Posts Tagged ‘Lance Stephenson’

Most Improved Player: Gerald Green

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Suns forward Gerald Green has provided plenty of highlights this season

No question, the Kia Most Improved Player Award is the most difficult of the awards to choose, and consequently the most debatable. It can keep the picker tossing and turning for nights on end.

What exactly are the parameters here? And, frankly, whatever the parameters, there’s a sizable group of guys who certainly seem eligible.

Should Kevin Love, already an All-Star, be under consideration because he missed the majority of last season with a twice broken hand and has come back with the best statistical season of his career? Or is such improvement expected from an establishled All-Star?

What about New Orleans’ second-year forward-center Anthony Davis. What a season he’s had. Except, do we also expect such improvement from the No. 1 overall pick?

Should Suns second-year center Miles Plumlee get a serious look? He’s been a solid starter from Day 1 after sitting for 68 of 82 games as a rookie with Indiana. There’s simply no data for comparison. Or, is that the ultimate comparison?

Electrifying dunk artist, Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, has past data to compare, and this season compares remarkably favorably. Then there’s Oklahoma City point guard Reggie Jackson, Indiana’s Lance Stephenson, Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins and Pheonix’s Goran Dragic.

Speaking of Phoenix, it realistically has four candidates — Plumlee, Dragic, Markieff Morris and Gerald Green.

Wait, stop right there: Green.

Yes. The, lanky 6-foot-8 wing debuted in the league in 2005. Eight years later, he’s rocketed straight out of the blue. That’s improvement.

Green, 28, was the 18th overall pick of the Boston Celtics. After two seasons he was traded to Minnesota, then traded to Houston, waived by Houston, signed by Dallas and out of the league before he turned 24. Out of options in the NBA, he played in Russia for two years and another in China. He came home, played in the NBA D-League and finally got another shot in the NBA in the second half of the 2011-12 lockout season with the Nets.

He played well enough to sign a three-year contract with Eastern Conference power Indiana. He fell out of the rotation last year, and just prior to this season got traded, along with Plumlee and a first-round draft pick, to rebuilding Phoenix.

Poof. Green is legit.

Once a freakish athlete that lacked court awareness, Green still isn’t exactly a textbook on fundamentals, but he is more mature and more in control as he mixes gravity-defying dunks with dribble drives, high-rising mid-range fallaways and deep, deep daggers.

“Gerald Green, if he’s hot, he can score with the best of them in this league,” Mavericks sure-fire Hall-of-Famer Dirk Nowitzki said.

How’s this for scoring: Since the All-Star break, with every game mounting in importance as Phoenix still guns for a playoff spot entering Monday night’s crucial Game No. 81 against Memphis, Green is averaging 19.1 ppg on 45.4 percent shooting overall and 43.1 percent from beyond the arc in 29.6 mpg. His effective field-goal percentage (eFG%) — adjusted to account for 3-pointers being more valuable than 2-pointers) in that span is 54.8 percent.

Green’s season scoring average (15.9 ppg) is more than double what it was last year with the Pacers (7.0). He’s played in all 80 games, starting 47 times in injury situations. In Indiana’s slower, halfcourt-based offense, Green shot 36.6 percent overall and 31.4 percent from beyond the arc. Unleashed in first-year coach Jeff Hornacek‘s up-tempo attack, he’s blistering opponents from deep at 40-percent clip, while shooting 44.5 percent overall.

Hornacek has proven to be the perfect coach for Green, patient through mistakes and poor decisions, and always keeping the shooting light green.

“We wanted to go up and down [the floor], and try to make the team younger and more athletic and shoot a lot of 3s,” first-year Suns general manager Ryan McDonough said earlier this season. “And Gerald checked all of those boxes.”

Check.

Five contenders

DeAndre Jordan, Clippers – The sixth-year center has come of age, leading the league in field-goal percentage (67.5 percent) and rebounds (13.7 per game) — practically doubling his total rebounding from last season (7.2). He’s also averaging a career-best 10.4 ppg.

Goran Dragic, Suns – “The Dragon” has had a brilliant season after making room for fellow point guard Eric Bledsoe. Dragic easily could have been a Western Conference All-Star as he’s been the Suns’ MVP, 20.4 ppg and 5.9 apg while shooting 50.6 percent overall and 41.5 percent from deep.

