Posts Tagged ‘Lance Stephenson’

DeAndre Jordan … most improved?

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com




VIDEO: Chris Paul talks about DeAndre Jordan’s growth and impact on the Clippers

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Award season is basically a month away.

A regular season filled with plenty of candidates and campaigns that roll with the ebb and flow of the marathon that is the 82-game season will come to an abrupt end. Who will be left standing at the end of that roller coaster for remains to be seen. One thing is for sure, no race has more viable candidates than the Most Improved Player honor.

My sparring partner on almost every debatable topic, NBA TV research ace Kevin Cottrell, weighs in with a case for a somewhat unlikely prospect … Los Angeles Clippers center DeAndre Jordan, who has seen his game change dramatically under the tutelage of Doc Rivers:

Throughout the season Lance Stephenson (IND), Gerald Green (PHO) and Goran Dragic (PHO) have drawn praise for the Most Improved Player (MIP) award, but one that’s often overlooked is Clippers center DeAndre Jordan. Is it because Jordan is a big man? Since the award was handed out (after the 1985-86 season) 5 of the 28 winners played the center position. In fact, the last big man to win the award was Jermaine O’Neal after the 2001-02 season. While the team’s anchor typically gets the least amount of touches, some may argue that they have the smallest impact on a game. Jordan is currently posting career highs in four statistical categories (PPG, RPG, BPG and FG%), proving he’s enhanced his game on both ends of the floor. If that doesn’t sway voters, the center has recorded 35 double-doubles, something he did a total of 39 times in his first five seasons combined.

​In recent years, the hardware has gone to the player who had the biggest improvement in the points per game category, as illustrated by the last five MIP winners.

SEASON — PLAYER — PPG Improvement

2012-13 — Paul George +4.9

2011-12 — Ryan Anderson +5.5

2010-11 — Kevin Love +2.7

2009-10 — Aaron Brooks +8.4

2008-09 — Danny Granger +6.2

In NBA debates fans and experts alike tend to have a love affair with number of championships won and an infatuation with scoring barrages. While winning is the goal and scoring entertains, one should be awarded for their overall improvement of their game and not just their ability to put the ball through the basket. For sake of argument let’s look at the top 5 candidates for MIP this season and their PPG improvement.

PLAYER — PPG IMPROVEMENT

D.J. Augustin (CHI) — +9.5

Gerald Green (PHO) — +8.6

Goran Dragic (PHO) — +5.8

Lance Stephenson (IND) — +5.2

DeAndre Jordan (LAC) — +1.5

At a quick glance, Chicago guard D.J. Augustin should run away with the award. However he’s only appeared in 46 games for the Bulls and his improvement is based on the gaping hole left at point guard by the MVP Derrick Rose. Suns Forward Gerald Green bounced around Europe and the D-League before landing with the Pacers last season. After showing flashes in Indy he signed with the Suns where he was met with an array of minutes and shots on a young team. We’re finally getting a chance to see what Green can do in the NBA, this does not mean there was improvement. Dragic’s opportunity to score was created by the absence of Eric Bledsoe due to injury. As for Stephenson, he has the best argument to win the award. Not only does he lead the league in triple-doubles (4), but he’s been the Pacers second best player and a big reason why they continue to have the best record in the East.

All candidates are worthy of being mentioned, but Jordan was the motivation behind this post. Jordan’s stat line reads: 10.3 ppg 13.8 rpg 2.4 bpg 66.7 FG%. Those are gaudy numbers for a player known solely as a dunker. As for his circumstance, it has been about accountability. In the past Jordan has spent more time on the bench in the final period than in the paint. To support his overall improvement, he averages 7.5 (fourth quarter) minutes per game as opposed to 4.9 last season. To simplify the numbers, Jordan played in all 82 games last season and appeared in just 4th quarters. That has improved drastically this season, as he has appeared in all 69 games and fourth quarters.

Like any league awards, voters will find a way to be critical of players in the most miniscule way to determine their winners. In Jordan’s case some will point out his 45.3 FT% as reason enough to not win the award. That too is up from an embarrassing 38.6 FT% from a year ago. DeAndre has gained confidence at the line having made 40 more free-throws this season than all of last season, a big reason why he’s playing well into the 4th quarter.

Last postseason the Pacers and Spurs were left wondering what would have been if their big men were on the floor in crucial moments of 4th quarters to protect the basket and secure game-winning rebounds. Due to Jordan’s off-season work, the Clippers should not be left wondering “what if” this postseason.

Furthermore, DeAndre Jordan should not have to wonder what it would be like to be named the NBA’s Most Improved Player.

I’ve had Stephenson and Dragic atop my theoretical ballot for much of this season. They’ve both been so good for so long this season that it’s hard to imagine one of them not walking away with the MIP hardware.

But the case for Jordan is legitimate. And the way he is playing and the Clippers are performing this season, Jordan’s campaign could go well into the postseason.

