Posts Tagged ‘Larry Bird’

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

 

Morning Shootaround — April 7


VIDEO: The Daily Zap for games played April 7

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Frank Vogel under fire in Indy? | Durant passes MJ … Suns pop Thunder | Warriors Jackson knows winning cures all | Battier still intent on proving his worth after all these years | Trail Blazers bolster Olshey’s bid for Executive of the Year

No. 1: Pacers coach Vogel under fire as slide continues – The Indiana Pacers’ 20-18 record over the past three months has thrown not only their season into a tailspin but also raised questions about their future under head coach Frank Vogel, at least in the eyes of some. Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star raises some startling questions about Vogel’s future with the franchise after yet another disastrous performance, a drubbing at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks Sunday night on their home floor. Benching Roy Hibbert for all but nine minutes, and Hibbert’s bristling during and afterwards, certainly adds more fuel to the drama that has become the Pacers’ season … one that doesn’t appear to be headed for a positive finish:

We know the Indiana Pacers are in trouble, big trouble, BIG trouble, but the question must be asked: Is Frank Vogel in trouble?

That might sound absurd given the job he’s done since he took over as an interim coach. The feeling here is, he’s this team’s long-term coach and should be allowed to correct the many things that have gone wrong with his team the last two months.

But know this: Vogel is not Larry Bird‘s guy.

Bird was hesitant to fire Jim O’Brien in the first place, and even after Vogel turned the team around and got them to play competitively in the playoffs against the Chicago Bulls, it took a couple of months before Bird was willing to give Vogel the full-time job. If you remember, Bird wanted Vogel to hire a big-time, experienced assistant, specifically Brian Shaw, before giving him the job.

Remember, too, that in mid-March, Bird took a swipe at Vogel during a four-game losing streak, opining that Vogel wasn’t hard enough on his team at times. Vogel said the comments didn’t bother him; I’m not convinced that’s the truth.

Would Bird come down from the front office and take over for the post-season?

Would he put it in the hands of Nate McMillan, the former Seattle head coach who is a Vogel assistant?

Bird didn’t put this team together to watch it go into the tank. From the moment the season began, he said, “We’re all in” while saying anything short of the NBA Finals would be a disappointment.

It was interesting, then, that in the midst of the Pacers’ humiliating 107-88 home loss to the Atlanta Hawks – winners of eight of their previous 29 games, by the way – Vogel channeled his inner Bird. With the Pacers trailing 17-3 and 6:05 remaining in a brutal first quarter, Vogel benched the entire starting five.

Hallelujah.

“They’re not getting it done,” Vogel said. “They’re not getting it done, we have to go to someone else, see if someone else can get it done.”

Vogel then did another un-Vogel-like thing to start the second half: He benched Roy Hibbert. Hallelujah, again. Hibbert was terrible, going 0-for-5 without a single rebound in 9 ½ minutes.

After the game, Vogel spun it by saying that he was thinking about resting Hibbert before the start of Sunday night’s game. Then, after watching Hibbert struggle – and watching somebody named Pero Antic light him up from the perimeter – Vogel pulled the plug.

Key word there being spun.

“I considered resting Roy before tonight’s game because he looks worn down,” Vogel said during a short, terse post-game press conference. “He’s a 7-2 player that’s played every game this year, which is very rare. He looks to me to be worn down. He’s giving good effort, but he looks to be to be worn down…I decided to play him, but when he got off to a slow start, I decided to rest him.”

Rest him? Now he’s just trying to spare Hibbert’s feelings. There’s no way Vogel would have rested Hibbert in a game that Pacers absolutely had to win in order to remain in the hunt for the No. 1 seed. No … way.


VIDEO: Paul George and the Pacers try to explain yet another humbling defeat

***

No. 2: Durant passes Jordan with 41st game of 25 or more but Thunder can’t stop Suns — What was supposed to be a night to celebrate Kevin Durant and his scoring streak — he passed Michael Jordan with his 41st consecutive game with 25 or more points — turned out to be yet another stellar performance from Goran Dragic, Gerald Green, P.J. Tucker and the stubborn Phoenix Suns team that refuses to exit the playoff chase in the Western Conference. The Suns win also highlighted a glaring deficiency the Thunder have been struggling to shore up with the playoffs just days away. Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman explains:

At a time when the Thunder is supposed to be fine-tuning for the playoffs, Oklahoma City still can’t seem to figure out how to be sharp defensively. Opposing guards are still slicing through the lane and opposing shooters are still left alone far too frequently.

Suns forward P.J. Tucker became the latest bit player to burn the Thunder, scoring 11 of his career-high 22 points in the fourth quarter. He made seven of nine shots, including four of five 3-point attempts. All four of Tucker’s 3s came from the corner, where Kevin Durant continuously got caught sagging off too far and closing out too slow.

The Suns sprayed in 11 of 23 3-pointers.

“We gave up too many open 3s in the corner,” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said. “That’s a 40 percent shot, so we don’t want to come off on the corner. They roll hard. They penetrate so they get you in a position where you have to make sure you are stopping the ball first. And we didn’t get out to their shooters. But those are all correctable things, things that we’ve done well all year. We just had some bad moments tonight.”

Gerald Green, who erupted for a career-high 41 points in the Thunder’s last trip to the desert, finished with 24 points. He poured in 11 in the third quarter, nine of them coming on 3s.

When it wasn’t Tucker or Green taking it to the Thunder, it was Goran Dragic, the crafty point guard who gave Phoenix three 20-point scorers. He added a team-high 26 points, with 19 of them coming in a first half in which the Suns scored 62 points on 58.7 percent shooting.

