Posts Tagged ‘Indiana Pacers’

Heat defense still a question


VIDEO: The Starters: Heat’s journey to Finals

SAN ANTONIO – It’s the difference between a team that has done enough to get by and a team that will win a third straight championship.

Defense is the big variable for the Miami Heat and has been all season. It comes and goes. And whether they win or lose, defense is usually the reason why.

The Heat’s fourth season with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh was their worst of the four on the defensive end of the floor. After ranking in the top seven in defensive efficiency each of the last three years (and in the season before James and Bosh arrived), they ranked 11th in 2013-14, allowing 102.9 points per 100 possessions.

The highest the Heat defense ranked in any month was seventh, and that was in November. They finished with the second best record in the Eastern Conference and knew that they could get a playoff win on the road when needed, but for most of the year, they did just enough to get by.

They held the Charlotte Bobcats under their regular season offensive numbers in a first round sweep. But Charlotte’s offensive threats consisted of Kemba Walker and a hobbled Al Jefferson.

The Brooklyn Nets had more guys who could score, and after taking a 2-0 series lead, the Heat didn’t do much to stop them, allowing the Nets to score more than 114 points per 100 possessions over the final three games of the series. But they took care of business with offensive execution and big fourth quarters in Games 4 and 5. Again, they were doing just enough to get by.

Then, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals, they played one of the worst defensive games we have ever seen them play. In the first game of the series, there was little incentive for the Heat to bring their best. They had three more chances to get the road win they needed and their lack of urgency was clear.

“I don’t know if we’ve been that poor,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said the next day, “certainly in the way we’ve graded it, since we put this team together. Across the board, that was about as poor as we’ve played defensively. And all aspects of it. It was the ball pressure. It was the commitment on the ball. It was the weak side. It was finishing possessions. It was doing it without fouling. It has to be much better, a much more committed effort, across the board.”

LeBron struggles on defense

At the center of a lot of the breakdowns was James, who couldn’t handle the obligations of defending one of Indiana’s big men. His pick-and-roll defense was poor, he got beat back-door more than once, and he even got bullied under the basket by Lance Stephenson.

A year ago, James was upset about finishing second in Defensive Player of the Year voting. But if he wanted to win the award this season, he didn’t show it. He had what was clearly his worst defensive season since before he was ever an MVP.

Maybe the absence of Wade for 28 games put more of a burden on James offensively. Maybe three straight trips to The Finals had taken their toll. Or maybe he wasn’t in peak shape at the start of the season. Whatever the reason, the Heat’s defensive regression started with their best player.

Things got better after Game 1 in Indiana. James went back to defending perimeter players (sometimes the Indiana point guards), Rashard Lewis took on the West assignment, and the effort all around was more consistent. The Heat got the road win they needed by getting stops in the second and fourth quarters of Game 2. It wasn’t a complete game, but again, it was enough. (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.”

George driven to apply pressure in Game 6 for Pacers


VIDEO: Pacers-Heat Game 6 preview

MIAMI – It wasn’t on the grand scale of “chicken or egg?” But there was some which-came-first conversation after Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday, as in: Was Indiana’s Paul George going to have that superstar performance regardless (37 points, including 21 in the fourth quarter, with six rebounds and six steals)? Or was it made possible by LeBron James‘ limited, foul-hampered court time?

The answer matters because George is hoping to perform similarly in Game 6 Friday night (8:30 ET, ESPN) at AmericanAirlines Arena as one way for the Pacers, down 3-2, to stave off elimination.

George, whose 21 points in the fourth were his most in any quarter in his career, pretty much pledged, at Indiana’s morning shootaround, to start Game 6 the way he finished Game 5.

“I’m gonna come out really aggressive,” said George, describing himself as “super excited” for the opportunity to spoil a home celebration in the Heat’s ambition of getting to a fourth consecutive Finals. “We’ve got to understand this can be our last game if we don’t come out the right way. I think that’s enough motivation for us to play right tonight.”