Turner struggling to fit with Pacers

Indiana Pacers v Boston Celtics

Evan Turner is still trying to adjust to playing with the Pacers. (Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images)

When the Pacers added Evan Turner at the trade deadline to a roster that already had the best record in the NBA, it was mostly viewed as a solid move to boost the offense off the bench.

It was the rich getting just a little bit richer. It was architect Larry Bird not wanting to leave the slightest thing to chance, filling up a hole in the bench offense.

Now eight games into his move to Indiana, the Pacers are mired in a season-worst four-game losing streak and Turner’s impact has been minimal. In back-to-back losses at Houston and Dallas over the weekend, he scored a total of just seven points, had three assists and two rebounds in just over 40 minutes.

“It’s only been a few weeks, so we’re still early in the process,” said All-Star teammate Paul George. “I think as we all become more comfortable and he settles into his role, it’s a change that is going to be good for all of us. I think his style of play goes with with what we want to do.”

Having escaped the nightmare scenario with loss after loss at the bottom of the standings in Philadelphia, Turner is suddenly in the thick of the race for best record in the Eastern Conference and home-court advantage all the way through the playoffs.

“It’s definitely the kind of situation you want to be in, playing real meaningful games late in the season,” Turner said. “It’s not like I’m coming in trying to change anything about my game or about this team. It’s about me keeping my eyes and ears open to learn about the culture here and trying to fit in.”

It’s that fit that’s going to be what decides whether Bird made a bold move to put the Pacers over the top as a true championship contender or tempted fate by upsetting the tight-knit chemistry that already existed in the locker room.

While the idea is for Turner to be the offensive weapon that had his dramatic ups and downs in Philly, there is the question of whether he needs the ball in his hands too much to be most effective and if his talent merely duplicates what the Pacers already had in Lance Stephenson.

“He’s a creator, just like me,” Stephenson said. “You can pretty much count on something always happening when we play together. I like having that potential explosiveness to our second group.

“He got plenty of moves, a lot of shake and bake in his package. It’s going to be fun.”

In the early going, Turner has been mostly used in Danny Granger’s old spot. We he’s played alongside Stephenson, it has not been all fun as opposing defenses have shown plenty willingness to sag off and give Turner the outside shots that he’s not particularly effective at making.

Even though the skills of the 30-year-old Granger were fading, his outside shot was still given more respect than Tuner and his 31.9 percent career shooting from behind the 3-point line.

The trade was made, at least in part, to eventually give the Pacers a hedge for the future when Stephenson becomes a free agent next summer. But it will only be judged by what it does to either solidify a bid to win it all or create new problems. When the playoffs begin, it’s likely that Turner’s opportunities to have the ball in his hands and make something happen will shrink. It will then be more about being a complementary part, not a role with which he’s ever been comfortable.

It may still be early in the adjustment period, but it already feels late.

Have the Pacers lost their Edge?




VIDEO: GameTime’s crew discusses Paul George’s slump and the Pacers’ struggles

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The playoff bid is clinched, locked up before anyone else in the league. Yet after five games in seven nights, there is suddenly a lingering fog surrounding the Indiana Pacers.

That brash, bruising, defensive-minded machine we saw before the All-Star break doesn’t look nearly as intimidating these days. That team that vowed to chase the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, in an effort to play host a potential showdown against reigning two-time NBA champion Miami Heat in the conference finals, has been humbled lately with crushing defeats both at home and on the road.

The Pacers’ best players — All-Stars Paul George and Roy Hibbert, as well as Lance Stephenson and David West — have all endured their fair share of struggles. Coach Frank Vogel remains as confident as ever, something you’d expect from a coach who understands that seeing the Pacers reach their ultimate goals is a painstaking process fraught with trials and tribulations. Vogel and his crew know that unmitigated attention to detail is required to overcome any adversity.

Still, it’s enough to make you wonder — have the Pacers lost a little bit of the edge that led them to the top of the standings? They were so good so fast this season that a bit of a letdown was inevitable. But it’s dangerous to play this game this close to the end of the regular season.

“Over the last 20 games or so, we just haven’t had our mojo,” West said after the Bobcats beat the Pacers Wednesday night in Charlotte on the back-end of a back-to-back. “We’ve got to change some things up because these last 20 games is going to be a battle.”

“Right now I think we’re on our downs,” Stephenson said. “We just got to get back on our ups, work together and play as a unit.”

The Pacers also have to return to the identity that led them to the top of the standings.

They were a defensive juggernaut to start the season, holding teams down in every facet and allowing just 90.3 points per game through All-Star weekend. In the nine games since then, they are giving up close to 100 points a night.

“We can’t get teams under control,” West told the Indianapolis Star. “Nobody’s afraid of us and we got to regroup. We got to get back to the basics. We got tough two-game trip out West and it’s got to mean something to us to go out and do whatever we have to do to win these games.”

The road trip he’s speaking starts Friday with a date with the Houston Rockets, who have the league’s best record since Jan. 1. Then comes Sunday’s game in Dallas against the Mavericks. They’ll be tested by two Western Conference playoff teams with the ability to make the Pacers uncomfortable in many different ways.

