Posts Tagged ‘Larry Bird’

Game 5: Duncan close to one for the thumb

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Tim Duncan talks with Steve Smith about being on the cusp of a fifth title

SAN ANTONIO – The Miami Heat played their two best games of the NBA Finals on the Spurs’ home floor. If not for LeBron James exiting the final minutes of Game 1 with cramps, they might have headed home up 2-0. So much has changed since then. The Spurs embarrassed Miami, not once, but twice, to push the Heat to the brink. Miami’s only hope is to regain their form the last time they were here.

The Basics:

Game 5 tips off Sunday night at 8 p.m. ET on ABC.

Prior to this year’s format change, the Heat would be playing this Game 5 on their home floor, but considering how lousy they played at the American Airlines Arena, they might feel more at home with their backs against the wall on the road.

They have little to fall back on now. Their 13-game streak of winning after losing is history. The last time they lost three in a row came back in the 2011 Finals to the Dallas Mavericks, the team that raised the Larry O’Brien Trophy in the Big Three’s first season together. Could a Spurs victory end that era?

It certainly sounded on Saturday as if a Spurs victory will extend that Big Three’s era at least another season. Tim Duncan, potentially headed for a fifth championship and a Finals MVP at age 38, as well as 36-year-old Manu Ginobili, playing so well this entire postseason, gave no indication on Saturday that they plan to call it a career, in fact just the opposite. Adding to that, coach Gregg Popovich, the NBA’s Coach of the Year, said he has no plan to walk into the sunset just yet. However, there’s still the matter or wrapping up a fourth championship with Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker.

The Narrative:

The best player in the world is getting clobbered by criticism and the best team in the NBA the last two seasons is suddenly being downgraded as a group of individuals that don’t play within a team concept. Both accounts are nonsense. Yes, the Heat was built on the backs of superstar talent, but they have always played as a team. James is one of the most unselfish players in the game, often criticized for passing to an open teammate instead of shooting in the final moments. It can’t go both ways.

The fact is the Heat are being beaten by a playing better than they are, by the best passing, most efficient offense the league has seen likely since the 1980s with Magic Johnson‘s Lakers and Larry Bird‘s Celtics. The true weakness at the moment for Miami is that it’s not getting as many solid performances from up and down the roster as are the Spurs. Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade have struggled in recent games and Miami’s role players aren’t delivering with the juice of Spurs players such as Danny Green, Boris Diaw and Patty Mills. (more…)

Morning shootaround: June 14


VIDEO: Fisher discusses the Knicks’ roster 

NEWS OF THE MORNING

Jordan explains Higgins’ exit | Beasley as Heat’s cavalry? | Jackson, Fisher huddle with ‘Melo | Cavaliers closing in on coach

No. 1: Jordan explains Higgins’ exit — For years, a lot of casual observers of the Charlotte NBA team (once Bobcats, now Hornets) figured Rod Higgins held his job as president of basketball operations largely because he was a longtime pal of owner/legend Michael Jordan. But in addressing the reason behind Higgins’ abrupt deision to resign – Jordan shifted more responsibilities to general manager Rich Cho – the GOAT made it clear why he valued having Higgins around too. Here’s a peek at veteran scribe Rick Bonnell‘s Jordan exclusive in the Charlotte Observer:

“Rod’s strong points are working with the coaches and the trainers, traveling with the team,” Jordan said. “He was my buffer zone with the coaches. I didn’t want to overwhelm them with ideas, so I’d work with Rod on that.”
Jordan said he wants Cho, with a background as an attorney, dealing more with budgets and managing the salary cap.
“One of (Higgins’) strong points is not negotiating, leveraging teams,” Jordan said. “Sometimes when teams would call (proposing trades), they’d bypass Rod to get to Rich.”
Higgins, with the franchise since 2007, teamed with Cho the last three years. Jordan said that arrangement led to some “confusion over who reported to whom. It created a contentious environment where I had to step in.”
That’s when Jordan proposed these shifts in responsibilities, which Higgins considered a demotion. At that point, Jordan said he asked Higgins if they could wait until after the draft to make a change.
“He chose to leave now,” Jordan said.
Higgins, 54, has been a friend and colleague of Jordan’s for roughly 30 years. They played together with the Chicago Bulls in the mid-1980s. Jordan later hired Higgins to help him run the Washington Wizards’ basketball operation. Jordan said that made Friday’s parting extra difficult.
“I had to make a decision about a brother,” Jordan said. “I hope he gets a soft landing and finds (the job) he wants.”

