The Extra Pass: Indiana’s Strange Success

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The Extra Pass is a new daily column that’s designed to give you a better look at a theme, team, player or scheme that could use another glance. Today, we swing our attention to Indiana, where the Pacers are putting together one strange season.

I wish there were a more aesthetically pleasing comparison available, but the Indiana Pacers are the cockroaches of the NBA. They are an ugly team, scattered about on the offensive end, waiting for the shot clock to tick down to the skinnier numbers so they can rush to the rim for scraps. There is very little sex appeal or sophistication here — just resiliency.

You chop off their head, and they live for 35 games and counting. Last year’s leading scorer Danny Granger hasn’t played a single minute.

You take away what they’re looking for, and they find something else. 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert is shooting 40 percent from the field and averages less than 10 points a game.

You eliminate the new addition to their ranks, and they still keep coming. Gerald Green has an 8.2 PER, good for fifth worst in the league of players who average more than 20 minutes a night.

The Pacers are 29th in offensive efficiency, 28th in field goal percentage and 29th in points per game. They should be finished already, planning their trip to Secaucus, New Jersey to watch lottery balls bounce around with the rest of the inept offensive teams in the league.

But instead, the Pacers are 21-14, fourth in the Eastern Conference, and just three games back of a Miami Heat team they vanquished last night. Three games out of first place. The Indiana Pacers. With all that going on.

How?

The best defense can be a slow offense

The Pacers have evolved in the best way– they know that they’re terrible offensively without Granger (and with Hibbert missing layups), so they’ve adapted by helping themselves on the other end. The offense, as brutal as it may be, serves a purpose for the defense by playing purposefully slow.

The Pacers play at the league’s 25th slowest pace, but they also rank 10th in offensive rebounding percentage. The victory over Miami was a wonderful example of how these two things work together. The Pacers absolutely bled the clock with the lead, and combined with their 22 offensive rebounds, they made that 8-10 points feel like 18-20 instead. The opportunities for Miami to come back in the fourth quarter were extremely limited.

Of course, taking the air out of the ball, so to speak, would mean nothing if the Pacers weren’t defending the way they are. For as every bit as bad as they’ve been offensively, the Pacers have been even better defensively.

It starts inside

Hibbert has used his own struggles at the rim as a way to exact revenge on his opponents, blocking the third most shots in the league (2.7 a game) and altering countless others. From 9-feet and in, the Pacers hold their opponents to the league’s lowest shooting percentage.

Although Hibbert isn’t fleet of foot, he’s a space eater for a defense that rarely gambles (26th in turnover percentage). The Pacers as a whole are very conservative defensively — their guards like to go under screens, and their big men rarely hedge or trap on pick-and-rolls. As a result, the Pacers are rarely scrambling to recover or asking their bigs to make lightning quick rotations.

And although he’s not noted as a defensive force, David West uses that thick chest of his as the wall to Hibbert’s sentry tower arms — opposing power forwards notch a PER of 12.2 against West, and the Pacers are about 2.4 points better defensively per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor (and a whopping net 13.5 points overall).

Thanks to West and Hibbert, and the crazy size of Paul George, the Pacers are also the 6th best defensive rebounding team in the league. Opposing teams go one-and-done offensively quite a bit.

Length on the perimeter

Another thing the Pacers do extraordinarily well defensively is defend the 3-point line. The average team this year shoots around 35.7 percent from behind the arc, but the Pacers hold their opponents to a stingy 31.6 percent shooting. That’s the top number in the league, and the length of guys like George Hill (who owns a ridiculous 6-foot-9 wingspan), Lance Stephenson (6-foot-10 wingspan) and Paul George (near 7-foot-wingspan) play into that heavily. According to Synergy Sports, the Pacers are the number one defense in the league defending against spot-up jumpers — a testament to the ability of their wings to get a hand up and contest every shot.

Coach of the Year?