No one on the Miami side was suggesting that George’s big night owed unduly to James’ pine time. Still, the Heat’s most versatile defender played only 24:21 minutes to George’s 45:04. And even when they were on the floor together 10:28 of the fourth quarter, James spent more time carefully guarding George Hill or other less impactful Pacers; he didn’t want to risk a sixth foul and ejection by draping himself over George.

“It was a great performance,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You have to give him credit for that. He made some difficult shots where we had our chests in front of him, getting a contest and it’s right over the top. I’m not sure we can defend those better.

“He did break free for three or four system-error shots that, he still has to produce and then make ‘em. But he made us pay for them. And he was extremely aggressive in the fourth quarter. Once he got on that roll, the ball just seemed to find him. That’s typically how this game works.”

George did generate some of Indiana’s most pivotal offense with his steals, which led to breakouts or a scramble back for Miami. As for ducking James as a defender for much of his big night, the Pacers’ All-Star forward said: “I never really was hounded this series by LeBron. I don’t think we really matched up that much in the series. So it wasn’t that big of a difference.”

Whether he has the hot hand for his team or not, George did have one suggestion for the Pacers if they want to force a Game 7 Sunday in Indianapolis: Avoid big deficits. Other than Game 1, when Indiana led from start to finish, its best chance to win another of the first four games came in Game 2, in which it trailed by no more than eight. Even in its Game 5 victory, it had to claw back from an 11-point Miami lead.

“We can’t have a game where we’re down 15 at any point in this [Game 6],” George said. “We’re good enough to come out of that, dig out of a hole, but we can’t put ourselves in a hole in this arena. It’s just too hard to come out of a 15-point deficit to beat this team in their arena. So this game has got to be close. If it’s not close, we’ve got to be up by big.”

Speaking of big, all the Pacers expect big grief to rain down on Lance Stephenson, the antagonist of this series so far. All of Stephenson’s antics figure to get thrown back at him by a boisterous AAA crowd, unless the Pacers do something to squelch that.

“I hope he’s able to block out the crowd,” George said. “That goes to the same mind of taking the crowd out of this. If we’re playing well and we’re the ones that’s really putting an imprint on this game, then they won’t have nothing to say.”

Spoelstra said that big man Chris (Birdman) Andersen‘s mobility still was limited by a thigh bruise. His availability for Game 6 would be determined after evening warmups and consultation with the Heat’s medical staff, the coach said.

Andersen injury has allowed Heat to find a new lineup that works


VIDEO: Pacers-Heat Game 6 Preview

MIAMI – Has another injury forced the Miami Heat into another lineup change that will help them win a championship?

It was two years ago when Chris Bosh suffered an abdominal injury in Game 1 of the conference semifinals against Indiana. His absence forced Shane Battier into the starting lineup and unlocked the Heat’s floor spacing around LeBron James, turning them into an offensive juggernaut and two-time champions.

Rashard Lewis (Ron Hoskins/NBAE)

Rashard Lewis (Ron Hoskins/NBAE)

In Game 3 of this year’s Eastern Conference finals, Chris Andersen suffered a bruised left thigh. Andersen wasn’t starting, but his absence forced another lineup shuffle by Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. Because the Heat needed a back-up center, Udonis Haslem went from starter to reserve, and Rashard Lewis — who hadn’t played in the first two games — was inserted into the starting lineup for Game 4.

Andersen could be back for Game 6 on Friday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) — he’s a game-time decision — but it seems unlikely that Spoelstra would remove Lewis from the starting lineup either way.

Lewis is a series-high plus-35 in the conference finals. Though he shot 0-for-7 in Games 3 and 4, the Miami offense has been at its best with Lewis on the floor. His work (and “work” is the right word here) against David West has allowed the Heat to remain strong defensively without playing big.

With the best player in the world, Miami has a lot of combinations that work. But the one with Haslem wasn’t working that well. Haslem is a series-low minus-43. He has hurt Miami’s spacing offensively and hasn’t been able to make up for it with defense and rebounding. Even in the Charlotte series, which the Heat swept, he was a minus-17.