***

No. 2: Beasley as Heat’s cavalry? — Before the 2014 Finals began, the suggestion that Miami might find itself in need of help from erratic forward Michael Beasley would have been seen as an implicit admission that the Heat were headed for trouble against the San Antonio Spurs. Well, they are in trouble, down 3-1 and facing elimination in Game 5 Sunday in San Antonio. And more than a few critics have wondered if Miami coach Erik Spoelstra might look to Beasley as an X factor and counter to Kawhi Leonard‘s offensive impact for the Spurs. Our man Jeff Caplan didn’t necessarily see much of a role for Beasley in the series when they chatted prior to Game 1, but now can offer a look at the maddeningly talented but scatter-careered forward:

Beasley has yet to be active in The Finals and has been inactive in 10 of Miami’s 19 playoff games. He’s played a total of seven minutes in three games. During the regular season, he appeared in a career-low 55 games and averaged career-lows in points (7.9), rebounds (3.1) and minutes (15.1).
Yet, Beasley said: “Honestly, this season has flown by faster than any other I’ve been in. I don’t know why, I don’t know how. I guess time really does fly when you’re having fun.”
The Heat had no fun in Games 3 and 4 in Miami and now head back to San Antonio for Sunday’s Game 5 in the unenviable position of trailing 3-1. After Game 4, Spoelstra was asked if Beasley could be an option in Game 5 to provide some much-needed scoring punch. While his playing time was sporadic, Beasley did record a career-high shooting percentage of 49.9 percent and 38.9 percent from beyond the arc, a better mark than only his rookie season.
Spoelstra didn’t give a direct answer, and in an indication as to how Beasley is still perceived, the questioner was roasted on Twitter by fans and also media covering The Finals for having even broached the subject.
“I shouldn’t say no. I do, but I’m not going to stress over it,” Beasley said when asked if he cares more now how others view him. “People who know me, my family, my kids, my closest friends, they know me. I’m not trying to get everybody to know that I’m a good guy, a great guy or whatever. At this point I’m just focused on playing basketball.”

***

No. 3: Jackson, Fisher huddle with ‘Melo — We can assume that, if numbers came up when basketball boss Phil Jackson, new head coach Derek Fisher and GM Steve Mills of the New York Knicks met with Carmelo Anthony and agent Leon Rose Friday in Los Angeles, the Knicks contingent detailed the pay cuts Anthony would be facing were he to leave New York as a free agent this summer. How big would those cuts be? The difference between a nine-figure deal with N.Y. vs. an eight-figure packages from outside suitors, the latest allegedly the Miami Heat in a refurbished Big 4 vision. Knicks beat writer Al Iannazzone laid out some of the basics for Newsday:

Phil Jackson led a contingent of Knicks officials into a meeting with Carmelo Anthony on Friday in Los Angeles, according to a league source, and presented their plan for turning the team into a contender.
The current blueprint includes Anthony, but he has the ability to opt out of his contract by June 23 and become a free agent. All indications are that Anthony will do that.
Jackson has said he hopes Anthony will “opt in” and wait until 2015 to become a free agent. But a league source said Anthony hasn’t changed his mind after saying all season that he would become a free agent this summer.
If Anthony were to opt in, it would give the Knicks more flexibility next summer, and perhaps in 2016, to sign multiple stars. The 2015 free-agent class could include LeBron James, Rajon Rondo, Kevin Love, LaMarcus Aldridge, Chris Bosh and Marc Gasol. Kevin Durant is the big potential prize in 2016.
Jackson was accompanied by general manager Steve Mills and new coach Derek Fisher during the sit-down with Anthony and his agent, Leon Rose. It was the first time Anthony met with Fisher since he became coach.
The Knicks can pay Anthony more than any other team in free agency. A maximum deal from them would be five years and roughly $129 million. But Jackson also has said that if Anthony re-signs, he hopes he will take less to give the Knicks more room for other moves.

