Heat's James and Pacers' Stephenson prepare to play during the fourth quarter in Game 4 of their NBA Eastern Conference Final basketball playoff series in Indianapolis

Heat don’t scare Pacers

33 Comments

The Miami Heat have been the most heavily scrutinized team in NBA history, and opponents aren’t immune from getting sucked into the publicity whirlwind. For better or worse, playing the Heat is different than any other game. Some teams, like the Bulls, thrive when facing the challenge. Others, like the Nets, crumble under the pressure.

The Pacers do neither.

Indiana just plays its game.

The Pacers don’t have the most high-end talent among the remaining teams. (That’s the Heat.) The Pacers don’t have the most depth, either. (That’s the Spurs.)

But after winning Tuesday night to even up the East finals at 2-2, Indiana has shown the most resolve in these playoffs.

The Pacers lost back-to-back games to the Hawks by 21 and 11 and won the next game. They lost to the Knicks by 26 and won the next game. They lost again to the Knicks by 10 and won the next game.

Now, after losing to the Heat by 18, Indiana has bounced back again – this time with a 99-92 victory over the Heat in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

No team has lost more games by double digits in these playoffs than the Pacers. In fact, Indiana has lost more double-digit games than the other three conference finalists combined.

But these Pacers keep fighting back.

George Hill was part-time starter and part-time sixth man for the San Antonio Spurs at age 23. For a player who spent four seasons playing for a team that sounds like a list of Hoosier State tourist locations – Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis – such a large role at such a young age had to be a dream come true. Then the Spurs traded him to Indiana, a team that went 37-45 the year before and still cut his minutes.

Lance Stephenson was once New York City’s schoolboy star du jour, earning the nickname Born Ready. Then, he faced legal trouble and eligibility questions, spent an OK season at Cincinnati, was drafted in the second round, struggled through his first two NBA seasons and appeared headed out of the league.

Paul George told anyone who would listen that he had sky-high potential; that he could be the next Tracy McGrady. An All-WAC second-team season didn’t exactly prove his upside, but George went pro anyway. He was so focused on the draft, he shared that Fresno State’s losing season actually help him – because he could prepare for the draft while other prospects were still playing in the NCAA Tournament. He went No. 10 – much, much, much higher than anyone would have imagined a year prior. Then, early in his rookie year, after all his hard work to achieve his draft dream, George was regularly receiving DNP-CDs.

David West was so highly regarded at Xavier that he made Sports Illustrated’s All-Decade team with players from more traditional powers Duke and Connecticut. But when it came to the draft, West faced typical questions for a power forward who spent four years in college (size, athleticism, upside) and slipped to 18th in the draft behind luminaries such as Troy Bell, Reece Gaines and Marcus Banks.

Roy Hibbert wasn’t exactly Patrick Ewing or Alonzo Mourning, but Hibbert changed himself from a player who couldn’t do a single push-up into someone who credibly belonged on a list of Georgetown’s great centers. Still, questions about his mobility pushed Hibbert’s draft stock below Joe Alexander, Jason Thompson and Anthony Randolph, down all the way to No. 17.

These players have been hit a lot harder than they were by the Heat in Game 3. The narrative suggested they should crumble at the sight of Miami showing its might, but their personal experiences have given them strength in these difficult situations.

Together, Hill, Stephenson, George, West and Hibbert have grown even stronger, worked even harder, gotten even better. Their resolve has increased. They’re not phased by losing, winning, playing the Heat or anything else.

The Heat could very well still win this series, but they won’t get to the Finals by intimidating Indiana. They’ll have to win on the merits of their play.

This video is no longer available. Click here to watch more NBC Sports videos!

Joakim Noah: Jerry Reinsdorf’s ‘frontline’ comment a ‘low blow’

GAINESVILLE, FL - SEPTEMBER 10:  NBA player Joakim Noah looks on during a game between the Florida Gators and the Kentucky Wildcats at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium on September 10, 2016 in Gainesville, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images
1 Comment

After watching Joakim Noah leave for the Knicks, Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf said, “We felt Joakim wasn’t going to be a frontline guy anymore.”

Ouch.

Noah, via Marc Berman of the New York Post:

“He’s entitled to his opinion,’’ Noah said. “I feel I have no regrets about my time in Chicago. I gave it everything I had. To me that’s all that matters. I did everything I could for that organization. I thought it was a little bit of a low blow, but at the end of the day I have nothing but respect for that organization. I’m just excited for this new chapter of my career.”