Going into the conference finals, the Heat just didn’t have many alternatives at the second forward spot. Battier’s minutes are limited as he approaches retirement. And Michael Beasley never earned a postseason role. Neither can really handle West defensively.

Lewis can. He’s listed as 15 pounds lighter than West, but he held his own against bigger power forwards when he played for the Orlando Magic. And now that he’s rediscovered his shot (he hit six of his nine threes in Game 5 on Wednesday), he can provide even more spacing for James offensively.

So with 25-30 minutes of Lewis, a dash of Battier and a fourth quarter that features their three-guard lineup, the Heat don’t have to play big, save for a few Bosh-Andersen minutes, in which they still have solid floor spacing. That floor spacing  has made Indiana’s No. 1 defense struggle to get stops.

“They spread you out,” West said Thursday. “We’re not matching up in transition as well as we should. They’re getting us cross-matched. We just got to get a man to a body in transition.”

If they can do that, there’s still the question of what they should try to take away.

“We expect LeBron to have a huge night and be able to play his game,” Paul George said. “But we can’t let Rashard Lewis go for 18 from the 3-point line. That’s an area that we feel like we can cut out, the whole team in general. We do a great job of being able to guard the paint as well as the 3-point line.”

West, the guy who’s responsible for defending Lewis, says it’s a balance.

“We’re not going to overreact,” West said. “A lot of it is the system stuff that we’re doing, just having some breakdowns, maybe putting too many guys in front of LeBron. But we got to take our chances. We have to load to LeBron, load to Wade, and force those other guys to make plays and beat us.”

Lewis hadn’t hit six threes since the 2009 Finals. He probably isn’t going to hit six again. But whether he’s making shots or not, his presence on the floor is working for the Heat.

Thirteen different players have started playoff games for the Heat over the last four years. Spoelstra isn’t afraid to make changes when needed. Don’t be surprised if Lewis, who played just 47 minutes in last year’s postseason, is starting in The Finals.

Blogtable: What about Lance?

Each week, we 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.

Indy's Lance Stephenson does a little spying on Miami huddle and coach Erik Spoesltra in Game 5 (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

Indy’s Lance Stephenson does a little spying on the Miami huddle and coach Erik Spoelstra in Game 5
(Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

What do you make of Lance Stephenson?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: You want to know what Lance’s antics detract from? They detract from his marketability. He’s hitting the free-agent market in a month and 30 GMs — not just 29 — have to think long and hard about the prospect of this guy with a big-money, long-term contract. The Lance through the first half of the regular season, the early Most Improved candidate? Fine. But the post-All-Star snub Lance, the guy who became pre-occupied with stats and maybe even took Larry Bird‘s acquisition of Evan Turner as a threat and challenge, merited deeper evaluations. And now, so does this kook who — let’s admit it — isn’t trying to rattle his opponents as much as he’s screaming “Look at me!” If a big contract is at any level a reward rather than an entitlement, there’s a good chance Stephenson will see this rewarding the wrong things. At this point, if he really wanted to show off, his best approached would be 30 points, lockdown defense and zero antics in the Pacers’ latest elimination game. That would serve everybody.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: It’s a product of the times we live in that this is suddenly a so-called “real story.”  Sure, it’s silly. But this is just a game.  What’s the matter with having fun?  The only one who winds up with egg on his face is Stephenson if he can’t follow up on his talk or his antics. Birdman Andersen flaps his wings.  Dikembe Mutombo wagged his finger.  Back in the day, M.L. Carr used to wave his white towel on the Celtics sideline.  Carr once walked up to Maurice Cheeks as he was standing at the foul line for two free throws in the final seconds at Boston Garden and said, “Don’t choke.”  Cheeks missed one of the free throws. Celtics won.  The world didn’t end. Let me know when something truly important happens, say, with a Kardashian.