***

No. 4: Cavaliers closing in on coach — Holders of the Draft’s No. 1 pick, dreamers when it comes to LeBron James’ possible return as a free agent, the Cleveland Cavaliers are said to be getting closer to assigning value to at lease one of their multiple variables: their vacant head coaching position. Longtime Cavs beat writer Bob Finnan wrote about the narrowing field of candidates: Alvin Gentry and Tyronn Lue, both assistants on Doc Rivers‘ staff with the Los Angeles Clippers, and former Maccabi Tel Aviv coach David Blatt:

Clippers assistant coaches Alvin Gentry and Tyronn Lue and former Maccabi Tel Aviv coach David Blatt.
Gentry and Lue met with Cavs majority owner Dan Gilbert on June 13. It was their second interview with the Cavs.
Blatt reportedly will meet with the Cavs next week. He previously spoke to Cavs General Manager David Griffin about the position left vacant by the firing of Mike Brown on May 12. Blatt told Israel reporter David Pick that he interviewed for the Cavs’ head-coaching job via the phone.
The 55-year-old Blatt announced during a news conference in Israel on June 12 that he was leaving his position as head coach of Maccabi Tel Aviv. It is believed that he would be joining an NBA team. If he doesn’t get the Cavs’ job, he could join Golden State coach Steve Kerr’s coaching staff as his lead assistant.
However, he’s very much in the mix in Cleveland for the head-coaching position.
Griffin has been doing some background checks on Blatt, and Pick reported that he has spoken to former Cavs’ draft pick Milan Macvan, who played for Blatt in Maccabi. Macvan, a Serbian power forward, was a second-round pick of the Cavs in 2011.
There was a report that Blatt wouldn’t come to the NBA unless he got a head-coaching job. He said on June 12 that wasn’t true.
If those are the three finalists, two of them — the 37-year-old Lue, and Blatt — have never been head coaches in the NBA. The third, 59-year-old Gentry, is considered by some as a coaching retread who has a below-.500 record in 12 years as a head coach. All three coaches are known as offensive-minded, who would take advantage of the Cavs’ personnel.

***

SOME RANDOM HEADLINES: Miami’s Ray Allen has at least one of these three R’s in his future: Return, relocation or retirement? … Celtics assistant Ron Adams might wind up on Steve Kerr‘s staff in Golden State, and Julius Randle refutes the claim that his right foot needs surgery. … Tim Duncan has until June 24 to opt in for next season. He, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Gregg Popovich all have contracts that run through 2014-15, should they choose to give it one more season. … One more inspiring scrap-heap-to-Finals-star Boris Diaw story. … Can Dante Exum vault into the Top 3 and rock the 2014 Draft? … Sid Lowe goes to the Timberwolves for a third (or is it fourth?) go-around, with Sam Mitchell invoking “country club” privileges next. … Larry Bird tries to help disappointed Pacers fans buck up … We’re not clear as to which trio should feel more disrespected by this, the Heat’s Big 3 or the classic comedic geniuses.

Indiana can’t drag Heat to Game 7


VIDEO: Heat dismantle Pacers in decisive Game 6

MIAMI – In a ranking of the saddest, most enduring symbols of unrealized ambition in NBA history, it’s difficult to top the rafters of Los Angeles’ fabulous Forum in the spring of 1969, filled with multi-colored balloons that never were allowed to drop.

The balloons had been loaded up there on orders from Lakers owner Jack Kent Cooke, convinced that his team would win Game 7 of The Finals over the dynasty-in-decline Boston Celtics. Only the proud Celtics noticed, dialed up their focus – Bill Russell said he wanted to watch the show of Forum workers taking them down one by one – and, on the Lakers’ home court, grabbed the championship Cooke had presumed was his.

Forty-five years later, the Forum and its balloons have some company now in Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. Not just the rafters – the whole empty, lonely place, site of a never-to-be-played Game 7 of the 2014 Eastern Conference finals.

The Miami Heat rendered that game unnecessary, lights out, doors locked, by dismantling the Pacers in Game 6 117-92 and ending the best-of-seven series without the trip back to Indy. Miami beat the Pacers in all ways basketball — leading by 37, shooting 58 percent and hanging 117 points on what had been the league’s No. 1 defense, with LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh refusing to lose.

Miami beat them physically and mentally, too, from Shane Battier pushing a forearm across wild child Lance Stephenson‘s throat to put him on the floor to veteran Udonis Haslem threatening Stephenson from the bench in a GIF widely circulated on social media during the drubbing.

