Roy Hibbert, Tim Duncan

NBA Season Preview: Indiana Pacers

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Last season: The Pacers made moves to become a top-tier team in the East and they worked out. Roy Hibbert and Paul George both took some big steps forward, while David West added the consistent scorer they were looking for and George Hill provided balance with Darren Collison, though the two didn’t work well together.

The playoffs were kind of a proving grounds: Could this team, as constructed, compete? The answer was yes, to a point. The Pacers managed, in part on the back of the injury to Chris Bosh, to go up 2-1 over the Heat. They had them right where they wanted them.

Then LeBron James and Dwyane Wade took over and that was that. But the Pacers learned a lot, and established themselves last year. The question is if they can take that to the next level this year.

Key Departures: The Pacers traded Darren Collison to the Mavericks in a suprise move. Collison had been the better guard offensively than George Hill. But attempts to play the two together drew disappoinging results. With Collison headed for a big extension and Hill locked up at five-years, $40 million, it made sense to move Collison, but there may be a drag on the Pacers’ offense if Hill can’t become more of a playmaker and distributor.

Dahntay Jones was underused in Indiana and was sent off as a tag-along in the Collison trade. The Pacers also elected to let A.J. Price go, a pretty surprising move considering Lance Stephenson’s boneheadedness and Price’s underrated production in limited minutes.

Key Additions: Miles Plumlee, anyone? No? No? OK, then.

The Pacers traded Collison and Jones for Ian Mahinmi, a center who saw time behind Brendan Haywood as backup center in the Mavs’ championshp run and who actually played a big part in those Finals. Mahinmi gives the Pacers another true big to throw at Miami, and a better replacement center for Roy Hibbert, something crucial when the big guy gets in foul trouble.

They brought in D.J. Augustin on a cheap deal, getting a starting point guard (yes, it was the Bobcats) for a discount. Augustin will provide more of a pure-shooter point gaurd and can work with the second unit to help bridge the gap. Augustin’s also not a bad defender.

Gerald Green showed that he’s learned how to play last year and had a fantastic half-season with the Nets. The Pacers added him and he gives them an athletic three to bring off the bench, something that was missing last year. They have a fast, sleek second unit now, the opposite of last year’s reserve crew.

Three keys to the Pacers season:
1) Finding something that works offensively. The Pacers are yet another East team with a terrific defense and a horrid offense. They’re also yet another team with a lot of versatile, young talent and no superstar. Danny Granger keeps regressing in a distressing manner, Paul George is still a complimentary player, and David West is no longer at an age or health to carry a team. They need to find something consistent to turn to offensively they can rely on, and that may wind up having to be Hibbert. That idea is met with a lot of chair-squirming across the league.

2) George Hill has to figure out who he is. He was a jack of all trades in San Antonio and did a little of that last year. But the Pacers need him to be excellent in some regard. It can be defense, it can be off the dribble scoring, it can be perimeter shooting, but he’s going to have to give them consistent, excellent play in some regard. They need something to spark them and Hill may have to be it. They’ve committed to Hill as “the guy” at point guard. He has to play like it.

3) Let the big dogs eat. David West is a cold blooded assassin. Roy Hibbert had several games last year that he absolutely dominated the opponent. Too bad no one saw them. They have Mahinmi for depth, a more veteran Tyler Hansbrough, they’ve got some muscle. The Pacers are one of the few teams in the East with legit size. They need to rely on that and not be a team of perimeter wing jump shooters. They’ve got to create more efficient offense, and they’re without a real playmaker. So that means high-percentage buckets close to the rim. The bigs have to get possessions.

How it likely works out: This is the second best team in the East going into the season. Not Boston with its new bench or the Nets with their deficit-buster payroll or the Knicks with their drama. It’s quiet, consistent Indiana, and there is no reason going into the season that they shouldn’t make the Eastern Conference Finals. They landed third last season and wound up with the unfortunate second-round match-up with Miami. They need to get the second seed, make the ECF, then see what they can do against a tired Miami team. No more growth. No more development. The Pacers have arrived. Sink or swim time.