Markieff Morris, Suns – Also a Sixth Man of the Year Award candidate, averaging career-highs by a wide margin with 13.7 ppg and 6.1 rpg. He’s transformed himself into a dangerous mid-range shooter, making 48.3 percent of his shots, up from 40.7 percent last season and 39.9 percent as a rookie.

Lance Stephenson, Pacers – Who had Stephenson pegged as the league-leader in triple-doubles or the Pacers leading rebounder at 7.2 rpg? He notched his fifth triple-double with Sunday’s 17-point, 10-rebound, 11-assist effort to knock of Oklahoma City to break a triple-double tie with All-Stars Stephen Curry and Joakim Noah.

Reggie Jackson, Thunder – He got his training on the fly during the 2013 postseason. Since then, he’s provided the Thunder with stability and scoring off the bench … and as a starter during Russell Westbrook‘s injuries this season. Jackson is averaging 13.2 ppg, 4.2 apg and 3.9 rpg in 28.5 mpg. He averaged 14.2 mpg last season.

Heat, Pacers and the fight for No. 1

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

Panic button pays off for Pacers

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


VIDEO: The Pacers discuss their thrilling win in Milwaukee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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

Numbers reveal four strong MIP candidates

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – The Kia Most Improved Player award is thought of as the most nebulous of the six major end-of-season awards and typically gets the widest range of votes. Last season, though Paul George finished with a vote total of more than twice that of any other player, 15 different players received at least one first-place vote and another 18 received at least one vote for second or third place.

But the award also lends itself to simple statistical analysis. It should be fairly simple to determine whose numbers have improved most from season to season.

If you want to get real simple, we can just compare the raw numbers, using the efficiency statistic.

Biggest increase, total efficiency

Player Season 2012-13 2013-14 Diff.
Kevin Love 6 372 2,060 1,688
Terrence Jones 2 147 1,048 901
Miles Plumlee 2 20 894 874
Andre Drummond 2 826 1,561 735
Andrew Bogut 9 418 1,103 685
Khris Middleton 2 167 836 669
Timofey Mozgov 4 174 837 663
Gerald Green 7 319 923 604
John Wall 4 949 1,511 562
James Anderson 4 180 740 560
DeAndre Jordan 6 1,079 1,638 559
Anthony Davis 2 1,167 1,705 538
Jordan Hill 5 275 810 535
Jeremy Lamb 2 48 579 531
Dirk Nowitzki 16 1,005 1,531 526
Jared Sullinger 2 454 975 521
Tony Wroten 2 84 601 517
Trevor Ariza 10 637 1,151 514
Reggie Jackson 3 465 955 490
Richard Jefferson 13 200 678 478

Efficiency = PTS + REB + AST + STL + BLK – TO – Missed FGA – Missed FTA

At this point, the big question has to be asked: Should second-year players be considered for the Most Improved Player award? If not, we can eliminate several guys on the list above, though both Terrence Jones and Miles Plumlee – two starters on Western Conference playoff teams — feel like strong candidates. Only two of the top 10 in last year’s voting — Nikola Vucevic (4th) and Chandler Parsons (10th) — were second-year players.

There are also a handful of veterans on the list who missed large chunks of last season with injuries, though Kevin Love and Trevor Ariza are having the best seasons of their careers.

Timofey Mozgov and Gerald Green are interesting candidates, but were both out of their team’s rotations last season, so their improved raw numbers may also be about opportunity.

But Mozgov’s name comes up when we look at PIE improvement. PIE takes a player’s numbers (with weights added to each) as a percentage of the overall numbers that were accumulated while he was on the floor. So it adjusts for pace and there’s a team-success element to it, because if your opponent doesn’t score as many points or grab as many rebounds your individual number will be higher.

