Posts Tagged ‘Frank Vogel’

Blogtable: New coaches, hot seats

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


BLOGTABLE: Home sweet new home | Kobe and the Lakers | Is there a hot seat?


The pressure is on for coach Scott Brooks (with Kevin Durant) to take OKC to the next level. (Richard Rowe/NBAE)

The pressure is on for coach Scott Brooks (with Kevin Durant) to take OKC to the next level. (Richard Rowe/NBAE)

> With so many new coaches — all but two teams have had at least one new coach in the last six years — is there anyone out there in danger of getting canned this season?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: So you’re suggesting Scott Brooks suddenly has job security and is free from speculation about his continued employment? Well, that would be a first. Look, no coach is entirely safe once a team gets to the point of needing to do … “something.” If the roster and payroll are locked, people start to look to the sideline. Brooks and Kevin McHale both are working in environments of impatience, with the Thunder and the Rockets antsy for bigger prizes by now. Memphis’ Dave Joerger already was out of his job once — on the brink of being hired by the Timberwolves — but he went back to what might not be the most stable gig under owner Robert Pera. And since no team is facing expectations more goosed than Washington, a slow or even middling start by the Wizards could have folks looking cross-eyed again at Randy Wittman.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: What if Jason Kidd quickly concludes that he doesn’t like it in Milwaukee and decides to stick a knife in the back of another coach for a different job? But seriously, this is the modern NBA, where patience and reason are always in short supply. Frank Vogel won’t get a totally free pass if he can’t at least keep the Pacers battling and competitive in the absence of Paul George. If New Orleans can stay healthy, Monty Williams will be under the gun to at least get the Pelicans back into the playoff race. And keep an eye on Kevin McHale, in the final year of his contract in Houston, with a Rockets team that now has fewer weapons.

Memphis' Dave Joerger (Joe Murphy/NBAE)

Memphis’ Dave Joerger (Joe Murphy/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Not only are there so many first- and second-year coaches out there, but coaches like Washington’s Randy Wittman, Toronto’s Dwane Casey and Portland’s Terry Stotts all signed extensions so they’re seemingly safe if their respective clubs were to take a step back. In the East, Indiana’s Frank Vogel certainly seems vulnerable after last season’s fade, but the loss of Lance Stephenson in free agency and Paul George to injury could alter thinking there. Orlando’s Jacque Vaughn will be working with an extraordinarily young team so not sure what can be expected there. In Milwaukee, I suppose Jason Kidd will determine his own fate. Out West, most everything is either well-established or brand new. But there are a couple situations to keep an eye on. Monty Williams’ future could get muddied if the Pelicans don’t rise up, assuming good health, and Sacramento could lose patience with second-year man Mike Malone if the Kings stumble early.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: The Bucks. Oh, you mean where the general manager fires the coach, not the other way around. Never mind. In that case, let’s see how new best buddies Dave Joerger and Robert Pera get along in Memphis if the losses start to fly. Maybe it doesn’t happen — the Grizzlies could be good. If not, though, how long before old tensions return?

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: I wouldn’t put anyone’s job in danger in this space, but Scott Brooks, Kevin McHale and Monty Williams need to deliver better results this season. Brooks has done a great job in Oklahoma City, but this is now his seventh season and Sam Presti needs to decide if he’s the guy to get the Thunder over the hump. McHale lost some of his roster’s depth this summer, but needs to coax a top-10 defense out of a team that features Trevor Ariza and Dwight Howard. And speaking of that end of the floor, Williams has a defensive rep and a beast of a franchise player, but New Orleans has ranked 28th and 25th defensively the last two seasons. With the development of Anthony Davis and the addition of Omer Asik, the Pelicans need to make a big leap on that end.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: After the way Larry Drew was treated in Milwaukee, anyone not named PopovichRivers, Spoelstra, Van Gundy or Saunders has to at least be on alert that a change could be made under extreme circumstances. Coaches no longer have to be concerned only with external expectations impacting their job security. These days the perception from within (Mark Jackson in Golden State) can get you whacked suddenly. That’s why both Randy Wittman in Washington and Monty Williams in New Orleans will operating under unique circumstances. Both teams will be expected to be considerably improved from last season, not only in the win-loss column, but in the larger context of the league hierarchy. Even with an extension signed, Wittman cannot afford for his team to take any steps back. The Pelicans will be led by one of the brightest young stars in the league in Anthony Davis and will expect to at least be a part of the Western Conference playoff picture, albeit at the bottom of that rugged top eight mix. If at any point it becomes clear that these guys cannot get their teams to the next stage of development, the coaching hot seat will have two prime candidates.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: Even though so many coaches are still in that honeymoon period with their current teams, it seems like something crazy always happens. Who would have thought Jason Kidd would end up in Milwaukee, or that Dave Joerger would almost end up in Minnesota? Neither of those guys were fired, though, but I wouldn’t say the hot seat has completely cooled off. All it takes is for one owner to be unhappy with his team’s performance or placement in the conference — particularly in regard to wherever that owner believes they should be. I am not saying this will happen or should happen, but will ownership in Sacramento, where they are desperate to be competitive, be patient with Mike Malone? Will the Rockets continue to allow Kevin McHale to build what they’re working toward? I hope so. It would be nice, for a change, to have a season without any firings/hirings. I’m just saying, don’t bet on it.