Unspoken, though, was how the Heat deprived Indiana of the essence of its entire season.

From the start of training camp – really, from the moment they trudged off the court in south Florida at the end of last year’s ECF, so similar to Friday’s outcome – the Pacers had targeted the East’s No. 1 seed for the home-court advantage it would bestow. Specifically, they wanted to know, if they locked up with the Heat again for the right to advance to The Finals, Game 7 would be at BLFH this time.

It would have been.

Only the Pacers never made it happen.

There were reasons great and small why it didn’t last the max, why Indiana never got a chance to flex a home-court advantage that, let’s be honest, had fizzled anyway (the Pacers went 35-6 at BLFH during the season, then 5-5 in the playoffs). Stephenson’s mouth and antics might not have affected the Pacers – so his teammates claimed – but they sure seemed to put a face on Miami’s quest to reach its fourth consecutive Finals.

There was Roy Hibbert‘s big fade, an 8-point, 4-rebound performance on a night that the Heat made sure wasn’t his. Miami’s use of Bosh and Rashard Lewis in a stretch-5 attack in which everyone is a deep shooting threat pulled thwarted Hibbert’s 7-foot-2 size advantage even more thoroughly than Atlanta had (with lesser players). Defensively the Heat found way to make Hibbert just as uncomfortable and then the big fella’s sensitive side took over, completing the task. The guy who averaged 22.1 points and 11.4 rebounds while shooting 55.7 percent in last year’s ECF against Miami slumped to 10.8, 7.7 and 41.5 percent.

The most important, elephant-in-the-room-sized reason, though, was that Indiana could not crack Miami’s code. It doesn’t have the star power, barely has the manpower and never could rise to the occasions – five players tied together as one – for any sustained success.

As bad as Game 6 was, and it was stenchified, the Pacers admitted afterward that their troubles in the series began in Game 2, which had slipped away late, pilfering the home court right there and squandering their chance to put the Heat in a 2-0 hole.

That was a mistake. Getting reckless with the ball and blowing a big lead in Game 3, another mistake. Game 4? A wire-to-wire mistake. Roll them all together and you get a team that wants to chase championship vs. a team that already owns two and is aiming for three.

“Everything starts and ends with the Miami Heat,” forward David West said. “You have to have a team that can survive and get you through a tough regular season, but ultimately you’ve got to be able to beat Miami to get to The Finals.

“This whole year, we competed to get to this moment. We just weren’t able to come through it. They’re built for these moments. Their pedigree shows in these moments, just how everybody on their team does their job. Particularly in these moments, they do it at a high level. They don’t have any breakdowns.”

Indiana has flaws and challenges. Bidding to retain free agent-to-be Stephenson, and at what price, will be a pressing one, requiring guesses as to how his psyche melds with a multimillion-dollar, guaranteed contract. Rounding up some perimeter shooting seems a must.

Coach Frank Vogel might need to find himself a new “bad cop” on the bench to keep the pressure on a squad that got too easily satisfied along the way. And basketball boss Larry Bird is going to have to get back on the horse after being thrown not once (Andrew Bynum signing) but twice (Evan Turner trade).

Here’s the trickiest part: James isn’t retiring anytime soon. What players such as Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone and others went through being born too close to Michael Jordan‘s birth date, the Pacers are facing with regard to Miami’s best player and the team on which he romps.

“We’re in the LeBron James era,” West said after the game. “We fully understand that.”

West likened James to Shaquille O’Neal, another player whose size and skill set warped normal games. Beating James and the Heat, same as beating the big man, requires better personnel (to counter James’ many styles), a deeper roster (to dole out fouls when needed) and a resolve to pull it together. Oh, and one more thing …

“They’ve got that gear that continues to elude us in the moment,” West said. “We can compete in the year, tough and well enough, to beat them for the top seed. But in these moments, the Game 2 moments, this Game 6 moment, it just eludes us.”

A fair question from Pacers fans and NBA followers would be: For how long? West, Vogel and the others felt their team took a considerable step this season, running down that No. 1 seed, winning 56 games and beating better opponents in the first two rounds than a year ago.

Still, getting bounced by Miami for a third consecutive season has gotten old, and the Pacers will need to make sure their act has not.

