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The enduring value of the Pacers’ undeserved playoff berth

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As third parties have banded about all kinds of system-related ideas in light of the lockout, I’ve seen the 2010-2011 Indiana Pacers, who finished the regular season with a 37-45 record, categorically used as evidence in support of an altered playoff system. As much as I understand the sentiment that teams so far under .500 shouldn’t be able to compete in the postseason, I feel as though that notion ignores a tremendously important fact: despite their regular season record, the Pacers actually played quite well in their first round series against the Chicago Bulls.

That series only lasted five games, but the first four were decided by a total of 20 points; each and every one of those initial four contests went down to the wire, with the Pacers falling because of their inability to manufacture points against Chicago’s late-game defense. The games were competitive and intriguing, to a degree that makes me legitimately curious if the current playoff system’s harshest critics were able to tune in to see one of the league’s most understated young teams do battle with a finished product. It’s something we often forget when discussing the NBA’s up-and-comers; Indiana may not be able to match the terrific potential of a team like the Oklahoma City Thunder, but the Pacers have nonetheless amassed a group of quality players that just so happen to be climbing toward their basketball primes.

Danny Granger, in an interview with Zach Lowe for SI.com’s The Point Forward blog, talked about the Pacers’ youth, and the team’s late-game performance in those tightly contested games — games that weren’t supposed to be so competitive, and games that, according to the aforementioned dissenting group, shouldn’t have involved the Pacers in the first place:

SI.com: You guys pushed the Bulls in the first round. Four of the five games were really close. But one theme that kept popping up was the trouble you guys had scoring down the stretch. What happened?

Granger: I think that was our immaturity. I agree with what you say happened. We didn’t execute or run our plays the way we wanted. A lot of it had to do with the Bulls having the best defense in the league. But we have to be able to produce plays in crunch time.

SI.com: The team ran a lot of pick-and-rolls down the stretch of those games — you screening for Darren Collison, you taking a screen from Roy Hibbert and other combinations. But the numbers say you guys were one of the least efficient pick-and-roll teams in the league. How can you get better?

Granger: It’s just a matter of working it in. To be an effective pick-and-roll team, you have to have good decision-makers. I’m not saying that we didn’t have them, but I think we were just inexperienced in that scenario. We switched coaches during the middle of the season, and we switched our whole offense to implement more pick-and-rolls. Frank Vogel did a good job getting us on the same page, but you have to remember: In that series, we started Paul George, who was a rookie. Tyler Hansbrough was basically a rookie, since he was hurt his first year. Darren Collison was in his second year. Roy Hibbert is young.

Considering how closely Indiana kept pace with one of the league’s top teams, do the ends justify the playoff structuring means in this instance? Not solely; there’s no question that the Houston Rockets (43-39), Phoenix Suns (40-42), and even Utah Jazz (39-43) were screwed over by playing in the deeper Western Conference. The fact that the series was entertaining and competitive doesn’t really do much for the players on any of those three squads, who all were cut off after 82 games despite posting better records than Indiana.

But consider those quotes from Granger. That Bulls-Pacers first round series wasn’t exactly an all-timer, but it was pretty special nonetheless. The team that shouldn’t have qualified for the postseason played as valiantly as one could possibly hope, and though decision-making issues really did end up being their downfall, we were still able to witness a fun, young roster legitimately compete against an elite club. Maybe that result doesn’t justify the process in itself, but it should at least factor into our retrospective analysis of it.

Essentially, there were two lessons to be learned from that hotly contested series. First, that Indiana wasn’t just the team that lost 45 games and yet still managed to secure a playoff spot. They’re also the team that tested the top-seeded Chicago Bulls much sooner than expected, and — along with the Memphis Grizzlies — represent the potential of No. 8 seeds, even in this allegedly broken system, to cause some mayhem. The conference playoff structure may not be perfect, but in this case it created a commendable product undeserving of criticism or ire. Second, that the only way to frame the Pacers’ struggles is in the context of their youth. Indiana may have been unable to execute down the stretch against Chicago, but the series still showcased a dynamic Pacers roster with plenty of talent and lots of potential for further growth.

Coach Steve Clifford: Poor defense has led to Hornets’ losing streak

CHARLOTTE, NC - JANUARY 04:  Teammates Michael Kidd-Gilchrist #14 and Marvin Williams #2 of the Charlotte Hornets react at the bench as head coach Steve Clifford reacts during their game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Spectrum Center on January 4, 2017 in Charlotte, North Carolina.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Hornets coach Steve Clifford points to one factor when explaining his team’s five-game losing streak – a lack of defense.

Charlotte went 0-5 on its recent road trip, surrendering an uncharacteristic 109.6 points per game during that span. The Hornets return home Wednesday night to face the Portland Trail Blazers, part of a stretch of five-game home stand which Clifford hopes will help turn things around.

But Charlotte’s fourth-year coach said nothing will get better until the Hornets start playing better man-to-man defense.

“It starts with our ability to guard our guy,” Clifford said. “When you get blown by a lot on the perimeter where you are constantly in need of help, then you are going to give up 3s – and that’s what is happening.”

The Hornets raced to a 14-9 start this season and were third-best in the league in points allowed through 23 games.