Blogtable: Are the Pacers done?

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


BLOGTABLE: Risk/reward and the USA | Indy’s dilemma | Pick a center


> You’re Larry Bird. Paul George is out. Lance Stephenson is gone. What are your plans for the Pacers? When can you make them a factor again?

The success of the Pacers next season will rest largely on Roy Hibbert's shoulders. (Ron Hoskins/NBAE)

The success of the Pacers next season will rest largely on Roy Hibbert’s shoulders. (Ron Hoskins/NBAE)

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: The cupboard is too bare, I fear, for the Pacers to be much of a factor this season. The contender that most needed an offensive overhaul has suffered an offensive mugging, losing its starting and shot-creating backcourt. Shawn Marion wouldn’t be any real answer at this stage of his career, C.J. Miles is C.J. Miles, and unless Rodney Stuckey was holding back something brilliant from Pistons fans, he won’t be a savior either. David West is getting long in the tooth and Roy Hibbert remains a 7-foot enigma. On defense and muscle memory, Indiana can grab a lower playoff rung in the East. But that’s about it. Can Reggie Miller suit up again?

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: You take a page out of an old Western movie and circle the wagons. The Pacers don’t have to look outside their own division to see how the Bulls made no excuses and instead made a commitment to defense and team play the past two season. Hello, Roy Hibbert. It’s your time to step up and shoulder the burden. The challenge is to develop a stronger supporting cast for when George does return in 2015-16 and vaults Indy back into the Eastern Conference contender race.

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a lot of choices out there other than going out and playing with the hand they’re dealt. Maybe this can be Indiana’s David Robinson-Tim Duncan moment. Is there a Tim Duncan out there?

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: I’m screwed. There will be the chance to sign someone with the injury exception, but obviously anyone who can make the kind of impact the Pacers need now is gone. And any trade consideration only weakens me at another position (and there is no sense to give up a lot for a small forward if I believe George is back after one season). I can, however, set the tone, along with Frank Vogel, that this changes nothing in the expectation that everyone reports to work every day expecting to win. I’m good at that no-nonsense thing.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: Tread water. Seriously. Just tread water in the Eastern Conference and do whatever it takes to try to make the playoffs with a roster that has been greatly reduced since last season. Doubt works as a great motivator. And these Pacers will be doubted by many, so they’ll have all the motivation they need. But Paul George could be out for not only the entire 2014-15 season and beyond, which means the Pacers will spend the next two seasons trying to recover from what has turned out to be a catastrophic summer.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: Obviously, they’re not going to be a “factor” until at least the 2015-16 season. So Bird should listen to offers for his older vets, including David West, who turns 34 this month and could help another team (Phoenix?) more than he could help the Pacers. Indiana was already pretty brutal offensively. It got worse when they lost Lance Stephenson and now we may be looking at the worst offense in the league. Even if they can remain a top-10 defense without their best perimeter defender, the Pacers will be lucky if they hover around .500 this season.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: You play to your strengths. You’ve still got Roy Hibbert, David West and Luis Scola, so you slow the tempo as much as you can and pound the ball inside, over and over and over. One of Hibbert’s issues last season was gumming up the offense by wanting the ball in the post. Well, now you can have it as much as you want! The Pacers won’t contend in the East this season, but they can still defend the rim, and with more shots to go around, I wouldn’t be surprised if George Hill steps up and posts big numbers as well. So for now, you try and get by until Paul George is back out there.

Rubens Borges, NBA Brasil: The Indiana Pacers are in a pickle. They have already lost Lance Stephenson, one of the only shot creators in the 23rd best offense of the 2013-14 season, to the Charlotte Hornets. With Paul George hurt, Indiana loses the best weapon it had. Not only that, but the Pacers saw one of its best, if not the best, defenders in the team go down. Indiana has two options: pull a 1996-97 San Antonio Spurs and go for a high lottery pick or toil away at the season, hoping a weaker East can salvage 2014-15.  Option A: trade David West or Roy Hibbert for picks, young assets and hope they can land a high pick. Option B: hope that the East, weaker than the West but improved, can provide them with a playoff berth. If I were Larry Bird I would go with option A. Retool a bad offense without losing their defensive anchor, George, and come back stronger in 2015-16.

Akshay Manwani, NBA India: I think Larry Bird needs to challenge Roy Hibbert. The Indiana big man stumbled dramatically in the 2014 post-season, and with George injured, Hibbert has the opportunity to redeem himself. If Bird can get him to play big for Indiana now, it is a win-win for both. At the same time, Bird has to bring in some manpower and getting Shawn Marion, a proven, versatile forward, with tons of experience, would be a good place to start. As for making them a legitimate factor, Paul George has to return at the earliest.

The new beast of the East … the Central


VIDEO: New Beast of the East

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Any reasonable conversation about the balance of power in the NBA starts with the world champion San Antonio Spurs, the rest of the rugged Western Conference and spreads from there.

But no region of the NBA has seen the sort of influx of talent and energy that the Eastern Conference’s Central Division has this summer. From LeBron James coming home to team up with Kyrie Irving in Cleveland to Pau Gasol joining Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah in Chicago to the top two picks in the June Draft — Andrew Wiggins in Cleveland, for now, and Jabari Parker in Milwaukee — things have changed dramatically.

