my junior year and won the ABA Rookie of the Year and MVP honors with the Denver Rockets. I had a fair amount of seasoning before I challenged the system. I wouldn’t have been able to handle the rigors of the NBA on and off the court after my freshman year.

The NBA is now strewn with underclassmen, most notably players who have left after their freshman year, who have yet to make a significant impact.

Look no further than last year’s NBA draft, when five freshmen — Anthony Bennett, Nerlens Noel, Ben McLemore, Steven Adams, Shabazz Muhammad — were selected among the top 15 overall picks.

How many are difference-makers for their respective teams? None.

How many are averaging double digits in points and minutes? None.

The high scorer among this group, McLemore, is averaging 7.5 points per game. The other players are all averaging less than five points and 12 minutes. Noel is out this season due to a knee injury.

Bennett, the No. 1 overall pick of the Cleveland Cavaliers, clearly needed more seasoning at UNLV and I told him as much before he made his decision to declare for the draft.

I live in Las Vegas and I saw most of his freshman year. I wish he would have listened. His NBA rookie season has been marred by being out of shape, injuries and failing to live up to the expectations of being a No. 1 overall pick. Averages of 4.1 points and 2.9 rebounds in 12.7 minutes per game aren’t exactly what the Cavaliers had in mind when they selected him with the top pick.

Will these players ultimately have long and meaningful NBA careers? Time will tell. But all of them would have benefited by staying at least one more year in college.

The first 30 years after the court ruled in my case, there were only three players who came out of high school early: Moses Malone, Darryl Dawkins and Bill Willoughby. Moses bounced around a few teams before becoming an all-time great, but Dawkins had a stagnant, underwhelming career because he wasn’t trained well enough and Willoughby had a marginal eight-year career with six teams.

If you look at the current generation of players from Kevin Garnett to Kobe Bryant to Dwight Howard, only one player was able to make an immediate impact right out of high school — LeBron James.

The NBA is a man’s league. The transition from college to the NBA is huge, on and off the court. The players are faster, stronger and smarter. You’re playing an 82-game schedule, not to mention preseason and if you’re lucky, the playoffs. Suddenly, you’re a teenager going up against the likes of James, Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George — all men — on a nightly basis.

One and done players need the extra year to successfully transition off the court, too. A lot of these players are still acquiring life skills: Critical thinking, time and money management, self-discipline, moderation and simply learning to say no.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: After a season filled with turnover issues, the Thunder finally seem to be getting grip on their most glaring flaw … LaMarcus Aldridge and the Trail Blazers turn the tables and secure a much-needed win over their nemesis from Memphis … After missing 16 straight games is Kevin Garnett finally on his way back to the rotation for the Brooklyn Nets? … The Cavs, who are also chasing Atlanta for that eighth spot in the Eastern Conference standings, are hoping to get Kyrie Irving back sometime this week

ICYMI of the Night:  Brooklyn Nets swingman Joe Johnson doesn’t normally make a fuss when he does his business, but Sunday was a milestone day for the seven-time All-Star, who surpassed the 17,000-point mark for his career …


VIDEO: Joe Johnson hits a career milestone by reaching the 17,000-point mark

Pacers’ George shouldering, slumping under load of NBA stardom

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Paul George looks ahead to tonight’s Heat-Pacers matchup

INDIANAPOLIS – Paul George generated headlines and criticism when he spoke recently about his desire to be mentored by LeBron James.

At this point, George and the Indiana Pacers might settle for not being schooled by him.

With the Miami Heat in town tonight (8 ET, ESPN) for the third of the teams’ four meetings in 2013-14 — they’ve split the first two and clash again on April 11 in south Florida — the Pacers are struggling with some Xs & Os issues. They could stand a little R&R and while they’re at it, a few Z’s, too. But right now, it is George’s DNA that is getting much of the attention, as he tries to finish strong a season unlike any other he has experienced.

Through his first three years, the Pacers’ rapidly developing wing player faced minimal individual pressure. From something of a sleeper as the No. 10 pick in the 2010 Draft, the 6-foot-8 Scottie Pippen-playalike blossomed from helpful rookie to rotation player to starter to All-Star. His production and his minutes went up, up, up — from 7.8 ppg to 17.4, from 20.7 mpg to 37.6 — always staying a few steps ahead of expectations. The Pacers made the playoffs every year and, kind of like George, went a step further each time.

