Eastern Conference Finals preview: Pacers vs. Heat

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SEASON RECORDS

Indiana 49-33 (Third seed in East)
Miami 66-16 (First seed in East)

PLAYOFF RECORDS

Indiana 8-4 (beat Atlanta 4-2 in the first round, New York 4-2 in the second)
Miami: 8-1 (swept Milwaukee in first round 4-0, beat Chicago 4-1 in the second)

SEASON SERIES

Indiana won the regular season series 2-1 with the Pacers winning both of the games on their home court. The second Pacers win was the last game before Miami’s 27-game win streak and the Pacers fell to the Heat once during that run.

KEY INJURIES

Nothing new or dramatic here. Miami’s Dwyane Wade will play through a bruised left knee, as he did last series. The Pacers David West has a sore calf, but it will not keep him from playing.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession) – PLAYOFFS ONLY

Miami: offense, 109.1 (1st in postseason); defense 93.4 (1st in postseason)
Indiana: offense 100.3 (10th in postseason); defense 98.3 (5th in postseason)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES:

1. Can Indiana get the ball into the post cleanly, quickly? We all know the Pacers have a size advantage they want to exploit in this series — if Roy Hibbert or David West can get the ball in the post Miami will struggle to slow them (or if the Heat defense collapses perimeter shooters open up). The problem last year for Indiana against the Heat in the playoffs is it wasn’t that easy to get the post play set up — Miami puts a lot of pressure on the opposing guards with an aggressive defense, and they will front the post and take away the easy pass. Indiana struggled to get the ball into the block last year, and often when they did it was late in the clock and the shooter was rushed.

Miami’s strategy isn’t going to change, it is up to Indiana to adjust. They have to not turn the ball over under pressure and get the ball to their bigs on the block with enough time on the clock to exploit their advantage. If Indiana is forced to create shots on the perimeter with their wings they are in a lot of trouble.

2. Roy Hibbert on Chris Bosh. Indiana took a 2-1 lead in last year’s playoff series between these teams in large part because of Hibbert and the Pacers defense — his 7’2” frame and long arms in the paint cut off the driving lanes for LeBron James,  Wade and the rest of the Heat, making life difficult.

Chris Bosh changes that equation. Remember Bosh was injured in Game 1 of that series, but with him back Hibbert has to respect Bosh all the way out to the three point line. If Hibbert is out guarding Bosh 15 feet from the rim things open up for Miami’s driving wings. Indiana has to both cover Bosh outside the paint and protect the paint, and that will not be easy.

3. Indiana’s defense has to play all the way to the buzzer. Let’s use an example from the Western Conference Finals Game 1: After handling the Chris Paul dominated Clippers and the Kevin Durant dominated Thunder, the Grizzlies struggled to slow the Spurs in the opener. The difference was that when you stop the Spurs first option out of a set they go to the second, third and fourth with clean execution until you are left scrambling. Then they find the open guy. Memphis was not used to covering that.

Indiana’s defenders are going to have to be sharp for the full 24 seconds because this is not the Knicks that resort to isolation after you shut down a primary option. Miami moves the ball very well. It is is tough to defend Chris Bosh away from the basket and Ray Allen in the opposite corner while LeBron James starts his drive. Once the defense breaks down Miami exploits it well.

The Pacers were the best defense in the NBA this regular season and that defense has gotten them to the conference finals. But if they dream of advancing any further it has to be even better.

OUTLOOK

While some people have a sense the Heat are on their way to a coronation more than going through a challenging playoffs, the Pacers will test them. Paul George has come into his own this year and his defense is going to make life as difficult for LeBron as anyone can. David West is rock solid and the Pacers size is going to be an issue for Miami. Indiana can slow the Heat down and they have advantages.

But not enough. Indiana’s offense is going to find it hard to score on Miami and their turnovers — 15.2 percent of possessions in the playoffs, it was 16.2 percent in the regular season, second worst in the league — will get them in trouble. Miami feeds on turnovers, that’s how they get on their 12-0 runs that are nearly impossible to overcome.

Miami is going to need more — Bosh and the banged up Dwyane Wade will have to score more this series. More importantly, the Heat need to get a big game or two during the series from guys like Shane Battier and Norris Cole. Indiana is a very good defensive team that will take away the preferred options of the Heat, other guys will have to step up.

PREDICTION

Heat in six. Indiana will push them but just does not have enough offense to get four wins in seven.

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Reports: Phil Jackson attending Shaq statue ceremony, Magic Johnson missing it to scout UCLA-Kentucky

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The Lakers are formally unveiling Shaquille O’Neal’s statue outside their arena tonight. Also tonight: UCLA-Kentucky in the Sweet 16, which features NBA prospects Lonzo Ball, Ike Anigbogu, T.J. Leaf, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Bam Adebayo.

That makes an interesting choice for the NBA’s two highest-profile team presidents – the Lakers’ Magic Johnson and Knicks’ Phil Jackson (who coached Shaq in Los Angeles), both of whose teams are headed toward a high picks in the upcoming draft.

And the front-office heads are going different directions.