Prediction: 56-26. There’s no reason the Pacers can’t play at a higher level with a more versatile roster and less of a dropoff on the bench. Superstars may dominate the postseason, but great team defense and size advantages help you win any ballgame. The Pacers should be the No.2 team in the East.

Watch Russell Westbrook drop 36 on Golden State in Oklahoma City win

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Once again, Russell Westbrook was the force of nature the Warriors could not solve.

The athletic point guard forced turnovers, threw it down in transition, and drove right past Stephen Curry or  was guarding him. The result was 36 points, 11 rebounds, and 11 assists — Westbrook’s first triple double of these playoffs.

“He’s got such great force and great will,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said after the Thunder’s Game 4 win. “And he’s really a high IQ basketball player, he sees a lot of things going on out there… As a coach, you have great respect and admiration for a guy who plays the game that hard and gives to our team what he gives.”

He helped give them a win that has the Thunder on the verge of a return to the NBA Finals.

Russell Westbrook, Thunder defense again overwhelm Warriors 118-94, take commanding 3-1 lead

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 24:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder reacts in the first half against the Golden State Warriors in game four of the Western Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 24, 2016 in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 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 J Pat Carter/Getty Images)
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One year ago, it was the Warriors’ adjustments, the Warriors’ defense that was propelling the franchise to its first title in 40 years.

This season, the Thunder turned the tables on the champs.

The length and switching of the Thunder defense resulted in 16 steals Tuesday night — and that means easy transition buckets for OKC. That swarming defense had an off Stephen Curry open the game 1-of-10 shooting, turning the ball over six times on the night, and finishing 6-of-20 shooting, 2-of-10 from three. The Thunder defense has made the Warriors shooters tentative; they are hesitating before making a play rather than just shooting in the flow, something that has seemed impossible to do to Golden State for a couple of seasons now. As a team, the Warriors shot just 30 percent from three and 41.3 percent overall, with Klay Thompson in the second half being the only guy who could knock down shots.

Curry was also asked to guard Russell Westbrook for long stretches of the game and that didn’t go well. Westbrook was the Thunder engine again and finished with a triple-double of 36 points, 11 assists, and 11 rebounds.

Once again the Thunder played fast, aggressive and beat the Warriors at their own game — a 118-94 Thunder win. Oklahoma City now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out Thursday night in Golden State. If not, it feels like Saturday night will be the end of the Warriors 73-win season.

And maybe just the beginning for a talented Thunder team that is just now coming together.

Right now, everything the Thunder try works.

For example, on offense, Billy Donovan made another smart adjustment — if the Warriors were going to ignore Andre Roberson (allowing bigs like Draymond Green or Andrew Bogut to patrol around the rim), the Thunder would start using Roberson like a power forward who set picks, rolled to the rim, and surrounded by shooters he and his teammates could make plays. Roberson finished with career high 17 points on 12 shots.

“He’s a pretty active player so he got some offensive boards and he snuck behind our defense a couple times and we did not guard him correctly,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.

It all worked in the first half again, when the Thunder were attacking the rim — leading to 28 first half free throws from the Thunder — and after a tight first quarter OKC stretched the lead out to 20 points behind a 16-point quarter from Westbrook. This is when the Thunder took charge of the game.

“He’s got such great force and great will,” Thunder coach Billy Donovan said of Westbrook. “And he’s really a high IQ basketball player, he sees a lot of things going on out there… As a coach, you have great respect and admiration for a guy who plays the game that hard and gives to our team what he gives.”

Golden State made a comeback in the third that was all Klay Thompson — he had 19 consecutive points for the Warriors, and the lead got cut down to 6 at one point. Thompson finished the night with 26 points on 17 shots and was clear and away the best Warrior (with Harrison Barnes second).

But then Westbrook led a push back that again stretched the lead out, and he got help from Dion Waiters with a three (Waiters played well again and had 10 points on the night). The Thunder never looked back.