Lance Stephenson (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

Lance Stephenson (Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Lance Stephenson is a character, and that can be a good thing. The league needs characters, guys that are a bit eccentric, maybe a little weird, but also play the game  the right way. Stephenson walks the tightrope between character and clown. Blowing in LeBron James‘ ear is clownish, serves no purpose and really has no place in the game. It reminded me of Delonte West giving Utah’s Gordon Hayward a wet-Willie a couple of years ago, though that’s much more of an invasion of personal space (and not very hygienic). West was fined $25,000. Stephenson’s antics obviously affected his team because his teammates essentially said so, deeming it unwise to poke LeBron. This time of year it’s just stupid, unwanted distractions. Stephenson’s a little like J.R. Smith with the silly on-court antics he likes to pull that are mostly mindless, childish and, again, serve no greater team purpose. He also reminds me of the kooky DeShawn Stevenson, but I digress. Stephenson proved this season that he can be a complete player and an essential player for the Pacers. The silly extracurriculars are unnecessary and mostly frowned upon by the people that matter. Stephenson will likely figure that out this summer when he becomes a free agent. Those max deals that were talked about earlier this season. He can blow those away.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: I think in some ways he is the face of these Pacers. Not the face of the team or the entire franchise — that’s All-Star Paul George for the roster and Larry Bird in the big-picture — but the epitome of a group that can be very good or very unpredictable. And obviously not always in a good way. While he comes off as goofy to a lot of people, that doesn’t matter. The real issue is how he comes off to the Pacers themselves. They have been desperately searching for stability since late in the regular season, yet get antics from an important player. Fine. It gets Stephenson in the right place to play at a high level. And it should also be pointed out that he deserves a lot of credit for going from a second-rounder a lot of teams wouldn’t touch to these heights. Yet I can’t help thinking that teammates could do without the sideshow.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: I really don’t care. It’s a storyline that gives people something to talk about on TV. It’s dumb and unprofessional. But it has nothing to do with who’s winning or losing these games. More important than whether or not he’s blowing in LeBron’s ear is whether or not he’s staying in front of LeBron when he’s defending him.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: I think his act is every bit as silly as it looks on the floor, on TV and frankly from Mars. As talented as he is, Stephenson’s “Lance being Lance” routine is simply a court jester act that was tired before it got started. I don’t think it’s some calculated strategy of his to undermine the opposition or get in anyone’s head. I think it’s a coping mechanism for a guy with colossal insecurity that he cannot shake. He reminds me of the former Ron Artest in that he struggles to deal with defeat and individual failure in anything other than a self-destructive way. I lived through some of Ronnie’s best and worst days in Indiana. One minute you’re praising him and the next you’re thinking he needs to be committed. The emotional highs and lows Stephenson experiences during a game are just mind-boggling. The need to assert himself as some dominant figure one minute and then his sulking and selfishness the next make for All-Star drama, but don’t make him a true All-Star. There are much classier ways to handle yourself than blowing in someone’s ear or getting in someone’s face all the time to make yourself feel important. Most of his antics are harmless to others. They only serve to detract from the fact that he’s a hell of a basketball player who spends far too much time perfecting his act instead of his game. He’s not making a mockery of the game with all of the foolishness, he’s only making a fool of himself and mocking the game for all the world to see.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com’s All Ball blog: There was a moment on the Game 5 pregame show on ESPN, just a few minutes before tipoff, when the cameras zeroed in on Lance during the warmups. While the rest of the Pacers were getting up shots, there was Lance in the corner, firing up 3-pointers … with his back turned to the basket. Doug Collins was furious, asking whether Lance would be attempting these type of shots in the game. The thing is, Lance very well might attempt a few back-to-the-basket threes in any given game. And he’d probably make one, too. That’s part of the Lance Stephenson Experience. When you sign up for the ride with Lance, you don’t expect the trip between points A and B to be a straight line — you figure there will be plenty of zigs and zags along the way. But you hope that the whole turns out to contain more ups than downs. Maybe it will, maybe it won’t. Either way, heading into a Game 6 in Miami, Lance gives the Pacers an elite athlete capable of affecting the game in a multitude of ways, and I don’t think they have many better options than Lance. For better or worse.