LeBron James' return to Cleveland looms over the entire Central Division. (David Liam Kyle/NBAE)

LeBron James’ return to Cleveland looms over the entire Central Division. (David Liam Kyle/NBAE)

The Indiana Pacers won the Central Division and finished with the best record in the East last season, but they have garnered more attention this summer for a player (Lance Stephenson to Charlotte) that they lost in free agency than they did for anything else they have done. They’ve been usurped, in the eyes of many, by both the Cavaliers and Bulls, before the summer/free agent business has been finalized.

If the Cavaliers can find a way to secure Kevin Love via trade from Minnesota, they will not only enter the season as the favorites to win the Central and the East, they’ll rank right up there with the Spurs as the favorites to win it all. (And had Carmelo Anthony chosen the Bulls over remaining with the New York Knicks, the Bulls would be in that mix as well.)

You have to wonder what Stan Van Gundy, the new team president and coach in Detroit, and Jason Kidd, who takes over as coach in Milwaukee, are thinking now. A rebuilding task in Detroit, whatever gains are made during the 2014-15 season, will likely be overshadowed by what goes on elsewhere in the division. Kidd’s shocking move from Brooklyn to the Bucks, and the ensuing fallout, lasted a couple of days before taking a backseat to all things LeBron and Love.

“It’s hard to rank them right now, before we know exactly what happens with Love and Cleveland. But I don’t think it takes any stretching of the imagination to assume there will be no more competitive division in the league than the [Central], and that’s based on just those top three teams alone,” a Western Conference advance scout made clear to me. “The Cavs, Bulls and Pacers are all going to be legitimate contenders. And I think the Pistons, with Stan running things, could be one of the more improved teams in the entire league. And there’s a chance no one will notice because of what the Cavs, Bulls and Pacers are doing.”

The most intriguing part of the entire transformation of the division is going to be watching if the Pacers, a fragile bunch by the time their season finished in the Eastern Conference finals against LeBron and the Heat, can get back on track with the increased competition. Frank Vogel and his crew took advantage of the opportunity to step into the void when Rose and the Bulls slipped from their top spot the past two seasons. Tom Thibodeau kept the Bulls among the East’s best without Rose available. Now he’ll have an energized Rose, whose confidence is soaring as he attempts to earn his spot on USA Basketball’s roster for next month’s World Cup in Spain, and the Windy City twin towers of Noah and Gasol to build around.

The key for the Bulls, of course, is a healthy Rose.

“I’m there. I’m not worried about that,” Rose told our John Schuhmann when asked how close he was to regaining his superstar form. “My confidence is very high. And that’s the only thing you might see this year, that my confidence level is through the roof.”

I don’t know that Rose’s confidence is enough to convince me that the Bulls are truly ready to reclaim that top spot in the division. And I’m not completely sure LeBron’s arrival in Cleveland means the Cavaliers push past the Pacers for that No. 1 spot. But it’s clear that the Central Division is where we could see the best power struggle in the league next season.

The July 2014 ranking of the Central Division (based on what each team has on the roster as of July 29, 2014):

1) Indiana Paul George, David West, Roy Hibbert and the crew won’t give up the banner without a serious fight. They’ve learned from last season’s mistakes and won’t have to worry about whatever distraction Stephenson might have been. A clean slate for 2014-15 is exactly what this team needs.

2) Cleveland  Sorry Cleveland, but LeBron coming home doesn’t automatically make you the top dogs in the division or the conference. Not around here. The pressure isn’t just on LeBron, either. New coach David Blatt, Kyrie Irving and that supporting cast are all shouldering that load as well.

3) Chicago Derrick Rose is feeling good. And that can’t be anything but a great thing for the Bulls. But we need more than good vibrations to push the Bulls up the food chain. If Rose lights it up in Vegas during USAB training camp and later in Spain, an updated evaluation will be in order.

4) Detroit Greg Monroe‘s future with the Pistons remains a bit uncertain. But the rock for the future is Andre Drummond, who is also on the USAB roster, working to earn a spot on the World Cup team. Van Gundy’s system requires shooters, which the Pistons added in Jodie Meeks, and to an extent Caron Butler and D.J. Augustin. Josh Smith remains the wild card.

5) Milwaukee It’ll be fun watching Parker’s game evolve under a young coach like Kidd. But the Bucks are still at least two years away from being a factor. They simply don’t have the personnel to compete with the top teams. And there is a learning curve the entire organization will have to undergo before the Bucks get back into the mix.


VIDEO: Relive the Bulls’ top 10 plays from 2013-14

Night for Pacers, Pistons to watch, plot

The Cleveland Cavaliers again have everyone else in the NBA breathlessly waiting while they decide which domino shall topple first.

The Milwaukee Bucks are next, happy to sit at No. 2, hoping for more Durant-after-Oden, less Bowie-after-Olajuwon.

The Chicago Bulls sit further back but hold two picks, Nos. 16 and 19, in the first round of what’s considered to be a deep draft (and even loftier ambitions for free agency).

And then there are the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons, poor little Central Division teams on the outside looking in – on the first round, anyway – of the 2014 Draft Thursday night.