There’s a reason Frank Vogel just got a contract extension, folks. The Pacers have a lot of plus individual defenders, but no one in their right mind expected them to have the league’s most efficient defense 35 games in. This is a core that has benefitted a great deal from playing together, and give Vogel credit for allowing Indiana’s starting five (Hill-Stephenson-George-West-Hibbert) to play the second most minutes together of any unit in the league — even if Indiana’s bench has been a question mark ever since he grabbed the big seat. If Tom Thibodeau can win a Coach of the Year for the defense he brought to Chicago, Vogel should at least be seriously considered if this keeps up.

Thank you, David

And here’s the reason why it might not keep up. Indiana’s Dr. Jekyl defense and Mr. Hyde offense is unlike anything we’ve seen, but a very soft schedule certainly has played into that a bit. Indiana’s strength of schedule is dead last in the league, and their SRS, a rating that factors point differential into that equation, is just 15th. Although more recent wins against  Memphis, Milwaukee and Miami are impressive, their wins prior to that came against sub .500 clubs almost exclusively. Some regression should be expected as the quality of opponents spikes back up.

But even with that said, it’s tough to deny the staying power of the league’s most resilient team to date. Things can’t possibly get worse offensively, especially since Stephenson has made such a positive impact lately. With Granger targeting a February return, there is hope on the horizon.

It’s not often we see a contender so painfully one-dimensional, but if this defense holds on to the distinction of being the best in the league, the Pacers will be awfully hard to ignore any longer.

Like Shaun Livingston, JaVale McGee perfect fit on Warriors

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OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) — JaVale McGee practices 3-pointers from all around the arch, just in case. He sits with assistant coach Jarron Collins and a laptop to study film, long after practice and his shooting workouts are complete.

The 7-footer’s rugged professional path has landed him at seemingly the perfect stop: in the Bay Area with the NBA’s best.

Just don’t call him a journeyman.

“I’ve never considered myself a journeyman in the first place,” McGee said after a practice this weekend. “Whatever y’all want to call me y’all can call me. The number of teams I’ve been on was in like one year. I’ve been with three teams in two years.”

Yet McGee must not look far to find someone else who has learned to thrive as a well-traveled NBA role player. Just a quick glance a couple of lockers down to where Shaun Livingston dresses at Oracle Arena, defying the odds yet again this season as a regular reserve contributing to another Warriors championship chase, is all it takes.

McGee has never made it this far, an NBA Finals first-timer when Golden State hosts defending champion Cleveland in Game 1 on Thursday night. Livingston never should have made it this far, and here he is back to the final round seeking his second title in three seasons – and 10 years after a devastating injury that could have sidelined him for good. Doctors thought they might have to amputate his left leg.

Fourteen teams between them, over 21 combined seasons. Each has found a great groove in Golden State’s rotation, called upon to take pressure off the big stars while maintaining the highest level.

“We just kind of follow suit, but it’s up to everybody to come in and lock in on the details. It’s the playoffs,” Livingston said. “Obviously the stars help, they get all the headlines deservedly so, but the small things, the details, that’s what we lock in at and that’s how we win ballgames.”

McGee has discovered the ideal place to shine as an alley-oop specialist in a pass-happy offense, and even Stephen Curry admits it’s so easy to target the sure-handed big man perhaps the Warriors do so too often at times.

“We almost get in trouble because we try to do it too much even if it’s not there, because he has the ability to catch it really anywhere around the rim, around the backboard,” Curry acknowledged. “You kind of see it developing when he gets a free lane to the rim, and as a passer in that situation literally feel the most confidence that if I just get it anywhere up there, he’ll go get it, and usually he does.”

With great efficiency, too.

In Game 3 against the Spurs, McGee scored a postseason-best 16 points, all in the first half to get Golden State going as Zaza Pachulia sat out with a bruised heel. He made all seven of his shots in Game 2 of a first-round win against Portland, shooting 18 for 23 in all in the four-game sweep of the Trail Blazers.

“That’s my whole thing, I just try to be efficient out there,” McGee said. “I don’t try to do too much. I just try to do what’s necessary for me in the minutes that I’m out there.”

Livingston has unselfishly dealt with a diminished role, a rotation change late in the season that altered when he’s used, and then a hand injury in the first round of the playoffs.

In February 2007 with the Clippers, Livingston tore three major ligaments in his knee – the anterior cruciate, posterior cruciate and medial collateral as well as his lateral meniscus, then required extensive surgery. Though the injury could have ended his career at age 21, he still believed he would play again. First he had to walk again.