Earlier in the series, on an off-day, Donnie Walsh – longtime Indiana exec who serves now as a consultant – talked of the 1997-2000 Pacers, Reggie Miller-led and Larry Bird-coached. After the first edition of Shaq’s and Kobe Bryant‘s Lakers beat them for the title, on the heels of two misses in the East finals, Bird told Walsh that Pacers group had nothing left. Changes were made, not the least of which was Bird hanging up his whiteboard, and by the time Indiana reached the 2004 conference finals, the roster had been remade.

West said he didn’t think this squad is at that point, though he understood why the question might get asked. This league has a history, too, of excellent also-rans that never quite broke through.

“We’re in the midst of that,” West said. “This is the third year that they’ve knocked us out, two straight years in the conference finals. It can’t deter us. It can’t deter us from the work we know is ahead of us.”

That’s for the long term, gearing up again in October with a focus on May.

Short term, there will be a big, empty field house in downtown Indianapolis Sunday evening. It was supposed to be the Pacers’ partner, alive and loud and stomping on the clutch so they actually could find that elusive gear.

Instead, it will be dark, a reminder of what could have been and a variation on Hemingway’s shortest saddest story ever (“For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn”).

The sign will be posted there in spirit. “Home court, Game 7: Never needed.”

Blogtable: Larry Legend’s next move

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 big challenge | Wish he was here | Runaway Thunder


Indy's basketball braintrust: Larry Bird (left) and GM Kevin Pritchard (Kevin C. Cox, NBAE)

Indy’s basketball braintrust: Larry Bird (left) and GM Kevin Pritchard (Kevin C. Cox, NBAE)

> You’re Larry Bird. If the Pacers-Heat series ends up like it looks now — any doubts? — how can you get Indiana past Miami next season?

Steve Aschburner, NBA.com: If I’m Larry Bird, one of the most deft passers in the NBA, I want to throttle several Pacers over the casual, even reckless way they pass the basketball. Whether getting the ball out of traps or delivering entry passes to the post, Indiana often looks amateurish — and has so for years. That’s a change from within (intensive training camp time), most likely, because who swaps out the roster for more accurate passers? But the Pacers need better perimeter shooting, too. And they have to find ways to better utilize Roy Hibbert offensively — if that’s not in the low post, then he has to sharpen up his shot repertoire.

Fran Blinebury, NBA.com: Convince LeBron to go back to opt out and go back to Cleveland. Otherwise, you don’t. Will Bird really keep this team together? Does he overpay for Lance Stephenson? Does he find any way to regain trust in Roy Hibbert? Sometimes the door just closes.

David West, Roy Hibbert (Ron Hoskins/NBAE)

David West, Roy Hibbert (Ron Hoskins/NBAE)

Jeff Caplan, NBA.com: No doubts here that the Heat take the series and likely tonight in Game 5. How does Larry get the Pacers by the Heat next year? Hope LeBron James opts out and leaves, or better yet retires. Beyond what Bird can bring in (maybe one or two more veteran heads would help), he needs his high-dollar core guys — namely $29 million to Paul George and Roy Hibbert next season — to grow up.

Scott Howard-Cooper, NBA.com: I’ve got big trouble. I have huge money invested in a center I needed to be THE difference-maker against a Heat team who was most vulnerable inside, and got a good- to very good regular season from Roy Hibbert … and then the guy went over the handlebars. My chances of getting someone better at the position are basically nonexistent. If I know where the regular-season Hibbert is hiding, getting him back is my offseason priority. That’s the only way I get the Pacers past the Heat next season, under the premise Miami stays together.

John Schuhmann, NBA.com: The Pacers obviously need more offense, off the bench in particular. I would bring Lance Stephenson back and keep that starting unit intact (unless a point guard upgrade is available), but I’d try to use my mid-level exception on playmaking and/or shooting off the bench. Then, I’d encourage coach Frank Vogel to get a little more creative with the offense and to take a more Popovich-ian approach to playing time, so that when the chips are down, the starters are fresher and the reserves are more trusted and empowered.