Since then, things have steadily fallen apart, culminating with Charlotte giving up at least 100 points in eight straight games. The Hornets have since dropped to 12th overall in points allowed.

The Hornets have fallen to 20-21 on the season and are on the outside looking in at the Eastern Conference playoff picture. It hasn’t helped that Nic Batum and Cody Zeller have been in and out of the lineup with injury problems, but Charlotte’s struggles on the road – where it has lost 11 of its last 13 – is concerning.

Zeller said the Hornets spent Wednesday morning watching cutups of defensive miscues over the last five road games.

“All four years I have been here it starts with defense,” Zeller said. “That is what coach Clifford preaches.”

The 7-foot center said it is mostly simple things that can be corrected.

“There are sets that we know are coming – and we just aren’t defending them right,” Zelller said. “We are making too many mistakes.”

Added guard Marco Belinelli: “We need to speak a lot more on the court and help each other.”

Getting the defensive mistakes fix won’t be easy.

After Portland, the Hornets host Toronto, Brooklyn, Washington and Golden State. All five teams rank in the top 14 in the league in scoring offense, with the Warriors being No. 1 overall and Raptors No. 3.

A year ago, Hornets general manager Rich Cho pulled off a quality late-season trade, landing “three and D” guard Courtney Lee. He proved to be the driving force on the team’s playoff run and played well in the postseason.

The problem was Lee did so well it made it impossible for the Hornets to re-sign him. Charlotte re-signed Batum and Marvin Williams, and let Lee walk in free agency. He signed a four-year, $50 million deal with the New York Knicks.

The Hornets figured with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist returning this year from a shoulder injury they would be fine defensively, but the struggles are mounting.

Clifford wouldn’t discuss whether the team needs to make a similar trade before the NBA deadline.

As for the offense, Clifford likes what he sees.

Kemba Walker, a first-time All-Star candidate, is in the midst of the most productive season of his career, averaging 23 points per game while shooting 41.3 percent from 3-point range.

“I mean he’s having a great year,” Clifford said. “He’s worked really hard and it’s paying off for him.”

Chris Paul to have surgery on torn ligament in left thumb, out 6-8 weeks

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When the Clippers last were without Chris Paul (then due to a hamstring injury), they dropped six games in a row. Granted, that was without Blake Griffin, too, but this team struggles on offense without the Point God running the show.

He’s not going to be running the show again for them until March.

Paul will miss 6-8 weeks due to a torn ligament in his left thumb that will require surgery, the team announced Tuesday. He is set to have surgery on Wednesday.

Raymond Felton and Austin Rivers will get a lot more run with CP3 sidelined.

The injury happened in the second quarter of Monday night’s game against the Thunder. Paul was trying to get over the top of a Joffrey Lauvergne screen when he ran into Russell Westbrook, who had pulled up to take a three. Paul’s hand was on Westbrook’s hip and got caught in his shorts and Westbrook elevated for the shot.

It looked serious as Paul walked off the court — he kicked a chair and was cursing, a sign that he knew something was very wrong. He went straight to the locker room, where X-rays were taken that found nothing broken. It was an MRI on Tuesday that found the damage.

The Clippers are the four seed in the West but are likely about to lose ground, being without Paul until March and with Griffin still sidelined from knee surgery (but should be back in the next few weeks, according to his timetable). Starting Saturday The Clippers have 10-of-11 games on the road — and the one home game is the Warriors. That’s a brutal stretch of games under the best of circumstances, and now the clouds over this team got much darker.

PBT Podcast: Debating NBA midseason awards with Dan Feldman

TORONTO, ON - FEBRUARY 14: Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Western Conference and James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets and the Western Conference warm up before the NBA All-Star Game 2016 at the Air Canada Centre on February 14, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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Russell Westbrook or James Harden for MVP?

Is Mike D’Antoni the runaway Coach of the Year?

Can anyone catch Giannis Antetokounmpo for Most Improved Player?

The PBT staff gave their picks for midseason awards already. Now Kurt Helin and Dan Feldman of NBC Sports debate all of that, plus Sixth Man, Defensive Player of Year, and even takeaways​ from the Warriors win over the Cavaliers Monday.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, or listen and subscribe via iTunes (check there to see all the NBC Sports podcasts), subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out our new PBT podcast homepage and archive at Audioboom.com.

LeBron James reminds heckling Warriors fans he has three rings (VINE)

SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 13:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers stands on the court during their game against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center on January 13, 2017 in Sacramento, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Monday night was not exactly the best game of the season for the Cleveland Cavaliers. They looked like a team on the final night of a six-game, 12-day road trip and they were mailing it in. Then they ran into a rested Warriors team looking to gain a little confidence. The result was a Red Wedding-level blood bath.

LeBron James was none too bothered. He was downplaying the rivalry and the importance of the game before it tipped-off, and after the game he rightly said this was not going to have any impact in June.

And when Warriors fans heckled him, he reminded them of the hardware — he’s got rings. Three of them. The last one at the expense of the Warriors.

https://platform.vine.co/static/scripts/embed.js

I’m going to miss Vine when it goes away.

Hat tip Matt Moore Eye on Basketball.