There is also a seven-games-in-11-days stretch looming at the end of the month, a grind that includes two games against the Chicago Bulls (home and away), road games in Memphis, Washington and Cleveland and showdowns with the Heat (March 26) and San Antonio Spurs  (March 31) that will shed more light on whether or not these Pacers are as ready for prime time as they appeared to be just a month ago.

Changes to their make-up (Evan Turner and, eventually, we assume, Andrew Bynum) will also force the Pacers to continue to tweak their chemistry. They have to be proactive in terms of how they make their own internal adjustments.

But when you build up the sort of reservoir of victories and the quality body of work the Pacers did out of the gate, it’s almost impossible to squander it now. A two-game tailspin can be survived.

If there are cracks in the foundation, though, you better believe the other contenders on both sides of the conference divide have noticed. And they’ll be sure to do whatever they can to exploit that in the future.


VIDEO: The Bobcats thumped the Pacers and shut down Paul George and Roy Hibbert in the process

Pacers’ Defensive Success Starts With Stopping The Pick-And-Roll

HANG TIME NEW JERSEY – In today’s NBA, if a team can’t defend the pick-and-roll, it’s in trouble.

The league’s best record has been built on the Indiana Pacers’ No. 1 defense, of which their pick-and-roll coverage is an integral part.

Through Monday, the Pacers had allowed 0.94 points per pick-and-roll possession, easily the lowest mark in the league, according to SportVU data provided to NBA.com. As you’d expect, there’s a strong correlation between SportVU’s pick-and-roll numbers and defensive efficiency. The top four teams in the former are the top four in the latter.

Note: All stats included here are through Monday, March 3.

Top pick-and-roll defenses

Team Screens P&R Poss. Opp. PTS PTS/Poss DefRtg Rank
Indiana 3,245 2,548 2,395 0.94 94.0 1
Golden State 2,881 2,333 2,249 0.96 99.1 3
Chicago 2,782 2,242 2,164 0.97 97.7 2
Oklahoma City 2,928 2,342 2,284 0.98 100.0 4
Toronto 2,878 2,276 2,255 0.99 100.9 7
Miami 2,681 2,134 2,130 1.00 102.7 13
Houston 3,171 2,534 2,537 1.00 102.1 9
Brooklyn 2,851 2,286 2,295 1.00 105.1 21
Memphis 2,857 2,278 2,306 1.01 102.1 8
Washington 3,014 2,441 2,478 1.02 102.2 10

The Pacers have two Defensive Player of the Year candidates in Paul George (on the perimeter) and Roy Hibbert (on the interior). And among 168 combinations that have defended at least 100 pick-and-roll possessions, the George-Hibbert combo ranks fourth, having allowed its opponent to score just 0.83 points per possession.

Top pick-and-roll defense combinations

Team BH defender Scr. defender Screens P&R Poss. Opp. PTS PTS/Poss.
OKC Sefolosha Ibaka 140 137 99 0.72
BKN Livingston Garnett 120 113 83 0.73
OKC Sefolosha Perkins 120 110 91 0.83
IND George Hibbert 190 183 152 0.83
WAS Ariza Gortat 164 158 133 0.84
POR Williams Lopez 154 148 125 0.84
SAS Mills Diaw 142 138 117 0.85
PHX Dragic Mark. Morris 159 151 130 0.86
GSW Thompson Bogut 201 187 162 0.87
CHI Augustin Boozer 106 101 88 0.87

It shouldn’t be a surprise to see Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, Robin Lopez or Andrew Bogut on this list. Those guys are on the floor to defend. They know where to be and they communicate to the guy getting screened.

But you’ll also notice a common trait among some of the ball-handler defenders (Thabo Sefolosha, George, Shaun Livingston, Trevor Ariza and Klay Thompson) on the list: length. Those guys all put in the work on defense, but it certainly helps to have the wingspan to force the ball-handler into a circuitous route toward the screen and also block the passing lane after he’s picked up by the screener’s defender.

The data shows that both George and Hibbert distinguish themselves from their teammates when it comes to defending pick-and-rolls …

Pacers’ ball-handler defenders

BH defender Screens Poss. Opp. PTS PTS/Poss. Shot%
George Hill 957 905 861 0.95 22%
C.J. Watson 587 563 548 0.97 23%
Paul George 468 449 402 0.90 27%
Lance Stephenson 385 373 355 0.95 32%

Pacers’ screener defenders

Screen Defender Screens Poss. Opp. PTS PTS/Poss. Shot%
Roy Hibbert 859 821 740 0.90 29%
David West 682 646 610 0.94 22%
Ian Mahinmi 494 472 462 0.98 27%
Luis Scola 386 364 359 0.99 20%

Shot% = Percentage of screens in which the ball-handler attempted a shot

You’ll notice that the ball-handler takes more shots when Hibbert or Ian Mahinmi is defending the screener. The Pacers’ centers drop back in their pick-and-roll coverage, like this …

20140305_hibbert_pnr

… while their power forwards come out high…

20140305_west_pnr

Both Hibbert and Mahinmi have the length to prevent the ball-handler from getting to the rim, while still staying attached to the roll man. And often, the only available shot is a mid-range pull-up or a floater or runner from 8-12 feet. Those shots are worth less than 0.8 points per attempt.