Dragic was complemented in the backcourt by Eric Bledsoe, who missed the last meeting while recovering from injury. Bledsoe scored 18 points on 6-for-13 shooting.

“They give you trouble because they’re small, they attack, they get to the free throw line, they can make 3s and they’re desperate right now,” Brooks said. “They’re fighting for their playoff lives.”


VIDEO: Thunder star Kevin Durant surpasses Michael Jordan with his 41st straight game of 25 or more points

***

No. 3: Warriors Jackson knows he has to “just win baby” — Golden State Warriors coach Mark Jackson knows what he’s dealing with, and it’s a simple scenario. Win and all of the drama fades. It’s like the old Oakland Raiders saying goes, “just win baby.” (It certainly helps to have Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, the Splash Brothers, working overtime for you.) And for Jackson’s self-preservation on the job, the Warriors need to keep piling up the wins (now and into the postseason) to secure Jackson’s situation. At least that’s the way Jackson sees it. More from Tim Kawakami of the Mercury News:

“My job will be determined on winning,” Jackson said before an easy victory over Utah. “I’m fine with that …

“The talk about what these two (ex-assistants) have done, that has nothing to do with me.”

Actually, the dispatching last month of Brian Scalabrine after a philosophical dispute with Jackson followed by the mysterious firing last week of Darren Erman for a team violation has something to do with the head coach.

Jackson is responsible for everybody in that locker room, and if there are problems and failures, he is at some point accountable.

He also has been rightfully credited for re-establishing a sense of unity and defensive purpose on this team and for getting the Warriors into the second round of the playoffs last season.

But there has been grumbling about the team’s occasional lack of urgency and Jackson’s offensive system, which often bogs down in isolation sets with little movement.

Some of that grumbling has come from people in the Warriors front office, by the way.

At times, Jackson has reacted to the chatter indirectly by declaring that this franchise has a history of losing, is winning now and should act like it knows the difference.

On Sunday, when I asked how he’d describe his relationship with co-owner Joe Lacob, Jackson said there are no problems between them.

“You know it’s interesting, I’m reading ‘the dysfunction’ or whatever the term is for my relationship with this front office,” Jackson said. “That’s brand-new to me. And I’d be the first tell you if it wasn’t.”

Jackson then added that he and Lacob talked to each other for 15 minutes on the recent road trip.

Lacob told me in February that he was generally happy with Jackson’s performance but that he was disappointed by some of the home losses.

I also believe that Lacob would view a first-round loss as a sign that the team isn’t moving forward, which is death in the venture-capitalist universe.

“That’s not my call,” Jackson said when I asked him if a first-round loss this season should be considered a step backward.


VIDEO: Steph Curry and Klay Thompson run wild on the Jazz

***

No. 4: Battier proves his worth against Knicks – The Miami Heat’s win over the New York Knicks Sunday wasn’t a death-blow to the playoff hopes of Carmelo Anthony and his crew, but it was close to it. And as much as the Knicks can blame LeBron James (38 points), who outshined J.R. Smith on a night when the Knicks’ enigmatic shooting guard drained a franchise-record 10 shots from beyond the 3-point line,  they need to focus their attention on Shane Battier. The veteran forward’s defensive presence was a game changer for the Heat. Even after all of these years in the league, Battier remains intent on proving his worth to his teammates and coaches by playing the game the right way on both ends. David J. Neal of the Miami Herald explains:

The most eye-catching statistics from the Heat’s 102-91 win were from Smith, who attempted an NBA-record 22 three-pointers and made a franchise record 10 to finish with a team-high 32 points. The single-game record was previously held by Damon Stoudemire, who hoisted 21 three-pointers on April 15, 2005.

However, those numbers eventually meant little for the Knicks, whose playoff hopes were seriously damaged by the loss.

The Knicks trail the Atlanta Hawks by three games in the loss column with only four game left in the regular season for the Knicks.

Although Smith started the game sizzling, he went 0 for 5 from the field in the third quarter and 0 for 4 from three-point range. In that quarter, the Heat outscored the Knicks by that final 11-point margin, 25-14.

On the other hand, the Heat went ahead of Indiana by a game for first place in the Eastern Conference behind James, who finished with a game-high 38 points. Bosh added 14 and Allen 12 for the Heat.

Haslem recorded 11 rebounds, including three offensive boards, which tied him with Alonzo Mourning for the most in Heat franchise history with 1,505. Allen’s four three-pointers answered those by Smith. And Battier battled New York scorer Carmelo Anthony into 4 of 17 from the field and 13 points.

“He’s going to have big moments for us in the playoffs,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of Battier, one of his favorite players. “Does that mean it’s necessarily a consistent night-in, night-out rotation role, I don’t know. I can’t even attempt to answer that right now.”

The witty, erudite Battier — who played one second Friday against Minnesota and 5:31 last Wednesday against Milwaukee — said he laughed to himself when Spoelstra told him James would start the game defending Anthony then hand the sometimes unstoppable New York scorer over to Battier.

As they normally do, Battier and Anthony, who was playing with a sore shoulder, dished out hip checks and torso thumps to each other at a rate that, Battier said afterward, would have had both fouled out in five minutes if the referees called the game by the book.

“A game like [Sunday], I’m trying to prove myself to myself, and prove myself to my teammates,” Battier said. “That’s what keeps us all going. We’ve all been in that spot here unless you’re name is ‘James,’ ‘Wade,’ or ‘Bosh.’ But [that’s] the reason guys fight to stay in shape is this locker room. We owe it to each other.”