“Shaun, that story isn’t really the same now. He’s become a staple of this franchise, he’s helped us win a title, he’s done some great things here,” Draymond Green said. “For JaVale, it’s still fresh, to where I think it’s a great situation for him. He’s finally been put in a position where he can do what he do. He’s finally come to an organization, a first-class organization, that has embraced him for him and not tried to make him something that he’s not. I think that has been pretty special, just seeing his growth over the course of the year, how he’s been able to thrive. … It’s special to see when you take the path that they’ve taken to get to this moment.”

McGee will have to help keep Cleveland’s Tristan Thompson off the boards. His teammates know he’s up to the task.

“It just speaks to his kind of character and perseverance and work ethic and his belief in himself that when he’s out there on the floor he deserves to be out there on the floor, he belongs and can make an impact,” Curry said. “When he showed up here, he understood the opportunity and he’s taken full advantage of it. It’s great to see.”

 

Cool Hand Lue: Cavs coach keeps NBA champs cool amid chaos

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CLEVELAND (AP) — Moments after the Eastern Conference championship banner was raised by the Cavaliers for the third straight time and the obligatory postgame interviews ended, Tyronn Lue slipped quietly away.

Cleveland’s coach ducked into the shadows, his preferred location.

“I don’t like the attention,” he said.

But Lue, once a journeyman point guard who steered the Cavs to an NBA championship last season, has grown more accepting of his frontman role. He’ll again be at center stage this week as Cleveland meets Golden State in the third installment of their title trilogy.

If the unassuming, easygoing Lue had his preference, the teams would duke it out for the Larry O’Brien Trophy on a playground court in a stifling hot gymnasium, with only a handful of onlookers present. A student of the game, he’s old school with a fresh perspective.

Of the many juicy subplots between the Cavs and Warriors, one that frequently goes overlooked is Lue, the former assistant who has blossomed in no time into one of the league’s brightest young head coaches and a playoff savant.

He’s 28-6 in two postseasons with Cleveland. His players credit Lue’s soothing, steady influence – on and off the floor – as nearly as vital to their success as a clutch Kyrie Irving 3-pointer.

“It’s just his level of calmness no matter what’s going on,” LeBron James said following practice. “He always talks about, at the end of the day, he’s already won in life, so whatever else happens after this is extra credit. And I feel the same way. That’s why I relate to him so much. Lose here, or you win a game here, it’s like, `All right, cool. I’ve already done so much more than anybody ever gave me credit of doing or thought I can do, so there’s no reason to get too high or too low.’

“So it’s the even-keel mentality about our coach and it definitely helps us as players when we’re going out into a war.”

Lue has been preparing for the biggest battle of his basketball career this week.

From the moment he returned home from Boston following the Cavs’ win in Game 5 of the conference finals, Lue has immersed himself in the Warriors, a virtual All-Star team featuring two league MVPs (Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry), a dead-eye shooter (Klay Thompson) and a triple-threat performer (Draymond Green).

Lue’s defensive strategy to this point in the playoffs has been to neutralize the opponents’ top player. The Cavs were able to do that with Indiana’s Paul George, Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan and Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, who aggravated a hip injury in Game 2 and missed the remainder of the series. Cleveland blitzed, double-teamed and did all it could take away the other team’s offensive threat.

Lue was asked if it’s more difficult to identify who that is on Golden State.

“Hell yeah,” he said, his voice rising. “It’s tough.”

There are few weaknesses in these Warriors, the first team to head into the final round 12-0 and winning by an average of 16.3 points per game.

“They have so many weapons,” Lue said, “having four All-Stars and now adding KD to the mix who I’ve always loved as a scorer, just how he scores so easy. They have a lot of options. It’s going to be tough, but we have to lock into what we have to do defensively, and sometimes you can play great defense and it doesn’t work. Steph is making tough shots, Klay is making tough shots and KD is making tough shots. But all you can do is play your defense, stick to your principles and just make it as tough as possible.”

The Cavs know Lue won’t panic.

