The Inbounds: Indiana and defense of second

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Welcome to the Inbounds, touching on one big idea, story, or discussion point of the day. 

It’s fine to think the Celtics were the second best team in the East in last year’s playoffs (factoring the Bulls post-Rose injury). I mean, they finished second, right? They pushed the eventual NBA champions to seven games, and were up 3-2 with a chance to close at home. They had to be the second best team in the East.

But they weren’t. Not really.

The most infuriating thing about the current NBA playoff structure, even more so than the fact they continue to hold the conferences as an intelligent means of dividing the field, is the lack of re-seeding every round. Surely in this modern, information superseries of tubes world we have going on, we can get around the travel issues inherent in re-seeding the field after every round. Because what happens can have drastic consequences. Like the Celtics making the Eastern Conference Finals. The Celtics landed the Hawks in their bracket, and no problem there. They established a mental advantage on the Hawks in Game 2 and the series was over from that point on.

But when Derrick Rose went down and the Sixers managed to Omer-Asik their way to an escape, the field should have been redistributed. The Sixers should have headed to face Miami, while the Pacers and Celtics battled it out. And a little hidden secret? The Pacers were a much better team, even in the playoffs, than Boston.

Celtics fan! Please! Hold your molotov cocktails and pitchforks. The Celtics’ run last season was incredible precisely because it was against such odds. They had so many things going against the, their chances were so unlikely, that it makes it all the more impressive they nearly ran the gamut.

But the Pacers were the better team. Had Boston and Indiana met in the second round as they should have, we could have settled this question. I don’t have any issue with thinking Boston was the better team. That seems pretty obvious. My source of disagreement comes from what we saw from both teams and the unpredictability of the playoffs. The Pacers were in a better position to knock off Miami than Boston was, despite them going down in six, not seven. It’s about the structural makeup of the team. Indiana’s size advantage was first and foremost. They had a legit center in Roy Hibbert, and they have no discernible weak spot in their starting lineup. They had depth and versatility, and the roster makeup to match up with different lineups.

They lost because LeBron James is the best player on the planet. As did Boston.

But regardless of what you think about last year’s playoffs, when we look to the future, the East behind Miami is even more uncertain. There’s Miami, certainly, and a gap, certainly (Jason Terry does not a gap close make, when considering another year on them old bones). But after that it gets nuts. Remember, New York very much looked like the second best team in the East to start last year. They suffered more injury issues than anyone outside of Chicago, and their defense was playoff-good. Who knows how good the Nets can be if everything falls into place for them? Chicago is a question mark, but that defense will hold them together.

But Boston in the prohibitive favorite to be second in the East. They added Jason Terry, get Jeff Green back, throw in Courtney Lee, retain Chris Wilcox. I’ve written about how good they can be next year.

But age can still take its toll. Age is like Jaws, it doesn’t give you warning, it just takes your legs. And though the supporting cast of the Celtics has gotten younger, what drove that team last year was the play of Kevin Garnett, with Paul Pierce in spurts. Rajon Rondo is the chef, without him, there’s no meal. But the younger players are the appetizers, the garnish, the desert. The meal is still KG and the Truth. And there’s no way of telling when those players will start playing their age. Maybe they never will. Maybe they’ll defy all odds. Garnett certainly takes offense to any assessment that he’s old. But you have to watch it, carefully.

Indiana continues to slip beneath the radar. You can throw out the Darren Collison trade as a reason they’ll fall to the side, but George Hill played well for most of the season, and they added more size in Ian Mahinmi. Again, in an East where Dwight Howard is the only other legitimate center in the playoff picture, the Pacers have the second best center and a quality legit center. They have an armada of versatile forwards. And they get another full season to play together.

Indiana could take a step backwards. Like Philadelphia, it’s possible they simply benefited from the shortened season’s hammering of teams like Boston and throwing the season into chaos. Boston can very well take that step forward. But when you look at Danny Granger’s comments, you recognize their awareness of how close they were. Indiana went at Miami with everything they had. They weren’t intimidated or just happy to be there. They truly believed they could win that series. And they almost pulled it off.

Boston hung with Miami because they’re specifically well-tailored to combat James and the Heat. Indiana hung because they’re really that good of a team.

This all seems irrelevant, though, when you look at Miami and what they bring to the table next year. A full actualized LeBron James, a healthier Dwyane Wade, a resurgent Chris Bosh who understands how he fits, a core with more confidence, and Ray Allen. The gap is not narrow between Miami and the rest of the East. But the rest of the teams are just waiting for one of those seasons when something happens to move Miami off the top block. Then it would be a mad scramble. Most would have confidence in Boston. But to ignore what Indiana brings to the table is dangerous.

Had reseeding occurred last season, we might view Indiana as the kind of powerhouse we view Boston as. But as it stands, they seem ready to fill into a familiar slot, as a great team full of likable players who are lost in the shine of the championship team right above them.

No. 2, though? That’s a fight they’re prepared for.

The most interesting question between the two may be who has the most they can figure out to unlock potential. Indiana was in their first year together with David West and George Hill. Boston of course has the remaining Big 3 which know each other but have a number of new elements. You could say there’s a lot to unlock for this new Celtics team, but there’s still a ton of room for Indiana to unearth in its identity.