VIDEO: J.R. Smith went crazy from deep, but LeBron James and the Heat got the win

***

No. 5: Olshey’s case for Executive of the Year gains momentum – His name hasn’t been mentioned among the favorites. He’s avoided the publicity many of his peers have enjoyed this season, perhaps on purpose, choosing to retool the Portland Trail Blazers’ guts and gears without any of the fanfare normally associated with a rebuilding project of this kind. But Neil Olshey belongs in that conversation for Executive of the Year, writes Jason Quick of the Oregonian:

The Trail Blazers received a well-earned ovation Sunday after clinching a playoff spot with a 100-94 victory over New Orleans, the team’s 50th win this season with four more games left to play.

But nowhere to be seen, nowhere to be found, was the man who perhaps deserves the biggest ovation: general manager Neil Olshey.

They should start bubble wrapping the Executive of the Year trophy and addressing the box to One Center Court, because nobody in the NBA did more with less last summer than Olshey.

Robin Lopez. Mo Williams. Dorell Wright. Thomas Robinson.

It’s not Buck Williams for Sam Bowie, which still stands as the greatest offseason move in franchise history, but the haul in the Summer of 2013 will long be remembered as one of the most influential offseasons around these parts.

The beauty of it all is, few if any, saw it while it was happening.

The Blazers had a modest $11.8 million in cap room last summer and badly needed a defensive minded center, a backup point guard and some scoring pop off the bench. Getting a center figured to cost the Blazers most, if not all of their cap space.

Instead, Olshey got creative, and found a team that wanted to make a financially motivated deal: New Orleans. He worked a deal to get Lopez in exchange for Jeff Withey, who was the Blazers’ second round pick, a future second round pick and cash considerations. New Orleans, in turn, saved paying Lopez’ $5.9 million salary this season.

Lopez, of course, has been awesome. Each time I watch him play, I appreciate him more. He rebounds, blocks shots, sets good screens, has a reliable jumper, and he’s durable, having played in all 78 games. He is averaging 10.9 points, 8.5 rebounds and has 137 blocks, the most by a Blazers player since Theo Ratliff had 158 in 2004-2005. And the guys in the locker room love him.

Olshey should win the Executive of the Year award on the Lopez acquisition itself.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Suns point guard Goran Dragic is a music video star … Clippers super sub Jamal Crawford might not see any action until the playoffs … The Spurs need Cory Joseph to step into the void for Tony Parker … The Hawks’ fast start helps boost their playoff cushion over the Knicks … Mavericks veteran Vince Carter bounces back in style … Oh, by the way, benched Pacers center Roy Hibbert‘s got “nothing for ya!”

ICYMI of the Night: Surely, you didn’t miss J.R. Smith’s 3-point barrage against the Heat Sunday …. but just in case you didn’t see all of his record 22 attempts, you need to see his makes … 


VIDEO: J.R. Smith goes off from deep in the Knicks’ loss to the Miami Heat

 

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.

Jump ball!!!: the Phil Jackson debate

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: What does it take to make the transition from great coach to great GM and does Phil Jackson have it?

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The debate will rage on for years, long after the results are in and a legitimate case can be made one way or the other about the job Phil Jackson will do as the boss of the New York Knicks.

The initial surge from the hire has subsided, just a bit, and as the Knicks’ last-gasp effort to unseat the Atlanta Hawks for the eighth and final playoff slot in the Eastern Conference plays out, it’s a good time to restart this conversation.

Plenty of experts have weighed in, most of them no more qualified to dish on the prospect of Front Office Phil than they claim Jackson is for a job in the front office after making his championship bones (11 times as a coach and twice as a player) on the other side of the line.

My colleague and Hang Time California bureau chief Scott Howard Cooper, born and raised in Los Angeles and as knowledgeable about the Lakers and their lore as anyone in the business, lit the flame this time, questioning Phil’s credentials (it’s blasphemy, and will get you banned from Original Tommy’s Hamburgers for life all over the Southland SHC!).

I had to come to the defense of the Zen master, anyone who has been the common thread in as many championship situations as he has shouldn’t really need defending … but I had to go there in Jump Ball!!!  …

From: Scott Howard-Cooper
Sent: Friday, March 28, 2014 3:00 PM
To: Smith, Sekou
Subject: JUMP BALL !!!

I get why Knicks fans and players are excited: because they need any reason to be excited. But all the organization did by hiring Phil Jackson was win the press conference. James Dolan did something popular for a change and brought in a superstar. But Phil is a coaching superstar, not a front-office success. He has a lot to prove to earn this attention in the new job.

On Mar 28, 2014, at 1:48 PM, Smith, Sekou

You get Knicks fans, huh? They’ll boo you at the Garden for even suggesting something like that. The Phil factor is much like the Bill Parcells factor was in the NFL, his mere presence alone signals bigger things to come for whatever franchise he is working with. Seriously, ask folks in Dallas and New England. The Knicks need someone who can be held accountable for the big picture vision of the franchise. It doesn’t take a genius to come up with a plan … but if you can get one, why not?

From: Scott Howard-Cooper
Sent: Friday, March 28, 2014 5:43 PM
To: Smith, Sekou
Subject: Re: JUMP BALL !!!

Would you like a straw or will you drink the Kool-Aid straight from the jug? His mere presence doesn’t signal anything other than the Knicks willing to spend a lot of money. “Bigger things to come” is a slogan, not based in fact. Phil is a brilliant basketball mind. I think, if anything, he is underrated as a coach. I am a fan. But they did not hire coach Phil Jackson. They put someone in charge of basketball operations who has not worked in a front office. And if it’s such a thin line from one job to the other, let’s see how people react when New York names R.C. Buford or Sam Presti or Masai Ujiri head coach. There will obviously be others handling the day-to-day work while Phil handles the big picture and deals in final rulings. But the Knicks are a tangled mess, from salary cap to the roster itself, and he has to get a lot of things right before the Knicks can say they’re at bigger things.