Reinsdorf was right. Noah, 31, is on the downside of his career. I wouldn’t want him for $72 million over the next four years.

But Noah is also right. He gave the Bulls everything he had.

Noah didn’t deserve that parting shot, even if it was correct.

I also wonder how much this has to do with Chicago correctly assessing Noah’s value vs. the Bulls losing a player whom they wanted to keep and lashing out about it.

Spurs waive Ryan Richards, open roster spot

OKLAHOMA CITY, OK - MAY 12: Tim Duncan #21 of the San Antonio Spurs waits for the Oklahoma City Thunder to bring the ball down court during the second half of Game Six of the Western Conference Semifinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 12, 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)
J Pat Carter/Getty Images
Leave a comment

The Spurs drafted Ryan Richards No. 49 in 2010, and he could’ve signed with San Antonio any year since. To maintain a second-rounder’s rights, a team must extend a required tender – a one-year contract, surely unguaranteed at the minimum. If the player rejects the offer, those rights extend another year, and the team must then offer the tender again the following year.

Richards finally took the tender this year.

Just a couple days into training camp, the Spurs showed how much they value him.

Spurs release:

The San Antonio Spurs today announced that they have waived forward/center Ryan Richards.

San Antonio now has 19 players and one open roster spot. I know what you’re thinking.

Thunder PG Cameron Payne fractures foot. Again

PHOENIX, AZ - FEBRUARY 08:  Cameron Payne #22 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on February 8, 2016 in Phoenix, Arizona.  The Thunder defeated the Suns 122-106.  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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
1 Comment

Just as he was getting back into the flow after fracturing his foot this summer, Thunder point guard Cameron Payne hurt himself all over again.

Thunder release:

The Oklahoma City Thunder announced today that guard Cameron Payne suffered an acute fracture to his fifth metatarsal in Tuesday night’s Blue-White Scrimmage.

This is a troubling setback for the 22-year-old Payne, whom Oklahoma City drafted No. 14 last year. The Thunder didn’t play him enough last season to maximize his development, and now, they won’t the chance to make amends for a while.

Russell Westbrook will obviously still handle the large majority of point guard minutes, and this sets up Ronnie Price to open the season as the primary backup. The 33-year-old Price can play tough defense in limited playing time, but asking him to run the second unit offensively will likely turn out poorly.

Oklahoma City could stagger Westbrook’s and Victor Oladipo‘s minutes, using Oladipo as the lead guard when Westbrook sits. But Oladipo didn’t take to that role in Orlando.

This could also open the door slightly for Semaj Christon to make the regular-season roster as the third healthy point guard. But the Thunder already have 16 players, one more than the regular-season roster limit, with guaranteed salaries – and that doesn’t count Christon. Oklahoma City would have to drop Mitch McGary and one other player to keep Christon, which seems unlikely.

The Thunder will probably just have to grind it out with Price behind Westbrook.

Paul George on MVP: ‘This is my year to go get it’

TORONTO, ON - MAY 01:  Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers reacts after sinking a basket in the first half of Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Toronto Raptors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 01, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images
Leave a comment

MVP feels wide open this year.

Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and LeBron James have accounted for the last five. But Curry and Durant are now sharing touches with the Warriors, and LeBron is 31 and has coasted in the last couple regular seasons in the midst of so many Finals runs.

That opens the door for new contenders like Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kawhi Leonard (my pick), Anthony Davis – and Paul George, the Pacers star who’s announcing his candidacy loud and clear.

George on SiriusXM NBA Radio:

I want to be MVP. I definitely want to be the MVP this year. It’s tough, as always. It would be a challenge, but with coach Nate and the guys that I got here, I’m in position to move into that spot as long as I remain being me, being a leader, being aggressive and wanting that. It’s not mine for the taking. I got to go get it. And this is my year to go get it.

The MVP usually goes to a player on a top-two seed, and that’ll be a tough nut for Indiana to crack with the Cavaliers, Celtics and Raptors standing in the way. But, again, this is an atypical year with most top teams so balanced.

If the Pacers hit the high end of their potential outcomes, George would be a strong candidate. He’s is the second-best player in the East, so most nights, he’ll be the best player on the court. That goes a long way for perception.

The best thing George can do for his case is help Indiana win big. If he does that, he’ll surely impress enough individually along the way to warrant major consideration.