Posts Tagged ‘Indiana Pacers’

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?

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.

George at heart of Indy’s problems

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Brent Barry, Dennis Scott and Matt Winer examine the Pacers’ fall

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — We’ll turn over our weekly spot here to NBA TV research ace Kevin Cottrell, who lays out the problem with the reeling Indiana Pacers in the simplest of terms:

They. Can’t. Score.

Here’s Cottrell:

​Entering the season, the Indiana Pacers were pegged as the biggest threat to dethrone the defending champion Miami Heat. Coming off a disappointing Game 7 loss in the Eastern Conference finals, the Pacers made their ultimate goal clear.

​“Our focus is to be getting Game 7 on our home court,” David West told reporters at Pacers Media Day.

If home court was goal 1A, enhancing their ability to light up a scoreboard should have been 1B for the Pacers. Heading into Monday night’s matchup with the West leading San Antonio Spurs, Indy posted a 33-4 record at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. But the Pacers are averaging only 97.0 points a game, which ranks 23rd in the league.

Many believe the Pacers’ stingy defense is more than enough to win a title, but the numbers say otherwise. In the Pacers’ five games prior to hosting the Spursthey held opponents to 87.0 points a game. But the Pacers have failed to score 80 points in five of their last six games. According to Elias Sports Bureau, the last team to do so was the 2011-12 Charlotte Bobcats, who set the NBA record for lowest winning percentage in a season (7-59).

So what’s the issue?  Pacers “Do-It-All” Forward Paul George is the team’s only legitimate scoring threat. George is averaging a career high 21.7 points a game, a whopping 7.6 points more than the second leading scorer, Lance Stephenson (14.1). Without a true 1-2 scoring punch, George’s offensive efficiency directly affects the Pacers’ win-loss column. The Pacers started the season 16-1 and George entered the MVP discussion.

Since then, George (and the Pacers’ production) has been on a steady decline month-to-month (see chart below).

Month PPG FG% 3FG% Indy record
Oct 28.0 48-6 41-2 2-0
Nov 23.0 47.2 40.3 13-1
Dec 24.1 46.8 39.4 10-4
Jan 21.3 41.0 31.5 10-5
Feb 21.0 40.1 39.5 9-3
March 18.7 37.2 29.7 8-10
Total 21.7 42.5 36.0 52-23

​Placing all the blame on George’s jump shot may not be fair, but it is accurate. Take a look at the last five NBA Champions (below). It’s no coincidence that all five scored at high clip. Furthermore, each team featured potent scorers: LeBron James, Dirk Nowitzki and Kobe Bryant. In the event one of the three aforementioned struggled on a given night, Dwyane Wade, Jason Terry and Pau Gasol could pick up the scoring load.

While some believe defense wins championships, the best teams, especially recently, always have big-scoring offenses.

  • 2012-13:​  Heat ​​102.9 (5)
  • 2011-12:  ​Heat 98.5 (7)
  • 2010-11:  ​Mavericks ​100.2 (11)
  • 2009-10: ​ Lakers ​​101.7 (12)
  • 2008-09: ​ Lakers ​​106.9 (3)

​If the Pacers’ lack of scoring is their biggest hurdle, their ability to win on the road is a close second. After a 40-12 start, Indiana is 12-11 since the All-Star Break. Nine of the 11 losses have come away from the Fieldhouse. Combine their road woes with the fact that they’ve been held to 92.7 points a game since the mid-season break and you’ll find a recipe for an early playoff exit.

The way things are shaping up, the Pacers will likely face the Bulls and/or Heat in an attempt to win the East. Indiana is a combined 0-3 on the road against those two, with an April 11th meeting in Miami on NBA-TV still to go. Ironically, the Pacers may have to win a regular-season game in Miami for a chance to host a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference finals.

Defense has been the Pacers calling card, but winning it all without scoring is rare. If they manage to capture a title despite scoring 96.8 points a game, the Pacers would become the first team to win the title averaging 97 points or less since the 2004-05 Spurs (96.2). Even the Spurs organization, which places an emphasis on defense, currently averages 105.6 points a game. If the Pacers learned anything from their Monday night loss to the Spurs, it’s that the best defense may be a good offense.

Morning Shootaround — April 1


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 31

NEWS OF THE MORNING

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


VIDEO: The Clippers win in Minnesota without Blake Griffin

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


VIDEO: Pau Gasol talks about his bout with vertigo

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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


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


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

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

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Maybe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


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

INDIANAPOLIS – Contender vs. (wince) pretender.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Morning Shootaround — March 27


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 26

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Pacers, Heat a true playoff atmosphere | Players noticing Jackson-front office discord? | Gasol (vertigo) will miss L.A.’s road trip | Popovich pinpoints Mills’ emergence

No. 1: Pacers, Heat provide a tasty playoff preview — If you somehow managed to miss last night’s Heat-Pacers showdown from Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indiana, do yourself a favor and catch the game on League Pass this morning. It’s OK, we’ll wait till you’re done … so, now that that’s out of the way, you had to leave that game feeling like most of us did — when can the playoffs start already? Our Steve Aschburner was on the scene last night in Indy and has more from the classic, modern-day rivalry we all saw last night:

Surely, Washington and Detroit would understand. Same with Cleveland and Milwaukee and the other teams on the Indiana Pacers’ and Miami Heat’s schedules over the short term.If the NHL could shut down for a few weeks to accommodate the Winter Olympics, the NBA and its member teams no doubt would oblige by staging the Eastern Conference finals now, wouldn’t they?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


VIDEO: Hibbert, George power Indy’s big win over Miami

***

No. 2: Players noticing Warriors’ discord? — As we mentioned in this space yesterday, the Warriors were on the verge of reassigning assistant coach Brian Scalabrine at the behest of coach Mark Jackson. That move went through yesterday as Scalabrine was sent down to Golden State’s NBA D-League affiliate, but a bigger issue may be bubbling to the forefront. One point brought up in the Scalabrine demotion was the notion that Jackson clashed with his former assistant, current Kings coach Michael Malone, last season. Both Malone and Jackson denied that talk, but as Marcus Thompson of the Mercury News points out, players are noticing the rifts between Jackson and the front office:

Stephen Curry’s comments may not have been surprising. But I get the feeling they were calculated.