Selçuk Aytekin, NBA Turkiye: First of all, I believe he does not have what you and I would call a normal personality. His brain just works a little differently from the other people. Part of the problem here, though, is that playing a “war of nerves” just isn’t a really common tactic in NBA. You like him when he plays for your team, and hate him when he plays for someone else. And it appears that what he’s doing is good for Indy — that he’s pushing his teammates to play harder. Not to say that the refs shouldn’t watch him a little more. Above all, he seems to be having a lot of fun, and he’s a one of a kind player. Let him play with his style

Aldo Aviñante, NBA Philippines: Born ready! I love his game but his antics? I’m not quite sure yet. A big part of the game is to get into the head of your opponent — that is half the battle. And if you manage to irritate your opponent enough to make them play out of control, all the better. But he should lessen the antics a notch because too much of anything is not good. He can bother LeBron and Dwyane with his raw talent, too. That is where he should focus. He should still respect the game and pick his spots in bothering his opponents. Stephenson is a supremely talented athlete and he will mature into an even better player if he can just focus on playing winning basketball.

Davide Chinellato, NBA Italia: Lance Stephenson’s antics have become a distraction. From this series, from Pacers’ problems, from Lance’s talent — which he’s not fully displaying in this ECF. He looks like a bully when he acts like that, one of those playground bullies who try to bother you, because they’re scared by you. It’s not hard to imagine that he acted like that when he was schooling everybody in a Brooklyn playground, and he’s acting the same way today that he’s in the NBA, facing the best player on the planet. What he does on the field, including blowing into an opponent’s ear (that was hilarious) is to some degree part of the game though, like trash talking. The league shouldn’t limit it or try to control it. What I totally don’t like is a player in the other team’s huddle, and that’s where the league should find a way (Tech? Fine?) to stop it. Back to the point at hand: ideally, his antics would be a welcome distraction that could even help his teammates to focus more on the opponent. But if it’s not working, if Stephenson’s antics are distracting even his own team, he should stop it.

Simon Legg, NBA Australia: Wow! Lance! Where do I begin? He’s a combination of silly and sly, he frustrates and at times he is brilliant. I enjoy Lance’s antics and believe they are good for the game. He’s a polarizing figure and I guess, someone has to play the bad guy, right? As NBA fans we’re all in awe of LeBron and love watching him at his best but we also enjoy seeing a player attempt to get inside his head and go toe-to-toe. Sometimes it even unsettles LeBron and other times it fires him up but I don’t think his random and unpredictable antics are bad for the game. As long as he plays within the rules and doesn’t go out to hurt anyone, I like seeing the wacky tactics that he uses to get inside the opponents’ head. The Pacers fans love it, he teammates enjoy it and I think it fires him up. You have to take the good with the bad with Lance because you will probably see both multiple times in 48 minutes.


VIDEO: The Game Time crew tries to figure out what’s in Lance Stephenson’s head

Game 6: Welcome to West’s neighborhood


VIDEO: The GameTime crew previews Game 6

MIAMI – The antics of the Indiana Pacers’ wild child have dominated the Eastern Conference finals’ news cycle over the past several game nights and off-days.

It might be time, however, for the Pacers to put away childish things. And look to their resident grown-up, David West.

West is about as far removed from Lance Stephenson as anyone on the Indiana roster gets. West doesn’t blow in opponents’ ears in a juvenile attempt to get under their skin. He has been known, though, to cast a withering glare in some guys’ direction, the intent behind it – along with West’s burly 6-foot-9, 250 pounds and New Jersey no-nonsense roots – understood and wisely heeded.

West doesn’t yap, either. He chooses his words carefully and doles them out sparingly, such that they resonate way beyond the motor-mouths’ banter. Usually his message is loud and clear before he utters a word.

This is Game 6 coming up, West’s killing field twice already in these 2014 playoffs and the moment that, unless it belongs to West, might not belong to the Pacers.

“It’s not something I go out and look to do,” West said of his Game 6 performances against Atlanta in the first round and Washington in the East semifinals. “It’s part of how the game goes. Sort of what the moment dictates.”