The Pacers traded away their first-round pick to Phoenix last summer, packaging it with Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee for veteran forward Luis Scola. The Suns hold it at No. 27, leaving Indiana with only the No. 57 pick – three from the bottom – as a long-shot stab at talent near the end of the night.

The Pistons would have picked No. 9, a pivotal point similar to last year (No. 8), if not for its desperation two years ago to unload Ben Gordon, sweetening a deal for Charlotte’s Corey Maggette by including a protected future first-rounder. That future turned into the present when Detroit slipped one spot in the lottery drawing, stripping the protection, transferring the pick to the Hornets and leaving new basketball poobah Stan Van Gundy only with the No. 38 pick.

Technically, Nos. 38 and 57 aren’t wastelands when it comes to finding (more like discovering months later) occasional talent. Eighteen of the past 20 players drafted 38th earned jobs in the league, however briefly; Andy Rautins (2010) and DeMarco Johnson (1998) lasted five games each, while Michael Wright (2001) and Rashard Griffith (1995) were the only washouts. Over the past 20 years, the top players to emerge from No. 38 probably have been Chandler Parsons (2011), Steve Blake (2003), Eduardo Najera (2000), Chris Duhon (2004) and Nate Wolters (2013).

Meanwhile, San Antonio sixth man Manu Ginobili classed up the No. 57 slot when the Spurs grabbed him there in 1999. Washington center Marcin Gortat was picked at the spot in 2005. Since Gortat, however, the eight players selected at No. 57 have played a combined five games – all by Florida State forward Ryan Reid (2010), who logged 17 minutes total for the Thunder in 2011-12.

All of which is a long and historically broken down way of saying Indiana and Detroit aren’t banking on the Barclays Center in Brooklyn to deliver their offseason improvements.

The Pacers have internal chores atop their to-do list. Shooting guard Lance Stephenson has reached free agency before full maturity, forcing a tough call on president Larry Bird and the rest of the organization: Pay Stephenson and risk even greater antics fueled by a fat, guaranteed-and-validating contract in the mid-eight figures, or let him leave and scramble to replace his scoring, playmaking, defense and energy. Backup Evan Turner was a dud after arriving via trade in February and also will be a free agent, but for now he is Indiana’s Lance insurance.

Coach Frank Vogel also has to resuscitate Roy Hibbert as the team’s centerpiece, weighing the big man’s defensive presence against his offensive quirks and alarming unreliability late last season and postseason.

The Pistons feel as if their work already is underway, with Van Gundy in place and speculation swirling about a Josh Smith-to-Sacramento trade. They also have done their homework in gauging restricted free agent Greg Monroe‘s value, possible offer sheets (which often aren’t in synch with the first calculation) and their match-or-trade decision tree. Detroit also figures to have between an estimated $13 million to $14 million in salary cap space, pending other moves.

Van Gundy, a baseball fan, used an analogy from that sport when updating Detroit media recently on the team’s expected maneuvers. “We’re not gonna hit a home run,” he said, “but if we can get three singles or two singles and a double, and drive in a couple runs, we’ll be OK.”

Assuming they’ve got Verlander or Scherzer on the mound, of course.

Morning Shootaround — May 31


VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played May 30

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Pacers-Heat rivalry never really existed | Your move Scotty Brooks | Composed Heeat dismantle Pacers, Stephenson | Phil Jackson asks ‘Melo to opt in, stick with Knicks

No. 1: Pacers-Heat rivalry? It never existedPaul George‘s less than rousing endorsement of “No. 1″ aside, the Indiana Pacers left Miami late Friday night filled with mixed emotions about finishing three straight seasons on the wrong side of the ledger against the Miami Heat. They’d call it a rivalry, their annual tussle with the Heat. Others, however, wouldn’t go that far. Not when the Pacers have fallen in this proposed rivalry in each and every battle that truly mattered. Michael Wallace of ESPN.com points out the differences between a rivalry and what amounts to bullying and why it’s time for everyone to move on:

Make no mistake about it: The Pacers were nothing more than a solid group of antagonists, instigators and irritants that pushed, poked and provoked Miami these past few seasons. But they were never really the Heat’s equal.

At least not when it mattered most.

The East might as well start taking applications now for a new so-called “rival” for the Heat. Because these Pacers were officially relieved of their duties after being dismantled and shoved aside in a 117-92 season-ending loss in Game 6 of the conference finals.

It’s clearly time to move on.

The Heat are headed to the NBA Finals for the fourth consecutive season as they pursue a third straight championship. LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have known no other outcome since they became teammates before the 2010-11 season.

And for the third postseason in a row, including two straight in the conference finals, the Heat propelled themselves into the championship round after breaking down and eventually stepping over Indiana. The Pacers are all too familiar with the bitter flavor they’ve had to taste after being served and dismissed by the Heat.

Considering some of their actions, antics and comments over the course of the series, I completely expected the Pacers to be defiant in defeat when their locker room was opened to the media after the game. But a team that’s been full of surprises and bucked expectations — both high and low — throughout a turbulent season was true to its unpredictable form late Friday.

It’s difficult to describe just how deflated the scene was inside the visitors’ locker room. As reality sank in that the season ended well short of expectations for the 56-win team that held the No. 1 seed in the East, the Pacers were things they hadn’t been all series.