Biggest increase, PIE

2012-13 2013-14
Player Season MIN PIE MIN PIE Diff.
James Johnson 5 879 5.3% 836 11.5% 6.2%
DeMarcus Cousins 4 2,289 13.2% 1,978 18.3% 5.1%
Kevin Love 6 618 14.4% 2,438 19.4% 5.0%
Markieff Morris 3 1,837 7.5% 1,864 12.3% 4.8%
Lance Stephenson 4 2,278 8.8% 2,487 13.0% 4.2%
Kris Humphries 10 1,191 9.2% 1,272 13.3% 4.1%
Bismack Biyombo 3 2,186 6.3% 957 10.1% 3.8%
Kendall Marshall 2 702 5.8% 1,270 9.6% 3.8%
Draymond Green 2 1,061 5.1% 1,481 8.9% 3.8%
Timofey Mozgov 4 366 6.9% 1,479 10.5% 3.6%
Xavier Henry 4 625 3.9% 895 7.5% 3.6%
Patty Mills 5 656 8.2% 1,306 11.7% 3.4%
Marco Belinelli 7 1,882 7.0% 1,749 10.3% 3.3%
Avery Bradley 4 1,435 4.9% 1,602 8.1% 3.3%
Andrew Bogut 9 786 9.2% 1,661 12.5% 3.3%
Isaiah Thomas 3 2,121 10.6% 2,450 13.8% 3.2%
Anthony Davis 2 1,846 13.5% 2,248 16.6% 3.0%
Marcus Morris 3 1,524 6.7% 1,601 9.7% 3.0%
Brandon Knight 3 2,366 8.2% 2,051 11.2% 3.0%
Alec Burks 3 1,137 7.4% 1,909 10.4% 3.0%

Minimum 300 minutes in 2012-13 and 800 minutes in 2013-14

Love, Mozgov and Andrew Bogut are the only players on both lists. But Bogut had better seasons in Milwaukee and Love’s increase is just 1.0 percent over his third season in the league. Mozgov has taken a decent jump, but still isn’t a real impact player in the league.

Based on the above lists and deeper dives into the numbers, there are four non-second-year candidates that stand out.

Marco Belinelli, Spurs

Choosing between the Spurs’ two back-up guards is tough, because Patty Mills‘ play has been eye-opening. But Belinelli has had a bigger role on the league’s best team.

Belinelli’s points per game have increased from 9.6 season last season (with Chicago) only to 11.4 this year. And he averaged more than that (11.8) two seasons ago with New Orleans. But he’s having, by far, the best shooting and rebounding seasons of his career.

Among 168 players who have attempted at least 100 shots from the restricted area each of the last two seasons, Belinelli (51.9 percent last season, 70.2 percent this season) ranks second in improvement, behind only Love.

Among 139 players who have attempted at least 100 mid-range shots each of the last two seasons, Belinelli (35.9 percent, 44.0 percent) ranks sixth in improvement.

And among 126 players who have attempted at least 100 3-pointers each of the last two seasons, Belinelli (35.7 percent, 43.7 percent) ranks fifth in improvement.

No other player is in the top 25 of all three lists, and only one (Markieff Morris) is in the top 10 of more than one. It certainly helps (quite a bit, one could argue) that Belinelli has gone from a bottom-10 offensive team last season to a top-10 offensive team this year. But he also ranks 10th in improved rebounding percentage among players who have played at least 1,000 minutes each of the last two seasons.

DeMarcus Cousins, Kings

Boogie has seen a jump in both usage (USG%) and scoring efficiency (TS%). Though he’s still not a great shooter (his 49.3 effective field-goal percentage is below the league average), he has gone to the line a lot more than he ever has. He has also rebounded at a career-high rate.

Defensively, he’s not exactly Roy Hibbert or Kevin Garnett, and transition defense is a major problem. But the Kings have been almost six points per 100 possessions better defensively with Cousins on the floor. He’s a plus-62 for a team that’s 25-46.

Cousins’ teammate Isaiah Thomas seems like another good candidate and is 16th on the most-improved PIE list above. But his scoring effective field-goal percentage and true shooting percentage have barely budged (his 3-point percentage and free-throw percentage have gone down), and his numbers jump is mostly about an increased usage rate and a small jump in assist rate.

Markieff Morris, Suns

If you could vote for the Morris twins as one entity, that would be the clear favorite. You can’t, but Markieff (No. 11 in your programs) should be on the short list.

He’s been a much more efficient player this season, even though his usage rate has jumped quite a bit. And the Suns, who are an improved defensive team, have been better on that end of the floor with Markieff in the game.