On Mar 28, 2014, at 2:56 PM, Smith, Sekou

Actually, I prefer one of those fancy Camelbak adult sippy cup/water bottles when drinking my Kool-Aid, Scott. You know how I do it. Seriously, though, you are selling Phil short and the job of a general manager in this league way long. I won’t run down the list of knuckle-draggers who have been general managers in this league the past 40 years or so, but there haven’t been a ton of Hall of Famers to speak of in that regard. And to suggest that anyone’s success in the NBA isn’t rooted in equal parts blind luck and superior personnel is a farce. You can’t mention R.C. Buford or Sam Presti without also mentioning Tim Duncan and Kevin Durant, the cornerstone/Hall of Fame(caliber in Durant’s case) talents that their organizations are built around. I’m not saying those guys aren’t good at what they do. I’m just saying their jobs are much more manageable because of the personnel in place. Presti was no one’s genius before Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden came into their own. And he’d be the first one to shoot down that label. Phil deserves some time and the benefit of anyone’s doubt right now based on his Lord of the Rings status alone.


VIDEO: WRick Fox discusses the nuances of Phil Jackson’s system and how it will work in New York

From: Scott Howard-Cooper
Sent: Friday, March 28, 2014 6:10 PM
To: Smith, Sekou
Subject: Re: JUMP BALL !!!

Then let’s do it this way: What has Phil done to win you over? Are you basing his success as a GM on what he did as a coach? (And, again, I’m the last guy who sells him short. I’m the one who said he was underrated as a coach. He is an all-timer. But that’s a different job.)

On Mar 28, 2014, at 4:37 PM, Smith, Sekou

Seriously! We’re haggling over Phil’s credentials to do a job that has been bequeathed to the children of owners, former agents, guys who have graduated from the video room and folks whose credentials pale in comparison to what the Zen master has accomplished in his storied career. Coach or GM, it doesn’t make much difference to me when we’re talking about management style. Phil’s style has produced unmatched success everywhere he’s been. So he didn’t take the GM training course. Folks have to get over that and let’s see what he can do.

From: Scott Howard-Cooper
Sent: Saturday, March 29, 2014 1:08 AM
To: Smith, Sekou
Subject: Re: JUMP BALL !!!

So your argument that Phil Jackson is a good hire is centered on “There have been plenty of bad hires before”? And we’re not haggling. We’re having a discussion in the loftiest of all debate societies: the sports media.

On Mar 29, 2014, at 12:06 AM, Smith, Sekou <Sekou.Smith@turner.com> wrote:

Don’t put words in my mouth … er, on my email, or whatever. What I’m saying is this, for you or anyone else to doubt Phil Jackson’s ability to do this job is shortsighted. You clearly have not embraced the Zen! I’m simply a believer in the power of experience. And no one interested in running a franchise has more championship experience than PJax!

From: Scott Howard-Cooper
Sent: Saturday, March 29, 2014 4:19 PM
To: Smith, Sekou
Subject: Re: JUMP BALL !!!

Experience is great. And Larry Bird successfully made the transition to head of basketball operations without previously working in a front office, so it can be done. But Larry Legend had two advantages. He was very familiar with the personnel after coaching the Pacers. And, Indiana was a good team. Bird had to make adjustments to a stable situation. Jackson doesn’t need to make adjustments. He needs to marshal an overhaul. The Knicks are a mess of salaries and personnel. He will be relying heavily on others for scouting and for cap management. I don’t think I’m being shortsighted. I’m being practical. Phil was a winner like few others, but that was Zen and this is now. He has to prove he can deliver in a new job. Don’t swoon over a GM because of his coaching record.

From: Smith, Sekou
Sent: Sunday, March 29, 2014 6:51 PM
To: Scott Howard-Cooper
Subject: RE: JUMP BALL !!!

You’re making this about all of these other guys and not about Phil. Does he have to prove himself as a GM? Sure. Just as all of those other guys did. But you’re acting like all of the work he’s done in the game hasn’t prepared him for this next step and I think that’s ridiculous. I’m not saying Phil is perfect and can wave his magic Zen wand and fix all of the problems facing the Knicks. But whatever issues arise, they won’t be foreign to Phil. He’s worked in championship situations and has the benefit of that vast experience to use in his new role with the Knicks. Don’t knock a guy as a GM before we give him some time to dig in on the job.

From: Scott Howard-Cooper

Date: March 29, 2014 at 11:35:28 PM EDT
To: Sekou SMITH
Subject: Re: JUMP BALL !!!

I hope he does well. I just think it’s fair to be skeptical. If he proves it, if he delivers big results, great. But let’s let him prove it.

From: Smith, Sekou
Sent: Sunday, March 30, 2014 7:38 AM
To: Scott Howard-Cooper
Subject: RE: JUMP BALL !!!

I knew I’d get you to come around to my side. And I agree, it’s fair to be skeptical. Just as it’s fair to assume, based on his lengthy history, to give Phil the benefit of the doubt we might not give someone else who doesn’t own more championship rings than fingers!


VIDEO: Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas talks Phil, the Knicks and the fit

Did Pacers suffer from a post-Granger trade hangover?

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: GameTime’s crew breaks down the Pacers’ small forward depth chart

DALLAS — Did the Indiana Pacers suffer from a psychological hangover after trading Danny Granger? It’s not a question that Granger exactly dismissed without some consideration Thursday night.

“It may have,” Granger said after his new team, the Los Angeles Clippers’, rallied to beat the Dallas Mavericks last night. Granger left the game in the fourth quarter with Granger left in the fourth quarter with a strained hamstring.