Humbled.

Quiet.

Sullen.

Sadly accepting that their best, despite three seasons of motivation, isn’t good enough. Not against James and the Heat. Not back then, not now, probably not ever.

“We know what they’re going to do in these moments,” Pacers forward David West said of the Heat as he slumped into his stall and stared at the floor. “And [we] weren’t able to, again, match what they’re capable of. I thought they just were the better team. We got right back to where we got to last year, and they’re just a better team. They’ve got a gear that we can’t get to.”


VIDEO: LeBron and DWade at the podium for the 4th straight season after winning the Eastern Conference finals

(more…)

Indiana can’t drag Heat to Game 7


VIDEO: Heat dismantle Pacers in decisive Game 6

MIAMI – In a ranking of the saddest, most enduring symbols of unrealized ambition in NBA history, it’s difficult to top the rafters of Los Angeles’ fabulous Forum in the spring of 1969, filled with multi-colored balloons that never were allowed to drop.

The balloons had been loaded up there on orders from Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke, convinced that his team would win Game 7 of The Finals over the dynasty-in-decline Boston Celtics. Only the proud Celtics noticed, dialed up their focus – Bill Russell said he wanted to watch the show of Forum workers taking them down one by one – and, on the Lakers’ home court, grabbed the championship Cooke had presumed was his.

Forty-five years later, the Forum and its balloons have some company now in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Not just the rafters – the whole empty, lonely place, site of a never-to-be-played Game 7 of the 2014 Eastern Conference finals.

The Miami Heat rendered that game unnecessary, lights out, doors locked, by dismantling the Pacers in Game 6 117-92 and ending the best-of-seven series without the trip back to Indy. Miami beat the Pacers in all ways basketball — leading by 37, shooting 58 percent and hanging 117 points on what had been the league’s No. 1 defense, with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh refusing to lose.

Miami beat them physically and mentally, too, from Shane Battier pushing a forearm across wild child Lance Stephenson‘s throat to put him on the floor to veteran Udonis Haslem threatening Stephenson from the bench in a GIF widely circulated on social media during the drubbing.

Unspoken, though, was how the Heat deprived Indiana of the essence of its entire season.

From the start of training camp – really, from the moment they trudged off the court in south Florida at the end of last year’s ECF, so similar to Friday’s outcome – the Pacers had targeted the East’s No. 1 seed for the home-court advantage it would bestow. Specifically, they wanted to know, if they locked up with the Heat again for the right to advance to The Finals, Game 7 would be at BLFH this time.

It would have been.

Only the Pacers never made it happen.

There were reasons great and small why it didn’t last the max, why Indiana never got a chance to flex a home-court advantage that, let’s be honest, had fizzled anyway (the Pacers went 35-6 at BLFH during the season, then 5-5 in the playoffs). Stephenson’s mouth and antics might not have affected the Pacers – so his teammates claimed – but they sure seemed to put a face on Miami’s quest to reach its fourth consecutive Finals.

There was Roy Hibbert‘s big fade, an 8-point, 4-rebound performance on a night that the Heat made sure wasn’t his. Miami’s use of Bosh and Rashard Lewis in a stretch-5 attack in which everyone is a deep shooting threat pulled thwarted Hibbert’s 7-foot-2 size advantage even more thoroughly than Atlanta had (with lesser players). Defensively the Heat found way to make Hibbert just as uncomfortable and then the big fella’s sensitive side took over, completing the task. The guy who averaged 22.1 points and 11.4 rebounds while shooting 55.7 percent in last year’s ECF against Miami slumped to 10.8, 7.7 and 41.5 percent.

The most important, elephant-in-the-room-sized reason, though, was that Indiana could not crack Miami’s code. It doesn’t have the star power, barely has the manpower and never could rise to the occasions – five players tied together as one – for any sustained success.

As bad as Game 6 was, and it was stenchified, the Pacers admitted afterward that their troubles in the series began in Game 2, which had slipped away late, pilfering the home court right there and squandering their chance to put the Heat in a 2-0 hole.

That was a mistake. Getting reckless with the ball and blowing a big lead in Game 3, another mistake. Game 4? A wire-to-wire mistake. Roll them all together and you get a team that wants to chase championship vs. a team that already owns two and is aiming for three.

“Everything starts and ends with the Miami Heat,” forward David West said. “You have to have a team that can survive and get you through a tough regular season, but ultimately you’ve got to be able to beat Miami to get to The Finals.

“This whole year, we competed to get to this moment. We just weren’t able to come through it. They’re built for these moments. Their pedigree shows in these moments, just how everybody on their team does their job. Particularly in these moments, they do it at a high level. They don’t have any breakdowns.”

Indiana has flaws and challenges. Bidding to retain free agent-to-be Stephenson, and at what price, will be a pressing one, requiring guesses as to how his psyche melds with a multimillion-dollar, guaranteed contract. Rounding up some perimeter shooting seems a must.

Coach Frank Vogel might need to find himself a new “bad cop” on the bench to keep the pressure on a squad that got too easily satisfied along the way. And basketball boss Larry Bird is going to have to get back on the horse after being thrown not once (Andrew Bynum signing) but twice (Evan Turner trade).