He stayed cool last spring when Cleveland fought back from a 3-1 deficit to win its first title. Lue made subtle tweaks to his rotation, drew up key inbounds plays, then isolated Irving late in Game 7 on Curry. The Cavs All-Star guard made his now famous go-ahead, step-back 3-pointer.

Pressure intensifies in the postseason, when possessions, turnovers and rebounds are magnified.

As the drama builds, Lue stays composed, setting the tone for his players.

“Throughout the postseason there’s so many different emotions,” James said. “Going high, going low. And if you’re a coach able to just stay even-keeled throughout the whole thing, it relaxes the rest of the group.”

Lue is a stickler for detail, and he won’t cut any corners preparing for another dance with the Warriors. He’ll have the Cavs ready, and they can also count on him to keep them relaxed.

“When you’re prepared and you do the best you can do and you put it out there on the floor, you’ve just got to live with the results,” Lue said. “I’m doing my homework, I’m doing every possible thing to put this team in every situation to win. When you’re doing that, things you go over every day, end-of-game plays and things like that, either they work or they don’t.”

 

Byron Scott: Lakers made me feel ‘betrayed, lied to and deceived’

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Byron Scott lost 77% of his games with the Lakers, alienated their young players and failed to deliver on his big talk about defense.

Yet, Scott said he was blindsided when the Lakers fired him last year.

How did he possibly get the idea he’d return for a third season?

Mark Medina of The Orange County Register:

Scott said he “felt betrayed, lied to and deceived” by former Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak and former executive Jim Buss. Though he had only two guaranteed years on his four-year contract, Scott contends that Kupchak and Jim Buss previously promised him they would exercise the team option for his third year. Scott also believes the Lakers used him to manage Bryant during his final seasons and farewell tour before making the coach a scapegoat for the franchise’s struggles.

“If I asked him to do certain things, Kobe would do it because of his respect for me,” said Scott, who mentored Bryant during his rookie season in 1996-97. “Basically, you just wanted me there to help you guys get through the next two years, so Kobe doesn’t go crazy on you guys. I would be the one that can handle it. They know me. I’m not going to back down. I’m not going to be intimidated by anybody.”

I wouldn’t be surprised if management said something Scott could have reasonably interpreted as a promise to keep him. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Scott heard what he wanted to hear.

The Jim Buss Lakers didn’t always feature the best lines of communication, and Scott was delusional.

Either way, the Lakers did the right thing in firing Scott. If he were hired to manage Kobe Bryant’s final seasons, Kobe retired. There was no more need for Scott, who neither related well to young players nor implemented a winning scheme – pretty much everything beyond handling Kobe.

The strangest part of Scott’s criticism is how it reflects on Kupchak, who has now been accused of both being too dishonest and too honest.

Tony Parker tells French publication he plans to return in January

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Back on May 5, Tony Parker has surgery to repair a ruptured left quadriceps tendon, an injury some thought could be career ending for the 35-year-old point guard.

He plans to be back and is aiming for January, he told the French publication L’Equipe, as transcribed by EuroHoops.net.

“I will play my best basketball when I return in January”, Parker told L’Equipe….

“The first thing that came in when I got injured, was frustration. I was super good and we had the chance to go until the end and get the title,” Parker said.

“The coach’s plan worked like a clock. I was consistent, playing for twenty to twenty-five minutes per game. My series against Memphis was good and I had a good start in the season,” he added.

Paker’s return in January (if he can meet that timeline) will have him coming off the bench, meaning the Spurs will still need a starting point guard and some depth at the position.

No, that doesn’t mean Chris Paul is coming to San Antonio, that was always a long shot as Adrian Wojnarowski noted. It’s not like the Spurs to kick guys like Parker to the curb (Bill Belichick does not run the franchise) nor do the Spurs gut their roster, and that’s what they’d have to do. Beyond that, Paul is president of the players’ union and one of the things he/the union got in the new CBA was to turn the over-36 rule (which restricted how much LeBron could get on his last deal) to the over-38 rule — meaning the Clippers can give 32-year-old Paul one more five-year max deal. You really think he’s walking away from that?

Hopefully, when Parker returns he can give us all glimpses of his old self.