Sekou Smith, NBA.com: I don’t have any doubts that this series ends with the Heat on top, if that’s what you mean. Making offseason moves to maneuver past the Heat will prove difficult because I’m not sure what moves the Heat will make. I don’t think this team, in its current form, is the one the Pacers and everyone else in the Eastern Conference will have to go through. I could stay the course with my current core and see if the Heat take a step back when and if Chris Bosh bolts for a max deal and his own seat in the No. 1 chair elsewhere. But I’d much rather shop Roy Hibbert and see what I can get for him (I never wanted to pay him what the Trail Blazers forced us into to keep him a couple years ago) and take my chance with Paul George, David West and Lance Stephenson as the core group of three stars to build around. I need to upgrade there and at point guard. And as much as I need star power, I need dependable guys who won’t shrink when the moment overwhelms them, guys who do what Marcin Gortat (a free agent this summer) did against Hibbert in the conference semifinals.

24 — Second thoughts — May 24

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen helped the Heat carve up the Pacers in Game 3

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS – The first man in the building helps the Miami Heat erase an early 15-point deficit and break the spirit of the Indiana Pacers in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.

:1

They call him Jesus … SHUTTLESWORTH! Four, count ‘em 4, fourth quarter daggers from deep for Ray Allen. They were back-breaking buckets for the Heat as they rebounded from that sluggish start to mash the Pacers.

:2

The Big 3? Not so much. The Heat lead this series 2-1 thanks to the work of their bench mob!

(more…)

Small market powers rule NBA final four

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: Fans from five NBA cities, four of them medium or small markets, form a flash mob to support their squads

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — New York … who needs you?

Los Angeles … maybe next time.

Chicago and Houston … not since Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon, respectively.

The NBA playoffs thrive no matter which cities are represented. But with this year’s final four, we’re going to have something of a small-market extravaganza come Finals time.

San Antonio is perhaps the most successful small-market team ever.

With San Antonio up 2-0 on the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers tied at 1 heading into this weekend’s Game 3 matchups, the only thing we know for sure is that the 2014 NBA champion will hail from outside of Nielsen’s Top 10 media markets. (The Heat rank highest of the remaining teams at 16th, while Indianapolis comes in at 26th, San Antonio 36th and Oklahoma City 41st.)

The biggest headlines off the court are being generated by the teams ranking at the top of the Nielsen list. Phil Jackson and the Knicks are still looking for a coach in New York, the No. 1 media market. Kobe Bryant and the Lakers are doing the same in Los Angeles (No. 2). And that’s not to mention the Clippers and the Donald Sterling affair, which has engulfed Dallas (No. 5) Mavericks owner Mark Cuban as well.

On the court, however, the small(er) markets continue to dominate the landscape, to the delight of NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, who touted the game’s “renaissance” in all places, big, small and in between, before Tuesday’s NBA Draft lottery. The three best regular-season records in the league this season belonged to the Spurs (62 wins), Thunder (59) and Pacers (56).

The Heat, winners of 54 games during the regular season, have won the last two Larry O’Brien trophies and are attempting to complete a coveted three-peat. They beat the Spurs in The Finals last season and the Thunder the year before that. The Pacers, who fell to the Heat in seven games in the 2013 East finals, are looking to crash that three-team party this season and plant their own flag in this small-market surge.

If that’s not medium-to-small-market domination, someone needs to tell the rest of us what is. (more…)

24-Second Thoughts — May 18

By Sekou Smith, NBA.com


VIDEO: The Czar explains the Hibbert Effect on the telestrator

HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Look who’s back in the crosshairs.

Guess who’s back in the mix.

That’s right, it’s Big Roy Hibbert.

The Indiana Pacers’ center of attention, in every way imaginable, is front and center today in Game 1 of the long-awaited Eastern Conference finals rematch against the Miami Heat.

I don’t care about the analytics, the history or anything else.

I need to see Hibbert dominate in this series. The Pacers have to demand it if they’re going to make the home-court advantage they worked for all season mean anything.

LeBron James and Dwyane Wade will do what they do. Chris Bosh, too. Paul George, David West and Lance Stephenson will have their say. But these eyes are locked in on Hibbert. I need to know early if he’s going to be the game changer he’s supposed to be in this series.

(And while I hated to see Mark Jackson ousted the way he was at Golden State, I’m not complaining about having him back on the ABC broadcasting team for this series with Jeff Van Gundy and Mike Breen.)