“You mess up the … it’s not messing, you change the chemistry of the team. It can have different effects that are unforeseen. I think that may have had something to do with it. The fact they added two new players, it’s hard to come in in the middle of the season with a new team regardless of how good you are, that’s very difficult to do.”

Since the Pacers traded 6-foot-9 Granger, a shining light for the franchise through some dark years, beloved by his teammates, the Indy fans and team president Larry Bird all the same, a cold wind had been blowing leading into Wednesday’s critical win over the Miami Heat.

An 11th hour deadline deal on Feb. 20 sent Granger to Philadelphia for Evan Turner, and suddenly a significant piece of the Pacers’ fabric was ripped away. In these weeks since the trade, it’s almost as if the clocks has been striking midnight on a Pacers season with so much invested.

A team that didn’t lose it’s seventh game of the season until Jan. 8, is just 11-7 since dealing the former All-Star. They’ve ranked 26 in offensive efficiency and sixth in defensive efficiency, allowing 100.3 points per 100 possessions, up from 93.9, No. 1 in the league, prior to the trade.

Granger also noted improving teams in the East making life a bit more difficult. Three of those seven losses came against scrappy Charlotte, New York (which was on a seven-game win streak)and the always-difficult Chicago Bulls. Four losses came against teams in the more rugged Western Conference.

“We took advantage of the fact that the East was awful in the first half of the season,” Granger said of the Pacers’ 17-2 start. “We were just blowing through everybody. But those teams got it going. Brooklyn started playing better, New York, Toronto started playing better, so the East is a little more competitive toward the end of the season.

“They’ve been struggling a little bit, but I think they’ll be fine.”

Granger also believes he’ll be fine after leaving Thursday’s game with a strained left hamstring.

“We did tests and it was strong and everything, just had pain in it,” Granger said, which convinced him it was better not to try to return to the game. “I was walking around on it. I feel optimistic about it. It is [frustrating], but it is what it is.”

Granger’s season with Indiana and Los Angeles as been up and down. The Sixers made the deal in order to dump Turner’s contract and had no intention of holding onto Granger. He was waived and after waivers, signed with the Clippers on Feb. 28. He quickly moved his wife and 20-month-old twins, Jaxson and Jade, from Indy to L.A.

His statistics are nearly identical in backup roles with both teams. In 12 games with the Clippers, he’s averaging 8.0 ppg and 2.3 rpg in just 16.2 mpg, about six fewer minutes than he was getting in Indiana. He’s shooting 42.9 percent overall and 35.3 percent from 3-point range. He’s scored just 11 points in his last three games after scoring in double figures in six of the previous eight.

“He’s been up and down, honestly,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “He’s had some really good games and he’s struggled in a couple as well. I just think he’s getting used to playing every night, he’s trying to get used to our defensive system and the way we play. But overall he’s been good. He’s been a great teammate, that’s the first thing you really want, a guy that just wants to fit in and he’s done all those things, so it’s good.”

The Pacers know all about Granger as a good teammate. But he wasn’t brought him to L.A. to do that and fill its needs on the wing. J.J. Redick has been injured much of the season and his return is uncertain as he mends from a bulging disc in his lower back. Jared Dudley lost his starting job, and largely a rotation spot, with the always emotional Matt Barnes handling the starting duties.

Now the Clippers can only wait on Granger, 30, to get back on the floor after this latest injury issue with his hamstring. He doesn’t think it will be long and says he’s confident he can deliver when it counts, in the playoffs.

“I’m always confident,” Granger said. “I still know what I can do and what I can give as long as I have the opportunity to show it. I definitely feel comfortable.”

Blogtable: Tweaking Indiana

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: Indy’s roster tweaks | Style police | Most dynamic duo



VIDEO: Paul George on rival Miami, and Indiana’s own offensive struggles

> Indiana does not look good. Are Larry Bird’s roster tweaks (Evan Turner, Andrew Bynum) ever going to help? What next?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: Yes, it is getting late for the Pacers. Bynum was a calculated risk who might not pan out after all – maybe he can sign with and not play for all 30 teams before he’s done. Turner needs only to be better than more-rusty-than-recovered Danny Granger, and that still might happen in time to make a difference. Indiana’s stagnant offense has slowed Turner’s impact (not the other way around), but ultimately this team rises or falls on its starting five

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Turner has been underwhelming and Bynum barely on the court.  It was always questionable how much Turner would help them because, in order to get the most out of his offense in Philly, he needed the ball in his hands a great deal of the time.  He’s just not an instant-offense type player.  If Bynum is nothing more than an occasional contributor, the thin offensive production has not been improved.  The Pacers are going to have to do it all with their defense and that’s probably too much to ask.

Evan Turner (Ron Hoskins/NBAE)

Evan Turner (Ron Hoskins/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: Help? Looks like those moves have demoralized his team, not that I heard anyone, including myself, suggest such a thing might happen at the time of either big move. Andrew Bynum’s done, so forget that. Shipping off Danny Granger seems to have done a psychological number on this young team who looked up to the former All-Star. It really was a great feel-good story with Granger coming back, albeit in a reduced role, and, yes, he didn’t exactly sprint out of the gate, but … now he’s helping the streaking Clippers, who really needed a boost on the wing.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: Evan Turner will help a little, which is all anyone should have ever expected. How good did people think he was when the 76ers couldn’t give him away? Turner for Danny Granger was a good trade for the Pacers because it gave them someone with a better chance to contribute here and there than Granger. If Turner wins a playoff game for Indy with a bench spark, that’s a reasonable return. Take that approach and multiply it times a thousand for Bynum. He may never help, which, again, should have been expected all along. What next if neither help? There is no next. Just the roster that will defend their guts out and can beat anyone four times in seven games without Turner and Bynum.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: I doubt that Bynum’s going to help. Even if he does get healthy, Frank Vogel might trust Ian Mahinmi more in the postseason. Turner has never been an efficient scorer, so even when he has a good game, he’s not going to give them a huge lift. But there doesn’t necessarily need to be a “what’s next.” 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.