Here’s the trickiest part: James isn’t retiring anytime soon. What players such as Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and others went through being born too close to Michael Jordan‘s birth date, the Pacers are facing with regard to Miami’s best player and the team on which he romps.

“We’re in the LeBron James era,” West said after the game. “We fully understand that.”

West likened James to Shaquille O’Neal, another player whose size and skill set warped normal games. Beating James and the Heat, same as beating the big man, requires better personnel (to counter James’ many styles), a deeper roster (to dole out fouls when needed) and a resolve to pull it together. Oh, and one more thing …

“They’ve got that gear that continues to elude us in the moment,” West said. “We can compete in the year, tough and well enough, to beat them for the top seed. But in these moments, the Game 2 moments, this Game 6 moment, it just eludes us.”

A fair question from Pacers fans and NBA followers would be: For how long? West, Vogel and the others felt their team took a considerable step this season, running down that No. 1 seed, winning 56 games and beating better opponents in the first two rounds than a year ago.

Still, getting bounced by Miami for a third consecutive season has gotten old, and the Pacers will need to make sure their act has not.

Earlier in the series, on an off-day, Donnie Walsh – longtime Indiana exec who serves now as a consultant – talked of the 1997-2000 Pacers, Reggie Miller-led and Larry Bird-coached. After the first edition of Shaq’s and Kobe Bryant‘s Lakers beat them for the title, on the heels of two misses in the East finals, Bird told Walsh that Pacers group had nothing left. Changes were made, not the least of which was Bird hanging up his whiteboard, and by the time Indiana reached the 2004 conference finals, the roster had been remade.

West said he didn’t think this squad is at that point, though he understood why the question might get asked. This league has a history, too, of excellent also-rans that never quite broke through.

“We’re in the midst of that,” West said. “This is the third year that they’ve knocked us out, two straight years in the conference finals. It can’t deter us. It can’t deter us from the work we know is ahead of us.”

That’s for the long term, gearing up again in October with a focus on May.

Short term, there will be a big, empty field house in downtown Indianapolis Sunday evening. It was supposed to be the Pacers’ partner, alive and loud and stomping on the clutch so they actually could find that elusive gear.

Instead, it will be dark, a reminder of what could have been and a variation on Hemingway’s shortest saddest story ever (“For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn”).

The sign will be posted there in spirit. “Home court, Game 7: Never needed.”

Behind unstoppable offense, Heat heading to fourth straight Finals


VIDEO: Heat dismantle Pacers in decisive Game 6

MIAMI – When LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh decided to play together in 2010, this is what it was all about. The Miami Heat are making their fourth straight trip to The Finals and are the first team to do so in the last 29 years.

The Heat’s domination of the Eastern Conference since James arrived was epitomized by their 117-92 demolition of the Indiana Pacers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals. Their best game of the series came at the right time and made it clear how much distance there was between these two teams. At one point in the third quarter, the Heat led by 37.

“It’s what we wanted to do,” Bosh said afterward. “We wanted to play a very good game, and we didn’t want to really let our foot off the gas in any type of capacity.”

Though they had their ups and downs (like no other team in recent memory), the Pacers were the best team in the conference in the regular season. But no East team came close to knocking off the Heat in the playoffs. They will arrive at The Finals having played at least three (and as many as five) fewer playoff games than their opponent.

The question is how much they’ve been tested, specifically on defense. As good as the Pacers were at times this season, they were never a very good offensive team. At times in this series, they were a complete mess on that end of the floor.

The Heat brought more defensive focus as the playoffs went on, but defending the San Antonio Spurs or Oklahoma City Thunder is a lot different than defending Charlotte, Brooklyn or Indiana. Starting with Game 1 of The Finals on Thursday, we’re going to see how far they’ve come on defense over the last six weeks.

The Heat’s offense? Well, it’s a machine right now. After struggling through the first 4½ minutes of Game 6, the champs went on a ridiculous run, scoring 58 points on their last 33 possessions of the first half, turning an early seven-point deficit into a 26-point halftime lead.

Only two of those 58 points came on a fast break. The Pacers took care of the ball and had a decent offensive second quarter (21 points on just 19 possessions), but couldn’t get stops, even when their defense was set.

“In our offense,” Ray Allen said, “we got everything we wanted.”

That was the story of this series. For six games, the Heat sliced up the No. 1 defense in the league. Talk all you want about Indiana’s need for more shooting and playmaking, but the Pacers got destroyed on the end of the floor that they take the most pride in, unable to match up with the Heat’s shooting and playmaking.

Miami neutralized Roy Hibbert‘s rim protection on the perimeter, hitting 10.4 3-pointers per game at a 44 percent clip over the last five games of the series. James, meanwhile, did what he does, shooting 31-for-38 (82 percent) in the restricted area in the conference finals, with more than twice as many buckets in the paint (36) as he had outside it (16).

As Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said often over the last two weeks, this was a contrast of styles and the winner would be the team that could “impose its identity” on the other. Ultimately, the Heat imposed their identity — and their personnel — on the Pacers.

These last four years have been about three of the best players in the league coming together to win multiple championships. And no team in the league can match up with James, Wade and Bosh. But this isn’t 3-on-3, and very year, the Heat have had role players to fill in the gaps.