Those moments dictated desperation. Against the Hawks, Indiana was right where it is now: down 3-2, on the road, its season in jeopardy. The Pacers had fallen behind 84-79 in the fourth quarter when West had had enough – he scored 12 of his 24 points in that period and sparked the 16-4 run with which Indiana closed the game .It was the power forward’s first double-double of the postseason.

Against Washington, the circumstances weren’t quite as dire: Indiana led 3-2 in the series. But the precocious Wizards had blown out the East’s No. 1 seed in Indianapolis by 23 points and were gaining confidence. West and the Pacers didn’t want lose at Verizon Center and have to put their home court to the test.

“My message to [teammates] was, ‘Just come to me,’ ” West said that day. “Ultimately I wanted it to be on my shoulders. If we lost this game, I wanted it to be on me.”

So West scored 29 points, hitting 13-of-26 shots, the most field-goal attempts he’s ever taken with Indiana and his most, period, since he was playing for New Orleans in 2009.

Said Indiana center Roy Hibbert: “He’s a veteran player who’s been through it all. He exudes a lot of confidence and he’s very contagious.”

Here’s a comparison of West’s work in two Game 6s vs. his other 16 playoff games:

G6: 26.5 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 5.0 apg, 23.0 FGA, 50.0 FG%

Others: 14.0 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 4.0 apg, 11.8 FGA, 47.9 FG%

Against the Heat so far, West has averaged 16.2 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.4 assists, and he’s shooting 53.1 percent but on 12.8 attempts. He has faced a gauntlet of defenders against Miami coach Erik Spoelstra‘s multiple matchups, from LeBron James out of position and out of sorts in Game 1 to Shane Battier and most recently Rashard Lewis.

West, 33, never has been the type of player who consciously has tried to take over games. Even for guys who do, that often doesn’t go well. The pressure’s too great and the defense dedicates itself to choking him off, and that can be that.

But the approach West took in that elimination game in Atlanta, the resolve he flexed on the Wizards’ floor two weeks ago, is needed now more than ever. And as West said in Washington: “I just wasn’t going to leave anything in the clip, y’know? I felt like I had to get beyond what I usually do. … We easily could have been home already.”

The Pacers want to go home now, they just want to drag Miami back with them. They played the entire 2013-14 season for one thing: To have Game 7 of the East finals at home against the Heat. To get there, they all have to go through Game 6, and maybe David West.

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…

20140529_last_play_3

“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.

20140529_last_play_2

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.

20140529_last_play_1

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.

20140529_last_play_4

“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.”

Morning Shootaround — May 29


VIDEO: Daily Zap for games played May 28

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Stephenson key in Pacers’ big win | Report: Cavs to interview Lue, Hollins | Adams grows as a shotblocker | Bosh opens up on his Miami transition

No. 1: Lance is Lance … and the Pacers get a big win — When the Indiana Pacers were off to their stellar start during the regular season, the player who perhaps provided the biggest spark — both in his play and his attitude — to Indiana was Lance Stephenson. Sure, All-Star and MVP type Paul George was Indiana’s top offensive option and he was last night in a must-win Game 5, dropping 21 fourth-quarter points on Miami to save the Pacers’ bacon. But the up-and-down play of Stephenson after the All-Star break played a big role in the Pacers’ flubs down the stretch and into the postseason. Stephenson was in full-on “Born Ready” mode last night and as our Steve Aschburner details, it kept Indiana hyped (and Miami annoyed) all game long:

Lance Stephenson made a, er, spectacle of himself in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday, cavorting against and annoying the Miami Heat with a performance that was one part Metta World Peace, one part J.R. Smith and, apparently, one part baseball slugger Manny (Being Manny) Ramirez.“Lance being Lance” is how one Miami player after another characterized the Indiana guard’s antics at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. His repertoire of annoyances ranged from exaggerated and pestering contact with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to sticking his beak into a sideline huddle between Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and guards Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers.

Then there was the coup de grace, blowing into James’ ear while the two waited for action to resume at one point.

Asked later if he ever had thought about blowing in someone’s ear as a defensive tactic, James responded: “Probably my wife. I blew in my wife’s ear before. That was definitely a defensive tactic.”