Sekou Smith, NBA.comI didn’t think the roster tweaks were necessary. When you are already running ahead of the pack in the conference, roster tweaks are a luxury. Larry Bird was praised by most for being proactive, as he should have been. Turner and Bynum aren’t the Pacers’ problem. It’s their core guys — Paul George and Roy Hibbert specifically — who are not playing at the consistently sky-high level they were earlier this season. What’s next is the Pacers’ core group relocating that defensive focus and offensive flow that led them to the top of the Eastern Conference standings … a spot they might not hold on to much longer.

Lang Whitaker, NBA.com All Ball blog: Put it this way: I don’t really thing Bird’s roster tweaks are going to *hurt,* at least long-term. I just think we’re seeing what happens when you make changes on the fly — you have to learn on the fly. This goes against how the Pacers have built their team, taking their time and growing nearly organically. They lost a guy averaging about 9 points a game, sure, but that shouldn’t take a team from being a contender to a pretender. Hopefully they have enough time to figure it all out before the playoffs roll around.

Philipp Dornhegge, NBA Deutschland: Actually, I’m not as concerned about the Pacers as many other people. Indy seems to coast a little, which affects their offense. Paul George has been off lately, Roy Hibbert recently appeared to criticize Lance Stephenson (without mentioning his name) for ball-hogging. All of that indicates that Indy is bored, at least to me. It’s true that Bynum and Turner haven’t helped yet, but the moves also haven’t hurt the team as Bynum came for free and Granger hadn’t given Indiana much. I’m hopeful that both of them will be valuable come playoff time. The only thing that worries me is that the Pacers might lose home-court advantage to the Miami Heat.

Akshay Manwani, NBA India: Is this even about Bird’s roster tweaks anymore? I mean, in any case, the rotation during the playoffs is much shorter than the regular season, with the starters seeing a lot more playing time. If the Pacers have to do better, Paul George’s 30-for-95, David West’s 26-for-72 and Roy Hibbert’s 20-for-48 field-goal shooting efforts in Indiana’s last six games have to improve. If not, Indiana will cede home-court advantage to Miami and could possibly exit the playoffs even before the Conference finals.

Pacers’ funk in win column, offense hits at worst time possible

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


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

CHICAGO – The Indiana Pacers know who they’re playing Wednesday night. They know who they’re chasing and fighting, too, in these dwindling days of the NBA regular season and prelude to what matters most.

One team is the Miami Heat. The other is the one staring back at them from the mirror.

The former, they don’t much like. The latter, they barely know. Who are those guys?

“We’ve just been dead, it seems like, on the court lately,” Paul George said after the Pacers’ 89-77 loss to the Chicago Bulls Monday. “That’s not us. That’s not us. We used to be a team that played with a lot of energy and just had fun out there, and I think we kind of lost that along the way.”

The Pacers, once the sweethearts of the Eastern Conference, aren’t even the darlings of their own dressing room anymore. They’re 5-7 since March 4, flailing about offensively and mired in a funk that center Roy Hibbert admitted late in the evening at United Center has become a “big-time concern.”

“I think so,” the Indiana big man said after an 0-for-5, foul-plagued performance. “It’s getting to that point.”

Never mind the getting part, the Pacers are there. They’ll be facing their nemeses from Miami Wednesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse (8 p.m. ET, ESPN) at the worst possible moment. It doesn’t even matter that the two-time defending champs are off their own rails with a 5-7 mark over their last 12 games, too. The Heat, in claiming rings the past two postseasons, earned the right to dither around a little with this regular season, setting themselves up however they chose or, at this point, can for a third title run.

The Pacers, by contrast, set themselves up as a wire-to-wire team — they grabbed the conference standings by the throat with a 16-1 start, while identifying the East’s No. 1 playoff seed as their Grail. They’re still on track, but only barely; Indiana’s lead is down to two games (one in the loss column), with two games remaining (Wednesday and April 11) against their rivals.

The Pacers are fortunate they haven’t already been passed, which would make this funk worse. The Heat? They probably have to take this chase-down seriously, even if they hadn’t wanted to.

Pinning down the start of the Pacers’ problems is tricky. The last 12 games are the ones in which they’ve been under water. They were 9-3 in the stretch that preceded it, still a step down from their early pace, with signs of offensive discombobulation creeping in. Troubles showed up in a late January road trip, in which the Pacers went 2-2 with blowout losses to the Suns and Nuggets.

The what is more apparent than the when: George talked some about “hero ball,” the temptation for players — as the cliché goes, one offered by a reporter anyway — to try to do too much when things go awry.

Typically, that makes them merely go more awry. No, in the Pacers’ case, the what is their offense

“All the rah-rah [junk] we always talked about before, I wish we would do that,” Hibbert said. “I don’t know, we do it one in probably six games sometimes. It just seems like some days we’re not hitting shots. Some days we’re not sharing the ball. And it affects our defense when we can’t score. … Whatever we’re doing offensively just isn’t working on a consistent basis.”