Go Hibbert Pacers or go home …

24 – There’s no denying Hibbert’s presence on the floor against the small-ball Heat. He’s established post position twice on Bosh and been a factor on that end early on. No matter how poorly he’s played in recent weeks, this was the series he was made for.

23 – The Pacers are in all-or-nothing mode early. (more…)

Westbrook’s Game 2 one for the books

By Jeff Caplan, NBA.com


VIDEO: Westbrook steps up in Game 2 as Thunder even series

OKLAHOMA CITY – It took Memphis coach Dave Joerger seven games to finally shake his head and throw up his arms.

“I have no idea why he takes the flack that he takes,” Joerger said. “This man can play.”

This man is Russell Westbrook. Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers needed just two games and a third playoff triple-double from the Oklahoma City Thunder point guard to say the same.

“He gets criticized a lot, but I don’t know why,” Rivers said. “The dude plays hard.”

Still, the dude gets piled on, so much so that Kevin Durant felt compelled to address it in his MVP acceptance speech: “A lot of people put unfair criticism on you as a player…”

Criticism revolves around a Westbrook tendency to go off on volume-shooting binges. The theory goes his poor judgment steals shots from Durant, the more natural scorer who should always finish with more attempts.

Lost in this simplified dissection is that Durant is a four-time scoring champ, and now the MVP in six seasons playing alongside Westbrook. Together they’ve made two Western Conference finals and one NBA Finals. Had Westbrook, 25, not torn the meniscus in his right knee in last year’s postseason, well, who knows?

Westbrook’s full-throttle, yet totally in-control Game 2 performance for a third triple-double in five games thrust him into elite company. Only four other players have produced three or more triple-doubles (but no more than four) in a single postseason going back to 1985: Magic Johnson had four in 1991 and three in each 1986 and 1987; Larry Bird had three in 1986; Rajon Rondo recorded four in 2012 and three in 2009; Jason Kidd had four in 2002; and LeBron James had three last season.

Just a reminder: The Thunder and Clippers are only headed into Game 3 of the second round (Friday, 10:30 p.m. ET, ESPN).

Westbrook’s Game 2 mega-performance of 31 points, 10 rebounds, 10 assists and three steals is a four-category combination so rare in the postseason that only three other players have managed it: Charles Barkley (32 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists, three steals) in 1993; Gary Payton in 2000 (35 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists, six steals); and James in 2013 (32 points, 10 rebounds, 11 assists, three steals).

Going 13-for-22 from the floor (59.1 percent) made Westbrook the first point guard in NBA playoff history to post at least 30 points on 59-percent shooting while also accumulating double-digit rebounds and assists. He’s the first player to do it since Barkley in 1993, and he became only the sixth player since 1985 to accomplish such a stat line, also joining Ralph Sampson (1986), James Worthy (1988), Michael Jordan (1989) and James (2010).

The 6-foot-3, 200-pound Westbrook scored his Game 2 points in a variety of ways — pull-up jumpers, post-ups against his smaller counterparts Chris Paul and especially Darren Collison, full-speed penetrations, plus two 3-pointers on four attempts.

“Just taking what the defense gives me,” Westbrook said afterward.

Hard to criticize that.

Pacers’ Bynum era over, but alleged impact on Hibbert remains

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com

INDIANAPOLIS – The latest Andrew Bynum experiment is over for the Indiana Pacers, its results meager, its costs still being calculated.

Andrew Bynum (Ron Hoskins/NBAE)

Andrew Bynum (Ron Hoskins/NBAE)

Bynum, the 7-foot, 285-pound center signed by the Pacers Feb. 1, officially was cut loose Wednesday morning. Hampered by chronic knee problems, the one-time (2012) L.A. Lakers All-Star, 26, played just twice for Indiana. He had an eight-point, 10-rebound game against Boston on March 11, then scored 15 points with nine rebounds four nights later against Detroit before heading back to the trainers room with soreness and fluid in his right knee.

“We want to thank Andrew and our medical staff for trying to get the issues with his knee resolved,” Pacers president of basketball operations Larry Bird said in a statement. “We wish him the best in the future.”

Acquiring Bynum – at a reported $1 million guaranteed for the balance of 2013-14 – was a gamble by Bird that didn’t pay off. But it might have cost the Pacers more than money. Center Roy Hibbert‘s ongoing tailspin coincides with Bynum’s arrival, so much that some team insiders have wondered if the move rattled Hibbert’s confidence and trust.