NBA shot values per location

Location PTS/FGA
Restricted Area 1.21
In The Paint (Non-RA) 0.78
Mid-Range 0.79
Corner 3 1.16
Above the Break 3 1.06

Here’s an example of George and Hibbert defending a pick-and-roll from the Mavs (a top-10 pick-and-roll offense) …


Hibbert stops Monta Ellis, but also gets back to recover to Samuel Dalembert. And since Lance Stephenson didn’t have to help, he’s able to run Shawn Marion off the 3-point line.

Indiana opponents have run more than 40 percent of their pick-and-rolls from the top of the key, but have had a little more success running them from the side of the floor …

Pick-and-rolls vs. Indiana, by location

Location Screens Screen Poss Opp. PTS PTS/Poss.
Center Point 1,390 1,230 1,149 0.93
Wing 987 897 893 1.00
Sideline Point 793 745 704 0.94
High Post 154 152 124 0.82
Corner 85 82 69 0.84

Here’s the league’s best pick-and-roll combination getting an open jumper for Channing Frye by running it on the side of the floor, where there’s less help …


Luis Scola hedges hard, Hibbert is occupied by Miles Plumlee inside, and the other Pacers are on the opposite side of the floor, so there’s no one to account for the popping Frye.

Here’s a Dallas side pick-and-roll where George Hill helps from the weak side and Shane Larkin is wide open on the wing (maybe, in part, because he’s Shane Larkin).

20140305_dal_side

The Heat had some success in the conference finals when they ran sideline screens toward the baseline, turning the Pacers’ defense inside out. Here’s a similar play from Portland …


Hibbert probably came out too far on Damian Lillard on that play, but the sideline pick-and-roll can give the ball-handler a better angle on the pocket pass, and the Blazers’ spacing makes it difficult to help from the weak side.

(More on the Blazers later in the week, when we address teams that don’t defend the pick-and-roll very well.)

Even from the sideline, you’re not getting a great return on pick-and-rolls against the Pacers. That’s why they rank as one of the best defenses we’ve ever seen.

Bird’s Famous Fire Drives Pacers’ Granger-Turner Trade


VIDEO: Get the latest on the Pacers-Sixers trade deadline deal.

All that Mt. Rushmore talk over All-Star Weekend, and the “No Vacancy” sign it flashed at so many of the NBA’s legendary players, might require some reconnoitering after all.

This Larry Bird, the one we got Thursday afternoon at the league’s trade deadline, is the one I’d want chiseled on my mountainside.

Anyone who has forgotten, and perhaps some tender fans who never knew, the razor’s edge that Bird brought to the court as a Hall of Fame player for Boston (and to the bench in his subsequent Coach of the Year work for Indiana) got a crash course in arguably the day’s most stunning move. Bird, the Pacers’ president, agreed to a deal sending veteran forward Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers for wing Evan Turner, big LaVoy Allen and, according to various reports, a future second-round pick.

One of the East’s two big dogs, one of the four A-list contenders (as of Thursday morning) to win the championship this spring – and it wasn’t enough for Larry Joe Bird, cutthroat competitor. Despite Granger’s elder statesman status in their locker room, despite what seemed over 2013-14′s first half to be a pat hand, Bird felt the Pacers needed more. And just as with the addition a few weeks back of Cavs center — and potential slacker and even cancer – Andrew Bynum, in the name of winning and matchups, Bird didn’t blink – he fixed something that others didn’t realize was broke.

Broke, at least in terms of chasing down a Larry O’Brien trophy, anyway.

The sentiment of welcoming Granger back into the fold this season, after his knee injury a year ago and a calf issue in the fall? The payoff that he surely felt, again being part of the year-by-year march toward a title (even if his new bench role didn’t fit perfectly after those years of solid service as Indiana’s leading scorer)?  Set aside. Weighed and rejected.

Less than two months from now, the Pacers will hit the postseason ready to accept nothing less than a trip to the Finals. Approximately three months from now, most everyone expects to see them locked in a death match with the Miami Heat, the two-time defending champs through whom the challengers must go.

“I didn’t think Granger would last that long, especially after Paul George became who he was,” said LeBron James before his mathcup with Kevin Durant and the Thunder. “It wasn’t surprising at all. I think they got a very good player. Obviously Granger is a really good player. He hasn’t found his niche after coming back after the injury, but I think Evan Turner is a really good player for them.”

This move was about money, sure, as almost all NBA transactions are these days. But it also was about facing the Heat, with a younger, livelier wing (Turner) and an extra big (Allen) for Indiana’s showdown with James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest.