For Hibbert, the wheels started to come off before the All-Star break. Dating back to his past 25 games, the Pacers All-Star center is averaging 8.9 points and 5.8 rebounds while shooting 44.6 percent. But several of his teammates have struggled lately, too. Over the past 10 games, for instance, George is misfiring at a 39 percent rate. Lance Stephenson, who has four triple-doubles in 2013-14, has averaged 2.7 assists his last 10 games. George Hill is shooting 40.0 percent since March 5.

So while there might be some big-picture issues in play, the immediate concern is Indiana’s struggles to put up points and coach Frank Vogel‘s challenge to make that happen.

“I mean, I think we’ve had a difficulty handling the success,” Hibbert said. “We’ve just got to learn — I’ve been taught, we’ve been saying this for a while — to be able to play for each other like we used to. And set people up for easy shots. Everything we take is, very tough contested shots.

“I just look at other teams we play and they just swing, swing, swing the ball until somebody gets an open shot or a wide-open layup. Sometimes you think, how can we get those type of shots where we don’t have to heave something up at the end of the shot clock? That type of stuff, people can’t get into a rhythm. It’s just a lot of 1-on-1 basketball.”

The offensive frustrations and losing, though, haven’t leaked into team character or chemistry.

“No, I mean, we’re great off the court. Family atmosphere,” Hibbert said. “On the court, it just seems like we’re just not clicking. And we should be clicking now toward the end of the season.”

Also, someone had to ask: Did the Pacers get too clever or too ambitious by half in changing up their roster — bringing in Evan Turner, Lavoy Allen and Andrew Bynum, trading away Danny Granger and shedding Orlando Johnson — so deep into what had been a rewarding season?

“I’m not gonna…,” Hibbert said, sounding as if he was editing himself. “I mean, Larry [Bird, Pacers president] is the man in charge. He made the decision that he felt this is the best group to go out there and compete on the floor. So we have to go out there and figure it out.”

After their big-exhale victory over Chicago Friday in Indianapolis, the Pacers knew the schedule was not their friend. They lost in Memphis Saturday before facing the Bulls’ defensive shredder Monday. Neither would be foes recommended to a sputtering offense.

And now it’s Miami, which is like a visit from the in-laws the same evening you just squabbled over the credit card bill. The game Wednesday might not mean all that much, but it’s unlikely to offer a fix. And it could fester into something worse.

“If we don’t figure this thing out and, if we do get to the point this summer and face those guys again… we have to figure this out now,” Hibbert said. “Because they’re such a good team, they’re going to sniff that out. The way we’ve been playing, it’s just, that point where we got to last year isn’t guaranteed.”


VIDEO: NBA TV’s crew talks about the Pacers’ recent struggles on offense

Mental game opens new vistas to Durant

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Kevin Durant had 35 points and 12 rebounds against the Bulls on Monday night (3/17)

CHICAGO – Kevin Durant had just done it again. The Oklahoma City thin man had just taken on one of his profession’s most stifling defenses, five (pick ‘em) of the Chicago Bulls’ most physical and resistant players and 22,000 partisans happy to enjoy Durant’s talents but determined to see him lose by night’s end, and he had beaten them all. Again.

Durant had spent a chunk of the pregame period with his legs encased in long black sleeves, hooked up to a contraption meant to promote circulation and healing. After all, he not only leads the NBA in scoring (31.8 points a game) but in minutes played (2,534) and arguably in workload shouldered.

Yet, 24 hours after a miserable 23-point home loss to Dallas, Durant dialed it up again and fended off the Bulls at United Center. He subbed back in mere seconds before Chicago drew within 76-75 with 10 minutes left and sparked OKC on a 13-0 run over the next six minutes that buttoned up the outcome. Durant finished with 35 points, 12 rebounds and five assists, and stretched to 32 games his streak of scoring 25 points or more. That’s the longest such streak since Michael Jordan did it for the Bulls in his breakout 1986-87 season.

Durant has averaged 34.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.2 assists during the streak, while shooting 51.7 percent (39.2 percent on 3-pointers). The Thunder are 21-11 since it began, with a dip (6-6) coming since teammate Russell Westbrook returned from right knee surgery and triggered a readjustment.

“Russ goes down, Russ isn’t playing, Russ comes back in – you know, the constant is him,” said veteran forward Caron Butler, whose appreciation of Durant has only grown since joining the Thunder March 1. “He remained the same. To keep guys going, keep everybody on point.”

Durant, 25, has been performing at an MVP level all season, displaying all the skills and attributes with which NBA fans have grown familiar: Silky smooth shooting, remarkable vision thanks to his 6-foot-10 height, impeccable timing and touch to his passes and occasional explosions to the basket that can surprise everyone in the gym.

But he has added a consistency, owing to an ever-sharpening mental approach, that has taken it all to new heights.

Kevin Durant (Richard Rowe/NBAE)

Kevin Durant (Richard Rowe/NBAE)

“What impresses me the most is two things: His consistency and his ability not to worry about [a scoring streak],” Thunder coach Scott Brooks said late Monday. “I know when I had a three-game streak of four [points], I was worried about that next game and how I had to make my first shot. He’s not worried about it. He’s worried about playing hard and playing the correct way and finding ways to help his team win. He’s amazing and so consistent, he’s done this from Day 1, from November all the way through March 17.”

Said Durant: “It definitely takes mental toughness, especially on the road.”

You wouldn’t have known about his growing seriousness and depth from the wildly colored boxer briefs and socks with Pete Maravich’s photo on them Durant wore after Monday’s game. But it’s a topic that lately has been on his mind, one might say. While opposing teams cope with the mental pressure of facing an assassin like Durant, accounting for his every movement across 38 minutes or so, Durant more and more plumbs the depths and possibilities in his game that aren’t strictly by-products of his physical gifts.