In this series, when another piece to the puzzle was needed, it was Rashard Lewis, who started the last three games and was a series-high plus-58 in 100 minutes (plus-28 per 48 minutes). As a fifth shooter on the floor, he made the Heat impossible to guard, and he held his own defensively against David West.

“We talk about it all the time with our team,” Spoelstra said, referencing Lewis’ sudden emergence as a major factor. “It’s about moments. It’s not necessarily about every single game or minute during January and February. It’s about the big moments, keeping yourself ready and having an opportunity to make an impact at some point during the postseason.”

“Rashard,” James added, “was obviously the key to everything.”

This year’s Heat haven’t been the best Heat we’ve seen. But things are falling into place at the right time. While we may question their ability to play great defense on a nightly basis, we have no doubt that they know how to bring their best when it’s needed.

“They play at a championship level,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said.  “They have a way to raise it to the point that it’s too much to overcome.”

It’s been three years since the Heat first got to this point and stumbled in the 2011 Finals. They were just six seconds from falling short a year ago. And with many roster questions to face this summer, we don’t know what the future holds.

But right now, the Heat are still fulfilling the expectations that we had for them and that they had for themselves when they got together in July of 2010.

“We’re just going to continue to try to enjoy this moment that we’re in,” Wade said, “because it’s an amazing moment. It’s something that, for a lifetime, is going to fulfill us as athletes. Even when we can’t play this game, we’re going to always be able to talk about this. So we just want to add to what we’re accomplishing.”

“We know we still have work to do,” James told ESPN’s Doris Burke, “but we won’t take this for granted. We’re going to four straight Finals.”

24 – Second thoughts — May 30


VIDEO: The Miami Heat are 4-for-4 in attempts at making The Finals, the first time in 27 years a team has done it 4 straight times

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — History in the making.

History still to be made.

It’s all still on the table for the Miami Heat.

Four straight trips to The Finals. The opportunity to three-peat. 

“I’m blessed,” LeBron James said. “We won’t take this opportunity for granted. This is an unbelievable franchise, this is an unbelievable group.”

The Finals rematch is up next, the San Antonio Spurs (2013) or Oklahoma City Thunder (2012) will help the Heat finish that chapter of this championship story.

But The Finals is all the Heat have known in the Big 3 era. It’s all James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and crew have known since they came together.

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Greg Oden is going to The Finals!

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Three years running they go out on the wrong end of the Heat’s blade …

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This time, Hibbert meets LeBron


VIDEO: Heat vs. Pacers: Game 5

INDIANAPOLIS – This go-around, Roy Hibbert was on the floor.

Travel back in time to Game 1 of last year’s conference finals in Miami. The Indiana Pacers led by one with just 2.2 seconds left in overtime. And Pacers coach Frank Vogel took Hibbert — “the best rim protector in the game” in Vogel’s own words — off the floor, so that his team could switch all screens and stay with the Miami Heat’s shooters, including Chris Bosh.

LeBron James caught the inbounds pass at the 3-point line and Paul George got caught out too high. James immediately turned and darted to the basket. Hibbert wasn’t there and James laid in the game-winning bucket at the buzzer.

“It’s the dilemma that they present,” Vogel said after the loss. “Obviously, with the way it worked out, it would have been better to have Roy in the game. But you don’t know. If that happens, maybe Bosh is making the jump shot, and we’re all talking about that.”

At the end of Game 5 of this year’s Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday, we saw a very similar situation. The Pacers were holding on to a two-point lead with 12.8 seconds left.

James caught the inbounds pass and was isolated at the top of the key with George. And once again, he got past him.

But this time Hibbert was on the floor, and he met James at the rim…

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“We didn’t want to give up a 3,” Vogel said afterward. “But we didn’t want to give up LeBron James at the rim, like we’d done the past two. So we made sure we had rim protection and scrambled on the 3-point line.”

James, as he always does, made the pass to the open man, Bosh in the corner. It was the scenario that Vogel was planning against last year. And with this one being a two-point game instead of a one-point game, the value of the shot meant something this time.

“Thought we got a pretty good look,” James said. “You live with the result.”

“He went for the kill,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We’ll take that. We’ll take being able to get two feet in the paint, an opportunity to either score yourself or have an opportunity for one of our better clutch 3-point shooters in his spot. That actually was good to see that poise.”

When the Heat came back to win Game 2 on this floor, their second-half run began with a few plays just like this. Spanning the third and fourth quarters, they hit three corner 3s (one from Bosh and two from Norris Cole) on plays just like this one. James got to the basket, drew an extra defender and found an open teammate with a bullet pass. It’s the Heat’s bread-and-butter.

“My teammates trust me that I’m going to make the right play to helps us win,” James said. “I trust myself that I’m going to make the right play to helps us win. And win, lose or draw, you live with that.

“We got a great look. C.B. makes that shot, then we get a stop and we’re headed to The Finals.”

As Spoelstra noted, Bosh was one of the best clutch 3-point shooters in the league in the regular season, shooting 16-for-31 (52 percent) on 3s in the last five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime with a score differential of five points or less. He’s had a knack for hitting big shots from distance.

But he’s usually wide open on those plays. On Wednesday, George Hill was able to get in Bosh’s vision and provide an on-the-side shot contest.

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Hill was able to do that because Miami’s spacing was not ideal. When James hit the paint, Bosh, Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis were all on the right side of the floor, with Allen and Lewis bunched together at the right wing.