Under the context of a normal season with normal rest and normal practice, that may be the deciding factor in who winds up closest to the throne.

Kings’ rookie De’Aaron Fox commits California mortal sin, slams In-N-Out

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We Californians take a few things seriously. Surf reports, for one. Winemaking/tasting. Tech toys. Coming up with potential blockbuster movie franchise ideas, getting a star to buy in, then maybe or maybe not worrying about getting a decent script.

Also, In-N-Out Burger. If there is one thing all Californians can agree on, it’s that In-N-Out is the best burger chain in the world. It’s not up for debate.

Apparently Kings’ rookie De'Aaron Fox did not get that memo. He did a Q&A with Rolling Stone’s Seerat Sohi and crossed a sacred line.

“All I gotta say, you can tell everybody that lives in the state of California this: In-N-Out is not good.”

What’s your beef with In-N-Out Burger?
“Their burgers are overrated. They’re OK.”

Even Animal Style?
“Yes. People always say, you haven’t tried this. You haven’t tried that. I’m like, “Yeah, I looked up the secret menu. I’ve tried it all. It’s just not good.”

That’s controversial. What’s the best fast food spot then?
“Honestly, for me, I don’t count Chick-fil-A, because it’s way too good to be considered fast food. So I’m gonna say Wendy’s. Fat Burger in L.A. is better than In-N-Out.”

It’s this simple: Fox is flat-out wrong.

First off, Chick-fil-A is wildly overrated, so we know the taste of the 19-year-old point guard is off. Fat Burger is legit. But Wendy’s? Come on now, that’s just average.

If Fox had tried to argue Five Guys, I would have let it slide — I don’t think they’re as good, but I will admit a California bias. But Wendy’s? You lose the entire argument right there. It’s like saying Pixels was the best movie ever.

In-N-Out is the best. Fox needs to get on board with this.

Bulls’ Nikola Mirotic hospitalized after practice fight with Bobby Portis

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It was going to be a difficult season in Chicago if everything went right — and two days before the first game of the season things have gone horribly wrong.

Bulls’ starting forward Nikola Mirotic got into a shoving match with Bobby Portis, and Portis turned and sucker-punched him, according to multiple reports.

The Bulls have confirmed the fight and have announced Mirotic suffered a concussion and maxillary fractures in his face — the upper jaw and nasal cavity area — which likely will require surgery. He is going to miss weeks of time.

Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports had more details.

Mirotic was taken to the hospital Tuesday after their shoving altercation during practice ended with an alleged cheap shot from Portis to Mirotic’s face, league sources told The Vertical. Mirotic is undergoing tests, but is expected to be out for the foreseeable future, league sources said.

Mirotic will miss weeks, according to a source, and you can be sure severe discipline from the team is coming down for Portis.

In the short term, this likely means more run for rookie Lauri Markkanen as well as just re-signed Cristiano Felicio.

LeBron James will play in opener against Celtics

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Did we really expect anything else?

LeBron James was a game-time decision for the season opener in Cleveland against Boston and Kyrie Irving due to a sprained ankle. We expected he would go, but ankles can be tricky and are easy to re-injure once sprained, so the Cavs wanted to be careful.

He’s going to play. Coach Tyronn Lue made it official.

LeBron is the best player on the planet, but he can coast through the regular season at times. What teams try to avoid is giving him extra motivation… say bringing in a guy who left the team last summer on opening night. Expect full force LeBron tonight.

LeBron James, do you owe Cleveland anything? “I don’t owe anybody anything”

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It will be the biggest off-court topic of the NBA season: Will LeBron James stay with the Cavaliers after this season?

Right now, LeBron doesn’t know the answer to that question for sure. I’m sure he has ideas, but he wisely leaves all his options open, then can make a call next summer when the time comes.

When that time does come, does he owe his hometown Cleveland anything? LeBron answered that question in the latest issue of GQ, and he answered with an emphatic no.

“LeBron James owes nobody anything. Nobody,” he said. “When my mother told me I don’t owe her anything, from that point in time, I don’t owe anybody anything. But what I will give to the city of Cleveland is passion, commitment, and inspiration. As long as I put that jersey on, that’s what I represent. That’s why I’m there — to inspire that city. But I don’t owe anybody anything.”

That’s not what Cavs fans may want to hear, but it’s also spot on. LeBron has given this franchise everything he has, he has brought them the first title the team has had in 50 years, and nobody sane can question his passion or how hard he plays.

LeBron could well get to his eighth straight NBA Finals, feel he’s on a team that can push the Warriors, then look at his options — the Lakers and a young core that doesn’t defend well, for example — and think maybe he’s best where he’s at. Perhaps he teams up with another star in Los Angeles or somewhere else. If LeBron called up 28 teams and said “I want to come there” those teams would make whatever moves they needed to for the deal to happen. (I say 28 because the Warriors wouldn’t, and even they’d think about it.)

LeBron has the leverage, and he is always a guy who keeps his options open. He will be asked about his future in every road stop, he will dodge the questions, and we’ll try to read the tea leaves, but as of right now LeBron doesn’t know for sure what LeBron will do next summer. Neither do we.