It was something he talked about in a Wall Street Journal magazine feature (March 2014) in which several celebrities or reputed authorities were asked about their notion of power. Here’s what Durant said:

“Something that’s often overlooked in basketball is mental power. A game is 50 percent mental—mental toughness. Going through ups and downs during a long season, you have to really set your mind to have the power over everybody else—over opponents, fans, bad refs, tough games. You gotta fight through that. When I was young, I was always the skinny kid and got pushed around a lot, and my mental toughness goes back to that.”

And:

“…There will always be someone taller, someone stronger, somebody quicker. Having that willpower and extra fight is what’s going to set you apart. On the court there’s trash talk, you can hear fans trying to disrespect you, but just being quiet, never being too high or too low, is the most powerful place to be in a game.”

All NBA players have mental toughness to one degree or another, said OKC guard Derek Fisher, or they wouldn’t have made it this far. But when Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau talks about that trait in legendary players such as Jordan, Larry Bird, Patrick Ewing and others, it isn’t just hindsight. Mental toughness dripped off those guys like perspiration.

“It’s the reason why we talk about them the most,” Fisher said. “Because there are certain things they do that seem to mentally take themselves to a level other guys can’t. Everybody can’t show up night in and night out, from a mental standpoint and perform at a high level.”

It’s not just Kobe Bryant baring his teeth after a clutch shot in a close game.

“It’s in the daily preparation,” Fisher said. “The willingness to be the first guy at practice and the last one to leave. Taking the time to get extra shots up. Studying the game. Watching film. Taking care of your body. Kobe’s history of playing through injuries, that requires it.

“Kevin is exhibiting mental toughness every night. Not just showing up and, at the end of the game, he has 20 points but you didn’t really know he was there. He’s impacting the game at both ends every night.”

And stealthily getting 35 before folks feel the sting of his presence.

Nick Collison, another Thunder veteran, has been with Durant from the start back in Seattle. He’s an eyewitness to the growth, externally and internally, in the scoring star’s game.

“”When he first came in the league, he was like all guys – you’re just trying to find your way,” the backup forward said. “Now he’s at the point where he’s thinking, how can he help everybody be better? It’s not just in his play, it’s not just in his decision-making. It’s trying to talk to guys and trying to lift the team up. All the phases of the game, he appreciates the importance of that stuff now.”

One Western Conference advance scout Monday said he has noticed a peace in Durant’s game this season, compared to 2012-13′s edginess. “Last year I thought he was trying too hard. He was getting some techs doing things that were out of character, complaining,” the scout said. “Now he’s toned that back some, and he’s a beast. Maybe he felt he needed to get respect from referees or other teams or something. He’s got the respect. Now it’s all coming together.”

Said Collison: “We’re all human. We have things going on in our lives and we all have those stretches. But I think this year, his mind is free. He’s having a good time. And he’s more mature. That’s a big part of it too. He’s been around – he’s 25 now – and we all get a little more perspective as we get older.”

Where does Collison see the gain? In how locked-in Durant is now.

“More possessions being engaged,” he said. “Fewer possessions of spacing out. I think that’s all of us. It’s a long season, 82 games, and to avoid the distractions and always be engaged in the play that’s right in front of you… the more possessions you have like that, the better you are. A sign of that with him is, defensively, he’s taking less plays off. He’s in the right spot.”

Durant, asked about this before the game, admitted he still has work to do.

“That’s half of the game to me, is mental,” he said. “My focus every time I step on the court is, what am I thinking about?

“To be honest, there are some games where I think about what I have to do instead of what the team has to do, and that takes my focus off the big picture sometimes. But just staying conscious of what we need to do as a team and how I can help that is something I tell myself every time I step on the floor.”

And yes, he has sought counsel on this aspect, from some of the very best.

“I’ve talked to Karl Malone – he’s been a big help to me. George Gervin, those guys. Larry Bird, I’ve talked to him before,” Durant said.

“Just trying to see what their thoughts was in shootarounds and practices and games. See how they approached it and what they were thinking about when they were going out there performing. Just picking the brains of the greats can definitely help. I’m looking forward to growing as a leader, as a player mentally. I have a long ways to go, so I always ask questions.”

Which will leave his opponents with questions of their own. Mostly along the lines of, How are they going to stop this guy now?

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

‘Nique Not Impressed With LeBron’s 61




VIDEO: LeBron James talks about his 61-point night

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Complete honesty is a beautiful thing, even when it steps on the toes of the narrative of the day.

Hall of Famer and former Atlanta Hawks great Dominique Wilkins is a straight shooter. So when he went on a Twitter roll Tuesday night and mentioned that he was not impressed with the career-high 61-point night Miami Heat superstar LeBron James put up against the Charlotte Bobcats Monday night the basketball world responded.

Some agreed with ‘Nique, plenty more disagreed with his analysis … sampled here:

Revisionist historians will certainly see some merit in ‘Nique’s tweets and argue that LeBron performs on the regular against a diminished human product than what ‘Nique and his Hall of Fame contemporaries faced.

I would caution the Human Highlight Film, however, from suggesting that we all go back and watch the tape from start to finish. All we see these days are quick two and three-minute highlight clips of their exploits. The dunks, and fantastic shots and legendary plays and moments of their careers.

The full tape might show something else. Not every team played top-flight defense in the past. And you didn’t have to battle Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird every single night.

No one is more wistful about the past than I am. I grew up on the NBA ‘Nique is comparing and contrasting to the league LeBron is currently working in and dominating. So I understand exactly where he’s coming from. I just don’t agree completely with his thoughts.

LeBron and some of his contemporaries are doing things that haven’t been done in decades, since before Nique’s era …