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So when Hibbert helped on the drive, Hill didn’t have far to travel to contest Bosh. And when he did, David West had already rotated over to Allen.

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“I asked Ray,” Bosh said later. “I said, ‘Were you open?’ He said, ‘Yeah, he came off me.'”

But the only guy open was Lewis at the top of the key. And that’s a tough pass for Bosh to make, especially with West in his line of sight.

The Pacers defended the play well, but the Heat gave them some help. If Lewis had been quicker to fill in behind James at the top of the key, the spacing might have been better and Indiana’s rotations would have been tougher.

A feigned pick-and-roll where Lewis flares out to the left wing as James drives past would also have left just one Indiana defender to defend Bosh and Allen on the right side. A kick to Bosh and a swing to Allen may have resulted in the one of the best 3-point shooters in NBA history being all alone beyond the arc.

But the Heat still got a decent look. And both teams were willing to live with the results.

“LeBron is the smartest player in this league,” George said. “He’s going to make the right play, and he thought that was the right play. They made 15 3s tonight. So obviously, they were hot behind the 3-point line. He found a 3-point shooter that’s been hot lately for them in Chris Bosh. We were fortunate he missed. We walk away with a win.”

James’ absence helps Pacers survive and George look like a star again


VIDEO: Heat vs. Pacers: Game 5

INDIANAPOLIS – We were ready to bury the Indiana Pacers on Wednesday, and through the first 24 minutes of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals, they were helping us dig the hole.

They couldn’t take advantage of LeBron Jamesfoul trouble, couldn’t capitalize on an ugly first quarter from the Miami Heat. Their own second quarter was much more brutal, with more turnovers (seven) than made shots (five). They were dropping passes, throwing passes away, and even committing a rare double-dribble violation.

It was the Mr. Hyde side of the Pacers that we’d seen all too often in the last three months. And it was about to send them fishing in the figurative (rather than the literal) sense. The Heat had a rather mediocre first half offensively (42 points on 41 possessions) and still led by nine, with a rested James coming back for the second half.

But then he picked up his fourth foul just 81 seconds into the third quarter and his fifth with 8:34 on the clock. If was the first time in his career that he had been called for five fouls before the end of the third quarter. He sat for the next 10 minutes of game time.

And finally, the Pacers took advantage. Starting with the possession before James’ fifth foul, they scored 42 points in a 12-minute span to turn a 10-point deficit into an 11-point lead. And they held on for a 93-90 victory to send the series back to Miami for Game 6 on Friday.

They attacked the basket, they attacked the glass, and they turned defense into offense. With James on the bench, Paul George turned into the two-way superstar he looked like at times in last year’s conference finals.

Offensively, he took advantage of smaller defenders in the post and drained five 3-pointers. Defensively, without having to worry about defending James, he jumped into passing lanes and made the Miami offense look a lot like the Indiana offense has looked over the last few games.

Miami coach Erik Spoelstra‘s quote regarding the Pacers’ defense could have been something Indiana coach Frank Vogel said about the Heat after Game 3 or 4.

“They stepped up their pressure, as you would anticipate they would in front of their crowd,” Spoelstra said. “Once they got us into a couple of sloppy possessions, their energy picked up.

“We have to do a better job about it. We know that getting shots is one of the most important keys to the series for us.”

While the Pacers committed just two turnovers in the second half, the Heat committed nine, with George turning four steals into three dunks.

“Forced turnovers get easy buckets,” Vogel said. “Then half-court gets a little bit easier because you’ve seen the ball go in.”

The ball went in a lot. After scoring just 35 points on their first 46 possessions of the game (76 per 100), the Pacers scored 58 on their last 39 (149 per 100), shooting 21-for-37 (57 percent) over the final 21 minutes.

Still, the game was tight in the final few. And down the stretch, George kept his team ahead by hitting three contested jumpers (one two and two 3s). James was back on the floor, but George had long ago found his rhythm.

“Coach told me, ‘Green light. Stay on green,'” George said afterward. “[David] West kept telling me, ‘Don’t keep no bullets in the chamber.’ So I really just came out firing. My teammates found me and I got hot.”

He finished with 37 points, six rebounds and six steals, shooting 15-for-28. Thirty-one of the 37 came in the second half, and 21 of those came in the fourth quarter. Through the first four games of this series, the burden of defending the best player in the world and playing like a star offensively had been too much for George. And after Game 4, he was more concerned about the officiating than his five sloppy turnovers.

But with a little help from the whistles, George was free to spread his wings in Game 5.

“My message to the whole team was the light needs to be on green for all of us,” Vogel said. “You need to go. You need to attack. You need to be aggressive. Paul took it and ran with it and took it to a crazy level.”

Here’s the thing: George played the best game of his life. James played 24 minutes and shot 2-for-10. Indiana had a 22-8 edge in free-throw attempts. And the Heat still had a chance to win on Chris Bosh‘s 3-point attempt with five seconds left.

It missed, the Pacers survived and are 3-0 when facing elimination in these playoffs. But the next one will be the toughest of the lot. They’ll either need more from George, more from everybody else, or a little more luck with the whistles.

“We’re going against history,” George said, “but we can’t feel like it can’t be done.”