Arash Markazi of ESPN:

Marc Stein of ESPN:

Watching a single game in person is unlikely to swing anything. Both Johnson and Jackson could send scouts to watch UCLA-Kentucky live and then the presidents could watch video later.

But attending in person is ideal, and there are already questions about Jackson’s work ethic. This will only fuel them.

If nothing else, this is an opportunity for Johnson, new on the job, to establish an image. He can clearly juxtapose himself with the failing Jackson and establish himself as a diligent alternative. The Lakers hired Johnson at least in part due to his high profile, but that needn’t stop him from grinding now that he has the position. Anyone doubting him would respect that.

Tyreke Evans: Giannis Antetokounmpo is like a taller me

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Giannis Antetokounmpo torched the Kings for 32 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and two steals in the Bucks’ 18-point win Wednesday.

Afterward, Sacramento’s Tyreke Evans paid the Greek Freak the ultimate compliment.

Sean Cunningham of ABC 10:

Do you see many players like Antetokounmpo? Evans:

Nah. He like me, but 6-7 – I mean like almost 6-8, 6-7, whatever height he is. He just long, athletic. He get to where he want to go. He got good handle for his size, and he athletic. Once he get around the rim, he can finish.

If only you were an inch taller? Evans:

That’d be a problem. I mean, it’s still a problem, I think, for me to get where I want. But just the athleticism he have and the way he get up off the ground – he got quick bounce. He pretty good at it.

Antetokounmpo is listed at 6-foot-11, Evans 6-foot-6.

This isn’t totally unreasonable. Make Evans five inches taller and add none of the dexterity awkwardness that tends to accompany growth, and he might look a lot like Antetokounmpo. Both are usually slotted at forward while possessing point-guard skills.

But Evans isn’t 6-foot-11, and most 6-foot-11 players can’t move like Antetokounmpo. That fluidity for his size is a big part of what makes Antetokounmpo special. If Evans grew up to be 6-foot-11, he likely would have developed a different skill set than he has now.

Antetokounmpo is the rare player with both the height of a big man and skills of a guard. Evans didn’t miss out on that just because his genes kept him from growing another five inches.

This discussion is also silly for another reason. Somewhere, there’s someone who’s 6-foot-1 and certain he’d be as good as Evans if only he were five inches taller.

Rumor: Blake Griffin increasingly believed to be open to leaving Clippers in free agency

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The Clippers were rumored to have already verbally agreed to terms with pending unrestricted free agents Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and J.J. Redick.

But with formal contract extensions unviable, L.A. was always going to have to play out the season and hope those players remained committed into July.

There might be a hitch in that plan.

Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report:

That Griffin would also stay and reap the biggest payday he can seems likely, too—in theory. But more and more people around the league believe he would be open to a fresh start—perhaps with the Lakers or the Boston Celtics, who have coveted Griffin for years and would offer a new chance to win.

Does Ding have credible information to suggest Griffin could join the Lakers or Celtics, or is that just speculation on the writer’s part about potential fits? It’s unclear. This is already fairly loosely sourced.

But we should gather more information quickly once free agency begins. Griffin reportedly planned to re-sign quickly. If he shows the faintest hint of exploring the market, that could open the floodgates.

Griffin had been frequently linked to his home-state Thunder, but Oklahoma City would interfere with his burgeoning Hollywood connections.* The same issue would exist with Boston, though obviously not the Lakers. That said, the Celtics are WAY better than the Lakers – and maybe soon the Clippers and Thunder, considering those Nets picks headed to Boston.

*Oklahoma City also since nuked its cap space with contract extensions for Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo, though trades could always clear room if Griffin wants to come home.

The Clippers are in a bad place right now. One one hand, that forebodes another disappointing end to the season. On the other hand, there’s still time to overcome and send Griffin into free agency on a more positive note.

These are dangerous times for the Clippers, who wouldn’t have cap space to adequately replace Griffin, Paul or Redick if one leaves. So, if one bolts, the others seems more likely to follow. Interpersonal relationships matter, but the Clippers’ primary selling points were always going to be money and winning (with Hollywood proximity a bonus). Winning gets harder if talent walks.

They can still offer the most money, and they’re not leaving L.A. But the Clippers better win more to help avoid what could be a tenser-than-expected summer.

Suns use youngest starting lineup in NBA history

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The Suns have shut down their veterans or been shut down by their veterans with two goals in mind – developing young talent and tanking.

Incidentally, Phoenix also made history.

Against the Nets last night, the Suns started:

ESPN:

Elias on ESPN:

The previous youngest was the Clippers’ starting five consisting of guards Eric Bledsoe and Eric Gordon, forwards Al-Farouq Aminu and Blake Griffin, and center DeAndre Jordan, who averaged 21 years and 143 days old in a matchup with the Nets on November 15, 2010.

The young Suns gained quality experience – and helped their team to an important loss, 126-98 to Brooklyn.

Phoenix is still 1.5 games “behind” the Lakers for the No. 2 seed in the lottery, but the Suns are within striking distance in case the Lakers screw up and win too much down the stretch.