Granger is a superior 3-point shooter, in particular, with greater range and a quicker more efficient game overall, but he wasn’t thriving off the bench (35.9 FG%). His numbers per-36 minutes were 13.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.8 assists, compared to Turner’s 17.9, 6.1 and 3.8. Defensively, Granger brings more bulk and willingness.

The 6-foot-7 Turner, a fourth-year draft mate of Indiana All-Star Paul George, has been logging heavy minutes for the Sixers, getting 15.4 shots per game and playing at a 13.3 PER level, compared to Granger’s 10.4. Turner can be a restricted free agent this summer – though not the Pacers’ top priority, with Lance Stephenson also hitting the market – and might not welcome a dip in playing time and scoring chances while trying to boost his price tag.

But the league knows what Turner can and can’t do for a team headed nowhere; he can open some eyes and maybe wallets by helping the Pacers, from both ends of the court, get where they want to go.

That’s what this season is all about for Indiana, that’s what Bird – the guy who often said he hates to lose more than he likes to win – is all about, too.

Hang Time One-On-one … With Lance Stephenson

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – Lance Stephenson didn’t hear his name called when the Eastern Conference All-Star reserves were announced. It was yet another humbling moment for a player who has experienced his fair share during the early stages of his NBA career.

Stephenson, the Indiana Pacers’ blossoming star guard, leads the NBA in triple-doubles and has expanded his game over the past three years. He’s far from a finished product and at 23 is one of the league’s more interesting young talents, a player with plenty of promise but also one who must continue smoothing out the rough edges.

The Brooklyn native, who has been famous at Rucker Park (where he’s known as “Born Ready”) for over a decade, joins us in the latest installment of our Hang Time One-On-One series to talk about his where his game is now, the influence of Larry Bird, the Pacers’ rivals from South Beach and more:


VIDEO: Lance Stephenson’s evolution in his own words, and much more, in this HT One-On-One

Hang Time Podcast (Episode 146) Featuring Pacers Guard Lance Stephenson

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Now that we have that pesky Super Bowl behind us (especially you Peyton Manning) we can move on to the more important business of 2014, and that’s analyzing the NBA landscape after the first half of the season.

Some of our preseason predictions don’t look nearly as good now as they did in theory … months ago. Some of the teams we assumed would dominate the conversation are doing it for all of the wrong reasons, while the pleasant surprises have been plenty. No individual has surprised us more than enigmatic Pacers swingman Lance Stephenson.

We take all that in and serve it up on Episode 146 of the Hang Time Podcast featuring Indiana Pacers’ swingman Lance Stephenson, whose omission from the Eastern Conference All-Star reserves list remains a sore spot with us here at the headquarters.

The Golden State Warriors have been added to the “List” and we delve into what’s gone wrong with Steph Curry and crew since they returned from that spectacular road trip last month. We tried our best to make some sense of what the Los Angeles lakers are trying to do with Pau Gasol and discuss a host of other hot topics from around the league.

Check out our new segment, In Focus, featuring some of the best TV and radio calls from around the league, and the latest installment of Braggin’ Rights (still on top), as well.

Check it out on Episode 146 of the Hang Time Podcast featuring Lance Stephenson.

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.


VIDEO: Pacers swingman Lance Stepheons gives up his body for the job

Pacers Go From Hunter To Hunted




VIDEO: The Pacers overcome a long-standing issue of winning in Atlanta

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The first 41 games of any NBA season serve as simply the warm up, an appetizer if you will, for a team with legitimate championship aspirations. A seasoned crew like the Indiana Pacers know as much and prepare accordingly.

A tone is set, goals are started and the heavy lifting begins.

For the Indiana Pacers, switching the flip from those first 41 games to the next 41 and beyond requires another tweak to the system. Busting out of the gate in the first half of the regular season and setting a wicked pace shifts them over from the hunter’s side of the bracket to the hunted side.

They can continue to play with that collective chip on their shoulders and envision Eastern Conference finals scenarios against the Miami Heat all they want. But they also have to be prepared for a new reality: nearly every foe they face is taking that same approach against the Pacers themselves, who own both the East’s best record and the league’s best winning percentage.

Fatigue, mental or physical, is no longer an option.

A night off? Forget about it.

Now that the bar has been raised and set, the Pacers have to chase their own heightened expectations in addition to all of the other goals they’ve already set forth.

“We still haven’t played out best basketball and obviously we don’t want to play our best basketball right now,” Pacers forward and team leader David West said after Indana beat the Hawks Tuesday night at Philips Arena.

“We’re a motivated group and we’re able to adjust to whatever. Obviously, after All-Star break the games become that much more important. I think from our standpoint, we have enough guys and enough weapons in this room to handle whatever comes our way. Our bench is getting stronger. And we feel like whatever teams throw at us, we can handle it. But we have to be able to take some pressure off of [Pacers All-Star] Paul [George] and make sure he doesn’t feel like he has to do it all by himself.”