As referenced above, he’s the ninth most improved mid-range shooter in the league and also ninth most improved in the restricted area. He’s played about the same number of minutes as he did last season and he’s gone to the line more than twice as many times.

With both Morris twins, Plumlee, Gerald Green and Goran Dragic all worthy of some consideration for Most Improved, it’s obvious that Jeff Hornacek should be in the running for Coach of the Year.

Lance Stephenson, Pacers

Like Cousins and Morris, Stephenson has seen a big jump in both usage rate and efficiency. But he’s also the most improved rebounder among 203 players who have logged at least 1,000 minutes each of the last two seasons, with his rebounding percentage jumping from 7.5 percent to 11.4 percent (best among guards).

Stephenson still has some improving to do. He’s a below-average shooter from outside the paint and his turnover rate has jumped as he’s been asked to handle the ball more. But overall, he’s taken a step forward this season.

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

Morning Shootaround — March 25


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played March 24

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Pacers find life at top tough | Butler delivers for OKC | Grizz shift into playoff mode | Dragic weighing national team decision | Charlotte hoping for All-Star Game bid

No. 1: Pacers finding life at the top hard — Expect to read more on this today from our Steve Aschburner, who was at last night’s Pacers-Bulls tilt from the United Center. But as Brian Windhorst of ESPN.com points out this morning, the Indiana Pacers — who are just two games ahead of the Miami Heat for No. 1 in the East — have had a rough time since about February of maintaining their torrid early-season winning pace:

Somewhere along the path to a magical season the Indiana Pacers lost their innocence. Now they’re losing their way.Monday night the Chicago Bulls beat the Pacers with one of their signature defense-based wins 89-77, avenging a loss in Indianapolis last week. It was the seventh time in the last 12 games the Pacers have gone down. Previously, they’d lost seven times over a span of 28 games. They didn’t even have their seventh loss of the season until Jan. 8.

“We started off this season so great and we were excited for the end,” Pacers star Paul George said. “But we forgot about the middle and the middle is the toughest part.”

But the Pacers have so far been slow to readjust their comfort zones. Instead, they’ve been slowly getting frustrated with each other in the classic mode of a team that is underachieving.

Several Pacers players have pointed to February when things started turning for them, a month when Larry Bird signed Andrew Bynum and traded long-tenured Danny Granger for Evan Turner in an effort to bolster the roster heading into the playoffs. The Pacers’ players, however, were stunned by both moves. Granger’s departure was treated like a mini-funeral.

“Larry is the man is charge,” Hibbert said. “He made the decisions and we have to go out on the floor and figure it out.”

Then, two weeks ago, Bird lashed out publicly at his players and his coach. Vogel has built a reputation for being positive, sometimes coming off as downright cocky. He has an air of assurance about him that he’s passed to his players, the sort of vigor that had them talking about getting the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference back in the first days of the season.

Though its defense has been a little less consistent than desired in the second half of the season, what is causing the team the most angst is its offense. In losses to the Grizzlies and Bulls in the last few days, the Pacers have failed to crack 80 points in back-to-back games for the first time in seven years.

There are slumps abounding. Over the last 15 games, Hibbert is averaging just nine points and shooting just 44 percent. After he shot 56 percent in February, David West is shooting just 46 percent in March. George is shooting just 37 percent in March and averaging 19 points, well below his season average.

It’s also not hard to miss how annoyed some Pacers are with Lance Stephenson, the young sparkplug guard who was a huge key to their early season. Stephenson has four triple-doubles this season but at times he’s been too focused on getting those stats, robbing rebounds from teammates and generating some frustration.

Other times he flat-out hogs the ball. And while this happens with many players on every team, the tolerance for the younger and rougher Stephenson is much less than for the veterans elsewhere on the roster.

On Monday, Stephenson had no assists and four turnovers in 30 minutes in the loss. When he drops his head and ignores open teammates, heads shake and shoulders slump visibly. After averaging nearly six assists a game in the season’s first three months, Stephenson is averaging only three assists over the last two months.

“We have [guys trying to be heroes] at times and we choose the wrong moment at times,” George said.