Kevin Durant added 26 points (but on 8-of-24 shooting, not his best night), while Serge Ibaka added 17. The Thunder may be the only team in the NBA with the depth of athletes to run with Golden State, and they are doing it and making it work.

The Warriors defense has no answer for the Thunder attack, and Golden State is getting away from some of their identity. They have always switched nearly every pick with their small lineup, but because of rebounding concerns this series they have gotten away from that. The Thunder have figured out how to exploit that.

The Warriors have just not adjusted to the length of the Thunder defense — Golden State turned the ball over 21 times, 19.9 percent of their possessions. If you give it away one every five times down the court to a good team, you lose.

“I thought we competed again tonight, I just thought we didn’t play very intelligently,” Kerr said postgame. “Too many turnovers, careless passes. This is probably the longest team in the league we are facing and we continue to try and throw passes over the top of their outstretched arms. Probably not a great idea.”

In addition to Curry, Draymond Green had his second poor game in a row — 1-of-7 shooting with six turnovers, and again he was out of position on defense too often. He has played like a guy flustered by the opponent.

A lot of the Warriors have, while the Thunder just gain confidence. The kind of confidence that will carry them back to the NBA Finals.

 

Thunder’s Russell Westbrook, Kevin Durant put on first-half show at Warriors’ expense

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I’d say Warriors fans are stunned, but more than that Warriors players look stunned — they are getting steamrolled by Oklahoma City again, giving up 72 first half points and being down by 19.

I guess we tell Warriors’ fans what we have told the fans of teams they have steamrolled the past couple years — enjoy the show, you don’t get to see many like this.

Above was a Kevin Durant to Russell Westbrook fastbreak assist and bucket. Now check out the fantastic Steven Adams pass, and a highlight package of Westbrook dropping 16 in the second quarter on the Warriors (21 in the first half).

 

Charles Barkley: “I’ve never seen the NBA as bad as it is”

HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 04:  Former NBA player and commentator Charles Barkley looks on prior to the 2016 NCAA Men's Final Four National Championship game between the Villanova Wildcats and the North Carolina Tar Heels at NRG Stadium on April 4, 2016 in Houston, Texas.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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Charles Barkley is walking entertainment and the brilliant Inside the NBA would not be the same without him and his off-the-cuff opinions (which is a great thing in sports talk, not so much with national policy).

But he remains the leader of the annoying #getoffmylawn crew of older players who don’t like today’s game.

Barkley was on the Bickley and Marotta on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM last week and went off again on the state of the game, (hat tip For The Win).

“People think us old guys hate when we talk about it. It has nothing to do with the Warriors’ greatness, LeBron’s greatness. But I’ve never seen the NBA as bad as it is, and I’ve been saying it the last three or four years. We’ve got too many young players coming out of college that don’t know how to play. It’s frustrating for me because I want to see competitive basketball.

“We took a survey on our crew … How many actual NBA teams would you buy season tickets for?” he added. “Four in the west and Cleveland obviously in the east. That’s not good for our league.”

To be fair, Barkley speaks for a lot of people here.

I think they are all wrong, but he speaks for them. And I think they are a plurality. Based on television ratings going up even as streaming of live games spikes (as someone who works for Comcast/NBC, I can say the in-market streaming of CSN teams such as the Warriors, Celtics, Wizards, etc. did well this year and grew faster than projections), as I look at the crossover appeal of Stephen Curry, the sendoff Kobe Bryant got, the popularity of LeBron James and Kevin Durant etc, the league is doing well by any measure.

But more than that, the game now is more entertaining than it’s been in years. Tell me how grabbing some guy on the perimeter, the clutching and clawing to slow the game down in the 1990s leading to 86-82 slogs, was more fun than the skill being shown today. Jordan was must watch, frankly Barkley was fun, but Mike Fratello’s Cavaliers teams? The Mavericks and Clippers of that era? I think Barkley and others look at the past through some Mr. Magoo glasses, but that is their prerogative. I loved 80s basketball. I liked 90s basketball. But to constantly dismiss the game today just sounds like someone clinging to the past.