“I love coach and everything he’s about,” Curry told reporters after practice on Wednesday.

This new drama related to Mark Jackson demoting Brian Scalabrine is the latest example of a trend some players have noticed – management may not be so high on Jackson. Curry is clearly one of them, perhaps the most important. And his unabashed support of Jackson is undoubtedly a message.

Once again, Warriors management has decided not to publicly support Jackson. That trend isn’t lost on a few players who staunchly supports their coach. A few players expressed the dismay at the lack of favor Jackson has despite the success he’s enjoyed the last two seasons. They see that Jackson simply had the final of his year picked up and was not given his extension. They took note when co-owner Joe Lacob told Tim Kawakami he was disappointed and had some concerns about Jackson. And while Jackson has been constantly under attack, they’ve noticed no one has come out to Jackson’s defense.

Now that the Bay is abuzz about this Scalabrine news, and questioning Jackson, management has chosen to stay quiet.

Multiple players have told me they get the sense Jackson could end up leaving – whether it is by Jackson’s choice or management’s. Whether these divisive undercurrents are problematic remains to be seen. It may even help, if they play harder for him if they feel their coach is under appreciated. Or, what if the message from management starts to filter into the pysche of the players? Will they invest as much in a coach they might see is on his way out or that management doesn’t want around?


VIDEO: Steph Curry and Mark Jackson talk after Wednesday’s practice

***

No. 3: Lakers’ Gasol (vertigo) to miss two more gamesPau Gasol hasn’t suited up for the L.A. Lakers since he played 19 minutes in a 103-94 victory over the Orlando Magic on March 23. Since then, Gasol has been dealing with issues related to his bout with vertigo and will not be traveling with the team on their two-game road trip to Milwaukee and Minnesota, writes Dave McMenamin of ESPNLosAngeles.com:

Pau Gasol, still suffering from symptoms related to his bout of vertigo over the weekend, did not travel with the Los Angeles Lakers when they left for their two-game trip through Milwaukee and Minnesota on Wednesday, according to the team.

Gasol visited ear, nose and throat specialist Dr. John Rehm and it was determined to keep Gasol back in Los Angeles for rest and recovery. The 13-year veteran is not expected to meet the team by taking a commercial flight later in the week.

Gasol is officially being listed as day to day, although he has not been cleared for basketball activities after leaving Sunday’s 103-94 win over the Orlando Magic because of dizziness and nausea and spending the night in the hospital after receiving three liters of fluids through an IV.

Gasol is expected to visit Dr. Rehm on a daily basis to monitor his progress.

Chris Kaman, who started at center and put up 13 points and nine rebounds in the Lakers’ 127-96 rout of the New York Knicks on Tuesday, is expected to continue to fill in for Gasol with the first unit.

***

No. 4: Popovich pinpoints Mills’ emergence – When San Antonio’s All-Star point guard Tony Parker was deemed out indefinitely in mid-February due to his myriad of injuries, some might have been concerned about the Spurs’ ability to win without him. But as has been the San Antonio way for years now, another player plugged into Parker’s spot and kept things humming along. That player? Backup guard Patty Mills, who played in 58 games last season, averaging 11.3 mpg, 5.1 ppg and 1.1 apg. This season, he’s emerged as Parker’s No. 1 backup and is averaging 9.8 ppg and 1.8 apg in 18.4 mpg. Dan McCarney of the San Antonio Express-News points out that Spurs coach Gregg Popovich credits Mills’ efforts to trim down for his rise in production:

Leave it to Gregg Popovich to sum up the reason for Patty Mills’ breakout season in crystal-clear terms. Or more specifically, why Mills struggled to secure a consistent role during his first four NBA seasons:

“He was a little fat ass. He had too much junk in the trunk. His decision making wasn’t great, and he wasn’t in great shape. He changed his entire body. He came back svelte and cut and understood you have to make better decisions, point-guard type decisions. He did all those things better and he earned it. He’s been real important to us, obviously.”

The difference in Mills’ physique was immediately noticeable at training camp. Mills has put his new-found abs and endurance to good use, averaging 9.8 points in a career-high 18.5 minutes. Coming on 40.8-percent accuracy, Mills has more than doubled his previous career high for 3-pointers to 111. For the stat geeks, his 18.4 Player Efficiency Rating — 15.0 is average — is also a career-high, while his plus 3.2 Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus ranks 21st in the entire NBA.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Rajon Rondo will serve as a guest TV analyst for the Celtics on March 31 … Wolves president Flip Saunders might be coach shopping at the NCAA TournamentThaddeus Young, aka “Grandfather” on the Sixers, has embraced his role as leader of the young, struggling squad … New Knicks boss Phil Jackson is apparently a fan of combo guard Iman ShumpertMike Brown got his 300th win as Cavaliers coach last night …

ICYMI of the Night: Cavaliers guard Dion Waiters had himself quite a game last night against the Raptors and nailed this pretty little layup, too …


VIDEO: Dion Waiters sinks the crafty reverse layup against Toronto

Heat-Pacers packs punch as playoff preview, palate cleanser

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Pacers edge Heat in chippy East clash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But it was that sort of night.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bosh stuck up for his friend.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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.


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