Generally, the Heat reacted with a collective shrug. They’re the two-time defending champions. Stephenson is a 6-year-old, or at least sometimes acts like it.

“I’m as annoying as the next guy, but even for me there are lines,” Heat forward Shane Battier said.

…Stephenson had generated buzz previously in the ECF. Before the series began, his throwaway remark about running around enough to make Wade’s knee ache got portrayed by some media types as disrespectful or antagonistic. Then he got caught up in a trash-talking controversy with James, contending that he had exposed a “sign of weakness” in the Heat superstar when James actually yapped back at him briefly.

That’s probably why James took no bait Wednesday.

“Lance is Lance,” he said. “He’s going to do what he needs to do to help his team win. As to the leaders of our team, we’re going to do what it takes to help our team win.”

Said Pacers forward Paul George: “It’s Lance being Lance. He’s been special for us, and whether he’s scoring the ball, making plays, causing confrontation, Lance is special and there’s a reason why we gain an edge and some opportunities during games. A lot of it comes from Lance.

“So we need that. He’s always got to make sure he’s monitoring it, but I didn’t think nothing was out of the spirit of the game.”


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses Lance Stephenson’s play in Game 5

(more…)

‘Lance being Lance’ draws shrugs


VIDEO: GameTime crew discusses Stephenson’s antics in Game 5

INDIANAPOLIS – Lance Stephenson made a, er, spectacle of himself in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday, cavorting against and annoying the Miami Heat with a performance that was one part Metta World Peace, one part J.R. Smith and, apparently, one part baseball slugger Manny (Being Manny) Ramirez.

“Lance being Lance” is how one Miami player after another characterized the Indiana guard’s antics at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. His repertoire of annoyances ranged from exaggerated and pestering contact with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to sticking his beak into a sideline huddle between Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and guards Norris Cole and Mario Chalmers.

Then there was the coup de grace, blowing into James’ ear while the two waited for action to resume at one point.

Asked later if he ever had thought about blowing in someone’s ear as a defensive tactic, James responded: “Probably my wife. I blew in my wife’s ear before. That was definitely a defensive tactic.”

Generally, the Heat reacted with a collective shrug. They’re the two-time defending champions. Stephenson is a 6-year-old, or at least sometimes acts like it.

“I’m as annoying as the next guy, but even for me there are lines,” Heat forward Shane Battier said.

The huddle-busting? Stephenson pushed his mug right next to Spoelstra as he advised his point guards during one play stoppage. Neither the coach nor the players challenged him, but a shove or an exchange of words would have been a natural reaction.

“What can you do? You can’t throw a guy out of the huddle,” Battier said. “I don’t know what the rules are.”

Anything like that go on with the Heat? Battler said he’ll sometimes try to steal a glance at the other coach’s whiteboard. “Out of a timeout, I’ll try to pick out what they’re going to run,” the veteran said. “But I’m not going to walk through the huddle. Different strokes for different folks.”

Stephenson had generated buzz previously in the ECF. Before the series began, his throwaway remark about running around enough to make Wade’s knee ache got portrayed by some media types as disrespectful or antagonistic. Then he got caught up in a trash-talking controversy with James, contending that he had exposed a “sign of weakness” in the Heat superstar when James actually yapped back at him briefly.

That’s probably why James took no bait Wednesday.

“Lance is Lance,” he said. “He’s going to do what he needs to do to help his team win. As to the leaders of our team, we’re going to do what it takes to help our team win.”

Said Pacers forward Paul George: “It’s Lance being Lance. He’s been special for us, and whether he’s scoring the ball, making plays, causing confrontation, Lance is special and there’s a reason why we gain an edge and some opportunities during games. A lot of it comes from Lance.

“So we need that. He’s always got to make sure he’s monitoring it, but I didn’t think nothing was out of the spirit of the game.”

Even the sweet nothings blown into James’ ear?

Said George: “I hope his breath wasn’t too bad for LeBron.”


VIDEO: Lance Stephenson tries to rattle the Heat in Game 5