Aside from Lance Stephenson, who is having a true breakout season of his own and forcing coaches and opposing players to reconsider how they deal with him, no other Pacer but George has had to deal with more changing coverages and wrinkles being thrown at him.

The All-Star starter has blossomed into a legitimate MVP candidate. He’s also one of the league’s most difficult defensive matchups because of his ability to play basically all over the court on both ends. He’s seeing defensive schemes designed to stop him that he hasn’t in previous seasons as a result.

“That’s the best indication of what the postseason will be like,” George said. “We’re going to get teams that know everything we want to do and they’re going to be physical with us. I think it’s just great preparation.”

Dealing with the bumps and bruises, that daily grind, is a part of the process for coach Frank Vogel‘s team. It’s what Vogel has been preparing them for the past few seasons, the physical and emotional toll of being an elite bunch day after exhausting day of the season.

“That’s just a part of our DNA,” George said. “There’s no pill we take. It’s just how we approach the game and how we approach the process. We do everything from a toughness standpoint.”

The fabric of the Pacers’ locker room — and their collective chemistry — will no doubt be tested as they add Andrew Bynum to their mix. The former All-Star big man comes with a hefty amount of baggage, not that his new teammates seem at all worried.

When asked how long it would take for Bynum to realize he is no longer in Philadelphia, Cleveland or even Los Angeles, where he was allowed to do basically as he pleased, George didn’t hesitate.

“I think the second he walks into our locker room he’ll realize that,” George said. “This team is as close as it gets. I don’t know how it is in other places and with the other groups [of players] he’s been with. The biggest thing is he’s probably just used to winning. He came into this league at 18 or whatever and to a team that was always a dominant team. And I’m not downplaying any other program he’s been with, but I think it’ll be a great atmosphere for him because we’re a winning program and we’re so close.”

That’s another thing that is sure to be tested for the Pacers now that they are on the other side of that dividing line. There’s no telling what sort of adversity that they’ll have to face the rest of the way. They need only look at the road traveled three years ago by the Heat team they’re trying to dethrone.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and the rest of Miami’s crew began their time together with unreasonable expectations. They were certainly humbled a time or two along the way to their back-to-back titles. It takes a certain toughness to weather the tough times and keep your DNA, as George put it, intact.

“I think our group has matured over the last couple of years to the point where we are good with setting goals for ourselves and handling that,” West said. “We want to obtain the No. 1 seed in the East, there’s no secret there, and we’re approaching every single game like it’s the most important game of our season. Because that could be the one game of the season that costs us what we want. So we’re going to remain focused, keep pushing one another, keep pushing on the defensive end and if we do that, we feel like we can win as many games as remain on the schedule.”


VIDEO: David West dominates as the Pacers take down the Hawks

Morning Shootaround – Feb. 2


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Feb. 1

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Deng surprised by the mess in Cleveland | Bird discusses the Bynum signing | Stephenson frustrated about All-Star snub | Wall tries new shoes

No. 1: Deng surprised by the mess in Cleveland – Luol Deng said all the right things about his new team when he was traded in early January. He wanted to be a veteran leader for the young Cavaliers and everything seemed hunky-dory. Now less than a month later, the problems within the Cleveland locker room have become apparent to Deng, as reported by Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News:

It’s been a true culture shock for Luol Deng since he’s been a Cleveland Cavalier over the past 26 days. Not in a good way, either.

Deng has seen how a team mired in losing since LeBron James left town wrongly caters to its young star players, even as they continue to undermine head coach Mike Brown at almost every turn. In Chicago, where Deng broke in and played nine-plus seasons, there is a winning culture where players are expected to act like professionals and understand that they will suffer the consequences if they step out of line.

As Deng recently told one close friend, “the stuff going on in practice would never be tolerated by the coaching staff or the front office back in Chicago. It’s a mess.”

But since then, he’s seen players get thrown out of practice, take off their uniform tops at halftime and threaten not to play, mouth off to Brown and generally act like spoiled brats. Entering Saturday’s game at Houston, the Cavs had lost seven of their last 11 games since the Deng trade.

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No. 2: Bird discusses the Bynum signing– The Indiana Pacers recent signing of Andrew Bynum was a surprise to many people around the league. Bynum bolsters an already strong frontcourt for the Pacers and even though he was recently released by the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Pacers believe he will be a key player in helping them win an NBA Championship. However, Indiana team president Larry Bird quickly refuted any talk that the Pacers only signed Bynum to keep him away from the Miami Heat, as reported by Mark Montieth at Pacers.com:

“I ain’t worried about next year,” team president Larry Bird said following the Pacers’ game-day shootaround on Saturday. “We’re in the now. We’re going to do everything we can to go as far as we possibly can.”

Bynum flew to Indianapolis from Cleveland on Friday and had dinner with Pacers officials that evening, including Bird and coach Frank Vogel. Asked the primary impression Bynum made at the gathering, Vogel said “overall enthusiasm.”

Bird said he wasn’t concerned with Bynum’s reputation.