VIDEO: Pacers players discuss the team’s loss to the Bulls in Chicago

***

No. 2: OKC’s bench delivers vs. Nuggets — With their All-Star tandem of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook — as well as solid contributions from Serge Ibaka — the Oklahoma City Thunder’s starting lineup never seems to be lacking in scoring punch. But once the bench crew steps into the game, how well OKC’s offense fares can be a game-by-game roller coaster ride. That instability might be nearing its end, though, especially if new addition Caron Butler puts in performances like he had last night against the Denver Nuggets. Anthony Slater of The Oklahoman has more on Butler’s play:

For the final month before the All-Star break, without Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant captured headlines with his fantastic play and his team’s surprising success.

But the Thunder’s impressive late January run was about far more than Durant. He was the catalyst, but the consistent roster-wide contributions helped spur the 10-game win streak and the 15-2 close to the first half.

For the first 11 games after the break – an anemic 5-6 run – that was missing. But of late, it has returned, an impressive four-game win streak culminating in a 117-96 domination of the Nuggets on Monday night at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Durant, predictably, was the leading scorer with 27. But on a night where he shot below 50 percent (10-of-21), his team shot above it.

Reggie Jackson had an efficient 16 points and 11 assists, needing only six shots. Steven Adams scored in double-figures for the first time since January. And even Nick Collison dropped in 10, including a corner 3-pointer that drew the loudest ovation of the night.

But Caron Butler shouldered the biggest non-Durant end of the scoring load. In 29 minutes, Butler had his best offensive performance since joining the Thunder, going for 23 points on 10-of-19 shooting.

“He’s getting more and more comfortable every single game,” Durant said of the Thunder’s newest member.

But Butler’s most important offensive contribution on this night – and the most encouraging sign moving forward – was his ability to take advantage of mismatches in the low post.

With so much length and size at rare positions, the Thunder forced the Nuggets to throw smaller defenders at Butler. He exploited it on multiple occasions, dropping in easy short range jumpers.

“He had that post-up working tonight,” Durant said. “They have that smaller guy on him, and he takes advantage. That’s what we need him to do.”

On Monday, the Thunder played with the kind of confidence, effort and balance that allowed them to not only survive, but thrive without Westbrook before the All-Star break.


VIDEO:
Reggie Jackson and others discuss OKC’s blowout win against Denver

***

No. 3: Grizz getting into playoff mode? — Since the All-Star break, the Memphis Grizzlies have rolled up a 13-5 mark that has included wins over the playoff-bound Clippers, Bulls, Bobcats, Blazers and Pacers. After last night’s wire-to-wire drubbing of the faltering Minnesota Timberwolves, Memphis has amassed 10 straight wins at FedEx Forum and is looking more and more like a powerful playoff team, writes Ronald Tillery of The Commercial-Appeal:

Memphis’ 109-92 victory Monday night accounted for its 10th straight in FedExForum, and perhaps sent a message to the teams floating around them in the Western Conference standings. The Grizzlies look like a team that’s moved beyond simply trying to make the playoffs to one seeking to steal a higher seed that didn’t seem possible two months ago.

The Griz improved to 42-28, ensuring that they will finish with a winning record for a fourth consecutive season. That, however, is something the Griz expect to make a footnote in this campaign. Memphis sits a half game ahead of Phoenix in the seventh spot and remains within striking distance of the fifth and sixth seeds. The Griz are just 2½ games back from fifth place.

The Griz improved to 31-3 when leading after three quarters while the Timberwolves fell to 3-24 when they trail at the start of the fourth. Minnesota entered the game averaging 106.5 points, fourth-most in the NBA. This was the 11th straight game that the Timberwolves allowed their opponent to score 100-plus points.

***

No. 4: Dragic weighing decision on national team – The Phoenix Suns are staying in the thick of the Western Conference playoff chase thanks to the play of star point guard Goran Dragic. It’s been a banner year for the Slovenian standout and while he’s hoping Phoenix can complete its playoff push, he’s still weighing whether or not to suit up for his country’s national team in the World Cup in Spain this September, writes Paul Coro of The Arizona Republic:

With the Suns enjoying a 6-1 stretch, Dragic’s results are back to the norm of his outstanding season by no coincidence. He is shooting 53.8 percent overall and 46.2 percent on 3-pointers over the past seven games with averages of 18.1 points and 4.7 assists.