Through Jan. 31, Hibbert was posting his customary numbers – 12.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.5 blocks per game – for a team that was 35-10. After Bynum was signed, Hibbert averaged 9.0 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks. He’s been worse in Indiana’s eight playoff games so far: 4.6 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.4 blocks. And the Pacers have gone 25-20.

Bringing Bynum aboard rankled Hibbert, a source told NBA.com, when coach Frank Vogel ran plays to get Bynum involved offensively that he rarely calls for Hibbert.

After a disastrous season in Philadelphia in 2012-13, a disappointing stay in Cleveland earlier this season and a one-night stint with Chicago to fulfill trade obligations in January, his two-appearance stop in Indiana leaves Bynum’s basketball future in doubt. Brief as it was, it might have played a role in doing the same for Hibbert and the Pacers.

Stephenson craves his time in ‘Bird Cave’

By Steve Aschburner, NBA.com


VIDEO: Lance Stephenson talks about the upcoming Game 2 against the Wizards

INDIANAPOLIS – As if things aren’t wacky enough these days around the Indiana Pacers – a 7-foot-2 center disappearing like a David Copperfield trick, closed-door intrigue within a locker room that used to boast about its lack of drama – consider Lance Stephenson‘s “Bird Cave.”

Bird Cave?

That’s the name Stephenson has given to the little notch in the railings at one end of the court at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. It’s down in the corner near the end of the Pacers’ bench, maybe 15 or 20 feet away, right in front of the seats where Larry Bird, Donnie Walsh, Kevin Pritchard and Herb Simon – the team’s brain trust and owner – sit.

It’s a small space enclosed by metal bars on two sides, with four sometimes seeming a better idea when you see Stephenson head over there all agitated and animated.

And so it goes with Stephenson. The mercurial Indiana shooting guard can glare and angrily gesture at coach Frank Vogel when getting yanked from a game, as he did Monday in Game 1 of the Pacers’ series against the Washington Wizards, and then be fine – saying the words of humility at least – afterward.

So, too, can Stephenson vacate his seat on the team’s bench when he has subbed out, head over to his little nook (or is it more cranny?) in full view of nearly everyone in the building and – when it all works right – emerge with less emotion and more focus.

He fidgets. He shifts from foot to foot. He bends over. And he burns off nervous energy, which he has at Tasmanian devil levels.

“I just try to stay loose,” Stephenson said this week. “And I hear what Larry’s got to say sometimes. When I sit down… I don’t want to not be ready when I come in. So I come over here and hear what Larry has to say sometimes.”

Like?

“Like if I’ve had a bad start, he’s like, ‘Man, you gotta pick it up. Let’s go. There’s a lot on the line.’ Or he’s just like, ‘You’re doin’ good. Keep it up.’ … I need it sometimes.”

Vogel, a little more traditional, would rather Stephenson plant himself on the bench and remain in ear shot. But that’s a battle in which the head coach has surrendered, given the limited downside (besides decorum) and the benefit Stephenson gets – or thinks he gets, anyway – from doing it.

“I put him in a few times and he didn’t hear me, so he stayed on the sideline over here,” Vogel said. “I told him, I like him to sit. He said he likes to stand and stay loose. So I said, ‘Well, sit there first. If you feel like you need to get up and stretch or let some energy out, then go ahead.’ “

Stephenson mostly goes ahead.

“I know people think it’s a negative thing that I stand over there, that I’m not engaged with the team. But it’s definitely to stay loose and be ready at all times. Even when [former Pacers big man] Jeff Foster was here, he used to stand over there or be on the bike sometimes.

“Sometimes I’m nervous. Sometimes I’m over-hyped. I just need a breather over here. Sometimes I just need to stay loose and sometimes I need to hear what Larry gotta say.”

Because Stephenson’s little space actually is part of the space fans in that section use to enter and exit the arena bowl, he invariably does a little community relations work while he’s there, intended or not.

Said Stephenson: “They say ‘C’mon, pick it up.’ Or ‘Hey man, nice to meet you! What are you doin’ over here?’ Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. A guy tried to touch me one time. I was like, ‘Hey! Back up!’ “

Even the Bird Cave has its rules. So what if Stephenson’s the only one who knows or understands them.