“You hear all the negativity,” Bird said. “I never judge a person (based on what others say). I like to find out on my own. He’s big, he can help us and that’s all that matters.

“The way these guys roll around here, they can handle themselves. That never really entered my mind. They’re big boys. If Andrew can come in here and help them, it will be much appreciated.”

Bird scoffed at the notion that the Pacers might be signing Bynum merely to keep him away from Miami or other contending teams.

“We don’t have the money to throw around and let them sit on our bench,” he said. “That’s about the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.”

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No. 3: Stephenson frustrated by All-Star snub – Staying with the Pacers, guard Lance Stephenson isn’t too happy about his recent lack of invitation to the 2014 NBA All-Star game. Stephenson has a case, too. He’s averaging 14.2 points, 7.2 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game to become a significant contributor for the team with the best record in the league. Stephenson planned to take out his anger about the snub on his matchup last night, Joe Johnson. As reported by Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News:

Heading into Saturday night’s game against the Nets – and with an All-Star snub still boiling in his mind – the 23-year-old Pacers guard told the Daily News he’s motivated to unleash his anger on Joe Johnson and the Nets.

“I already had a chip on my shoulder and it made me even worse,” Stephenson said about not making the Eastern Conference reserves. “Now I’m going to kill everybody who is in front of me.”

“Like I said, whoever made it in front of me or whoever is in my position who people think whose in front of me, I’m definitely going to go after them,” Stephenson said. “You’ll definitely see that tonight – me going after (Johnson).”

Despite his anger towards the All-Star snub, Stephenson said he understands that he’s young and there’s a new selection every year. The 23-year-old has a chance to be the best player to come out of Lincoln High in Coney Island, even after all that hype for Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair.

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No. 4: Wall tries new shoes – A lot of NBA players are superstitious. This is no surprise. However, the lengths to which John Wall went last night to create perfect comfort for his feet were a little tedious. No matter the lengths, Wall’s decision worked as he helped the Washington Wizards snap the Oklahoma City Thunder’s ten-game winning streak. From The Associated Press:

The first half ended with a case of stars stumbling. Kevin Durant lost the ball to John Wall, and Wall then missed an open fast-break layup at the horn. It was Durant’s fourth turnover and Wall’s seventh miss in a row.

At halftime, Wall changed his shoes. Maybe that was the difference.

Wall, the newly minted first-time All-Star guard, scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half, and the host Washington Wizards took advantage of a rare subpar night for Durant and snapped the Oklahoma Thunder’s 10-game winning streak Saturday with a 96-81 win.

“I didn’t like how I played on the road trip in my white shoes, so I tried the red ones,” Wall said. “They didn’t work in the first half, so I got rid of them and went back to my old white ones, and they kind of helped me out. I’m kind of superstitious.”

Wall also had 15 assists and 6 steals and went 7 for 11 from the field after halftime, more than making up for the 0-for-7 first half.

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Jeff Van Gundy thinks Tracy McGrady might try to play baseball? … J.R. Smith took time to check out Chris Andersen‘s tattoos … The NBA broke out new Adam Silver basketballs last night … Luis Scola throws the ball off Paul Pierce‘s back to seal a win for the Pacers … John Wall and Damian Lillard reportedly invited to participate in the 2014 Sprite Slam Dunk contest.

ICYMI of the Night: If the report of Lillard being invited to participate in the Sprite Slam Dunk contest is true, then he sure gave the world a justification for the invitation against the Toronto Raptors last night.


VIDEO: Lillard Soars

Morning Shootaround — Feb. 1


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played Jan. 31

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Conley goes down in Grizzlies win | Pacers to sign Bynum | Bulls getting calls about Gibson | Irving taking responsibility?

No. 1: Conley goes down in Grizzlies win — The Memphis Grizzlies have won 10 of their last 11 games and have the league’s best defense since Marc Gasol’s return. But they lost starting point guard Mike Conley to a sprained ankle in Friday’s win in Minnesota. They should be OK without him against the Bucks on Saturday, but they visit Oklahoma City on Monday and have a huge game against eighth-place Dallas on Wednesday. Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal has the story from Minneapolis:

Grizzlies point guard Mike Conley sat in the trainer’s room rather than at a station alongside his teammates in the visitor’s locker room.

He wore a walking boot Friday night after the Grizzlies’ 94-90 victory over the Minnesota Timberwolves in the Target Center. Conley, who also had crutches near his side, hobbled home after the Griz polished off a sweep of their three-game road trip that included wins at Sacramento and Portland.

However, a trek that got Memphis to within a half-game of Dallas for the eighth seed in the Western Conference playoff standings hardly ended on a happy note.

Conley didn’t look or sound as if playing Saturday night against the Milwaukee Bucks in FedExForum would be an option. He might need several games off given the severity of his sprained ankle.

“I turned it pretty good,” Conley said. “It’s tough for me to put weight on it now. (Saturday) is looking real iffy. We still have a lot of games ahead of us. We obviously want to finish out these last several games before the all-star break with some momentum. We’ll see how long this will take.”