The team success makes him feel emotionally better but the physical wear and tear still exists and makes him consider not playing for his Slovenian national team this September at the World Cup in Spain.

“Sometimes, it is too many games,” Dragic said. “I still have to sit down with my national team and talk with them about making a decision if I’m going to play or not. I’m thinking more toward not playing and trying to get my body some rest to be fresher for the next season.

“That is hard because, back home, all the people judge you that you have so much money and you’re a star and now you don’t want to play for the national team. That bothers me a little bit but those people don’t know how the season goes, how many games it is and being in a different hotel every night. I’m more on the plane than in my car.”

Playing for Slovenia when it hosted last summer’s European Championship helped Dragic come into the season in a good rhythm but he is feeling the effects of nine consecutive months of basketball at times as the Suns’ playing time leader and primary point guard most of the season.

“I think I feel pretty good, especially my legs are not so heavy like 15 games ago,” Dragic said. “Even if you’re tired for the last 12 games, you have to go through that and try not to think about it so much.”


VIDEO: Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragic lead the Suns to a win in Atlanta

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No. 5: Charlotte needs arena upgrades before it can host All-Star Game — It’s been 23 years and counting since the city of Charlotte hosted the NBA All-Star Game … and it might be a few more years before it gets to host it again. Commissioner Adam Silver was at last night’s Houston Rockets-Charlotte Bobcats game at Time Warner Cable Arena and said while he’s hopeful that a basketball-mad city like Charlotte will host a future All-Star Game, some upgrades to the arena must take place first. Rick Bonnell of the Charlotte Observer has more:

First, he said, the city must upgrade Time Warner Cable Arena, which needs $41.9 million of work, according to a list of needs compiled by the Charlotte Bobcats and the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority.

“I’d love to bring the All-Star Game back here,” Silver said before the Bobcats game with the Houston Rockets. “This is a wonderful community, a hotbed of basketball, not just pro but college as well.”

He added: “There are some upgrades to the building that are needed. I know those discussions are underway right now. It’s part of the understanding here that the building remain state-of-the-art. Nothing dramatic is needed. But certainly an upgrade to the scoreboard, some things with the suites and the lighting.”

The Bobcats’ 25-year arena lease calls for the city of Charlotte to keep Time Warner Cable Arena among the league’s most modern. After the first seven years, the lease requires the city to make improvements, so long as half of other NBA facilities have them.

The team has requested money to upgrade suites, overhaul restaurants, build a new play area for children and move the ticket office, among other improvements.

The city said it will scrutinize the list of requests to see what is required under the lease agreement.

Charlotte Mayor Patrick Cannon said the prospect of hosting the league’s All-Star Game shouldn’t make the city spend more money than necessary.

“The city should only be guided by what it’s obligated to do by way of the agreement,” he said.

City Manager Ron Carlee said the city must study the “business case” for possibly making additional upgrades to the arena.

“What kind of opportunity will there be (for improving the arena)?” Carlee said.

Silver said awarding the 2017 event should come in about a year. Then he reiterated his link between Charlotte’s chances and those upgrades.

“The team has time,” Silver said. “The first order of priority is making sure the building issues are dealt with.”


VIDEO: Adam Silver discusses what it would take for Charlotte to host a future All-Star Game

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Tim Duncan says he’s taking it “game-by-game” about whether or not he’d retire at the end of this season … Five minor investors have been added to the Hawks’ ownership group … The New Orleans Pelicans might have found a go-to combination in the duo of Anthony Davis and Tyreke Evans … Lakers guard Nick Young says close to $100,000 worth of clothing, jewelry, shoes and luggage were stolen from his house during a home game … Good little chat with Steph Curry about his golf game, the Warriors-Clippers rivalry and more … What kind of chance does Mitch Richmond have at the Hall of Fame? Our Scott Howard-Cooper examines it … Former high-flying Raptors swingman Jamario Moon is thinking about an NBA comebackBrandon Jennings is hitting his stride at long last for the Pistons …

ICYMI of the Night: Sometimes a play can personify the style of play of a team. Such is the case with this defensive sequence by the Bulls and a hustle follow-up jam by Taj Gibson


VIDEO: Taj Gibson follows up the Jimmy Butler miss with a power jam