George’s game has taken another step again — he started for the East in the All-Star Game in New Orleans and he was a regular in MVP conversations through the season’s first four months. But the expectations have caught up to him lately and so, it seems, have the defensive game plans.

Like the Heat, the Pacers have lost seven of their last 12 games. Unlike the Heat, the Pacers don’t have two rings or nearly the established track record for pulling out of a nosedive. Especially since Indiana is the one that staked out a wire-to-wire run for the East’s No. 1 seed that has gone vulnerable at what could be the worst possible time.

Their rivals know it, the Pacers know it. One of those crews is grasping to fix it.

“We’ve got to do a better job of playing with energy,” George said after Indiana’s loss in Chicago on Monday. “We’ve just been dead, it seems like on the court lately. That’s not us. That’s not us.”

After the Pacers’ practice Tuesday, he added: “We just haven’t been having fun. We’re making the game much harder than it needs to be. Somewhere along the line we forgot how much fun this game can be. … We went through a streak of games where we were just getting by because we were the more talented team. Where now we have to play good basketball to get wins.”

It’s probably not a stretch to hear “I” each time George says “we.” Sure, the Pacers’ offense is the primary problem, but he has been so instrumental in it that the overlap is vast.

George is carrying a big load in Indiana’s attack — 21.8 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 3.5 apg — and with what’s been going on, has tried to shoulder more. It looks like pressing: He’s shooting 36.6 percent over his last 13 games –including 19 of 71 from 3-point range — and has had five games of 13 points or fewer (including nights of 2 and 8).

When he has shot less than 42 percent in this stretch, the Pacers are 3-6. He has had off-the-court distractions too – a paternity case from a woman in Florida, some photo-texting claim that broke over the weekend that he termed “a fake” — that surely have not helped.

Asked Monday if he has seen Indiana players try to do too much through the team’s slump, George said: “We have it at times. You’re going to need it sometimes. We choose the wrong moments.”

Asked if he’s been one of those guys, he said: “At times. I’m not going to say I’m not one of ‘em. I only have good intentions to get something going for us offensively and just be aggressive.

“Our execution isn’t where we want it to be. We’re nowhere where we want to be as far as screening. Setting guys up. Moving with energy, playing with some energy. And cutting without the ball. You know, everything has just been so lackadaisical. That’s going to get you beat. We’re putting too much pressure on ourselves to score against great defense in the halfcourt.”

There is no break coming Wednesday night, not with the way Miami traps the ball out top and, if all else fails, can ask James to throw a bruising defensive blanket over Indiana’s best player.

Pacers coach Frank Vogel acknowledged after the loss in Chicago that he has talked with George about not overburdening himself, forcing matters, or taking personally too much of the team’s struggle.

“All the time,” Vogel said. “He’s learning. He’s growing. I don’t want to share the details, but it’s a grind. It’s a grind right now. He’s just got to work his way through it.”

George is, after all, still 23. When Michael Jordan was George’s age, he had played in seven playoff games total. OK, Kobe had two rings at 23, but he also had Shaquille O’Neal. It took James — another high schooler with a head start — until his fourth season to reach The Finals and his sixth to win an MVP. Everyone’s into the hurry-up, but George has been doing fine.

These are teachable moments, this game, the next one against Miami and these next three weeks. Everything George and the Pacers want to achieve still is right there for them.

“I really wish I could tell you [the "book" on stopping George],” Chicago’s Taj Gibson said after George’s 8-of-22 shooting Monday. “Paul, over the years, hass added so many different things to his arsenal. The best thing you can try to do is play with a lot of energy and try to contest every shot. That’s the most I can tell you — every time he shot the ball, we tried to do a hard contest. Hand in his face, like Kobe kind of. You’ve just got to try to frustrate him any way you can.”

Lately, George has been starting halfway there, a situation he and the Pacers will try to remedy Wednesday.


VIDEO: The Beat crew discusses the Miami Heat