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No. 2: Pacers to sign Bynum — It’s been over three weeks since the Chicago Bulls waived Andrew Bynum. And it looks like he finally has a new home. ESPN‘s Brian Windhorst tweeted Friday night that the Indiana Pacers plan on signing Bynum, though a deal is not yet in place. The Indianapolis Star‘s Candace Buckner first reported that Bynum and his agent were in town to talk to the Pacers:

Free agent center Andrew Bynum and his agent are in Indianapolis.

Bynum has been a free agent since being released by the Chicago Bulls on Jan. 7 after a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers. According to earlier reports, the Indiana Pacers were one of several teams to reach out to Bynum.

Bynum’s agent David Lee told The Indianapolis Star that he and Bynum were in town. According to Lee, Bynum and the Pacers have not reached a contractual agreement.

“(Bynum) has not signed as yet,” Lee said on Friday night.

Bynum, the 7-foot mercurial center, played in only 24 games this season, averaging 8.4 points on 41.9 percent shooting for the Cavaliers. Bynum missed all of the 2012-13 season with knee problems and last March underwent surgery on both knees. Besides his health, Bynum’s commitment has also been called into question.

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No. 3: Bulls getting calls about Gibson — The trade deadline is less than three weeks away and chatter is starting to pick up. The Chicago Bulls already made a major move (sending Luol Deng to Cleveland), but would need to make another one if their ultimate goal is to add another star (like Carmelo Anthony) this summer. Shedding Taj Gibson‘s salary (and waiving Carlos Boozer via the amnesty clause in July) would give them the cap space for a max free agent. And other teams would certainly be interested in Gibson’s services. Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times reports that the Bulls have received calls about Gibson and what they do with him will be a clear sign of the direction they’re looking to go:

And while Hinrich and Mike Dunleavy have been churning in the trade rumor mill for more than a month, Taj Gibson’s name is the one that is picking up, and could determine how serious the Bulls are in clearing space for a max contract to land the likes of a Carmelo Anthony or LeBron James.

According to a source, the Lakers, Wizards and Bobcats have each inquired about Gibson, but they were preliminary talks in which the Bulls did not like the return.

If they do move Gibson, however, it will definitely signify how determined the Bulls are to give Derrick Rose a second superstar to play along with.

With Carlos Boozer and his 2014-15 $16.8 million contract likely amnestied this summer, moving Gibson is all but a necessity if the Bulls want to stay under the luxury tax and add a max deal. Gibson will make $8 million next season, $8.5 in the 2015-16 season, and $8.95 in his final year of the deal.

While Anthony told the Sun-Times this week that he hasn’t put any thought into joining the Bulls, there are basketball executives who think differently, as ESPN reported on Thursday.

But to land Anthony or James, it will cost the Bulls Gibson, and is a growing possibility in the next three weeks.

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No. 4: Irving taking responsibility? — There’s been talk this week about Kyrie Irving being unhappy in Cleveland, with coach Mike Brown and with the roster the Cavs have built around the 2011 No. 1 pick. But of course, Irving’s unwillingness to play defense and lack of leadership are two of the reasons the Cavs are 16-30 right now. So it was good to hear him seemingly accept some responsibility for his team’s struggles on Friday, as Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal writes:

Kyrie Irving conceded this season has been more difficult than he imagined, he’s upset so much attention has been placed on his contract and he admitted he doesn’t always have all the answers to what is plaguing the Cavaliers this season.

“I needed this. It was more or less a wake-up call,” Irving told the Beacon Journal following practice Friday. “I got away with so much my first two years. It wasn’t a breeze, but everything came easy. This is the first year where every single night it’s going to be a challenge. That’s one of the things I’m getting used to and I’ve accepted.”

Irving came under fire throughout the week, particularly after a Beacon Journal story last Sunday questioning the progress he’s made this season, followed by an ESPN report Thursday that Irving wants out of Cleveland.

“Everybody has all these rumors and stories they’re coming out with and it’s all based on me,” Irving said. “It’s not really about me. It’s about the team and what we’re going through as a team together. Obviously, some things will be put on me and I take responsibility for that, but all that extra stuff that comes with it. … It’s the business. I understand that. But that’s one of the things I wish I could change. It’s definitely not about me, it’s about my teammates and what we can accomplish.”

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SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Nate Robinson had ACL surgery on Friday, which means that the Nuggets need to figure out what they’re doing with Andre MillerKyle Korver has declined the NBA’s invitation to the Foot Locker Three-Point Contest … Wesley Matthews would go, thoughRajon Rondo likes the idea of being a free agentKemba Walker suffered a setback in his return from a sprained ankle … and Lance Stephenson says he’s “mad” about not being selected as an All-Star.

ICYMI of The Night: Terrence Ross looks ready to defend his dunk title:


VIDEO: Play of the Day: Terrence Ross takes flight and posterizes Kenneth Faried.