Pacers learn painful lessons on path to much bigger wins

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That the Pacers were in a Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals with a young team — one that had to adapt on the fly to losing their leading scorer from last year Danny Granger just days before the season started — is more than just a bright sign for the future.

Monday night sucked for Pacers fans, but they have to know the next few years will not. This is a good team.

Through adversity teams grow — and Indiana has grown into one of the NBA’s best teams. Next season their core will be back , their defense will improve with familiarity and they will grow from this experience.

“We’ve gone through a lot, with Danny being out from the beginning of the season,” Roy Hibbert said in his televised post game interview. “David (West), Paul (George) and George (Hill) really stepped up and we won a lot of games. They matured, we finished strong toward the end of the season and we had one heck of a run.

“It’s unfortunate we lost, but I couldn’t be more proud of this team.”

Teams need to learn to win in the NBA (even Michael Jordan had to get his head handed to him three straight years by the Pistons before he and his teammates learned what it took to win it all). Monday night was one of those lessons, about reaching another level when it is all on the line. These lessons are a punch to the gut, but the best teams grow from them. Miami didn’t fully adopt the small-ball style that got them a title last year and back to the finals this year until Chris Bosh went down against the Pacers in the playoffs last year. Then they did it out of necessity.

Injuries can help a team define who they really need to be. That seemed to happen to the Pacers this season.

The loss of Granger meant Paul George got thrust into a bigger role as the ball handler and primary scorer — and he thrived, putting together his best season as a pro and becoming the league’s Most Improved Player. Then the playoffs became his national coming out party — a guy who played his college ball in little-watched Fresno and his professional ball in small market Indiana burst on the national scene. LeBron James was praising him. He looked like a future MVP.

George Hill took another step forward as the versatile if untraditional point guard. Roy Hibbert struggled early in the season — a combination of a wrist injury and self-imposed pressure after getting a max contract — but by the end of the season and certainly through the playoffs he looked like a center deserving a max deal.

David West is a pro’s pro that gives this team steady professionalism, not to mention steady points and rebounds. He’s a free agent but said after the game he can’t imagine himself anywhere else, and the Pacers plan to bring him back.

There are certainly questions for the Pacers this summer.

West is a free agent and while both sides are saying all the right things a deal still needs to be worked out (and other teams will try to poach him). George is eligible for an extension for his rookie deal and you can expect a four-year max (which would not kick in until the season after next).

But if the Pacers are paying Hibbert and George and West, can they continue to pay Danny Granger and stay under the tax line?

Also, the Pacers need to find depth — in the playoffs their starting five (Hill, George, Lance Stephenson, West, Hibbert) played 415 minutes and were an average of +14.6 per 48 minutes. But their bench lineups were a disaster and so none played more than 35 minutes all postseason. This is really two years in a row the lack of depth has been an issue in Indiana — they need to find some quality depth. Guys coach Frank Vogel can put out on the court and not instantly feel like he needs a single-malt scotch to calm his nerves.

But the core of a contender is there, and that is the hard part to put together. And it’s a young core, one that will just get better and better the more they play together.

Which should make Pacers fans very happy. And the rest of the East very nervous.

Paul Pierce after final NBA game: “I gave every ounce I could, each and every day” (VIDEO)

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That’s it for Paul Pierce.

The Los Angeles Clippers lost in Game 7 of their first round series against the Utah Jazz, and in doing so ended an illustrious 19-year NBA career for The Truth.

Pierce, 39, saw his team go down by a score of 104-91. The former Boston Celtics star also saw time with the Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets before making his final stop in LA.

After the game, Pierce thanked his fans in every NBA city.

Via Twitter:

Current and former NBA players got in on congratulating Pierce on an incredible career on social media:

Shout out to Paul Pierce for an incredible career.

We meet again: Cavaliers, Raptors back together in postseason

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CLEVELAND (AP) We The North vs. We Are The Champions.

One round earlier than a year ago, Toronto and Cleveland are meeting again in the NBA playoffs.

On the way to winning their first title last season, LeBron James and the Cavs took care of the Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals, a series that was tied 2-2 before Cleveland won the final two games. The teams finished this season with identical 51-31 records and their history makes for an intriguing May matchup.

“They know us,” James said, “and we know them.”

After sweeping Indiana in the opening round, the Cavs will have waited a full week before Monday’s Game 1 tips off at Quicken Loans Arena, where Cleveland is 15-1 against conference opponents over the past three postseasons.

The down time gave James and his teammates a chance to recharge, heal some nagging bumps and bruises and prepare for a Toronto team that not only added Serge Ibaka (acquired from Orlando in February) and P.J. Tucker (acquired from Phoenix at the trade deadline) this season, but is looking for revenge after having its season ended by Cleveland in 2016.

These Raptors don’t want that to happen again.

“We’ve got some fighters and scrappers,” coach Dwane Casey said after Toronto eliminated Milwaukee in six games. “The guys are going to compete. We make it hard on ourselves sometime, but at the end of the day we’re going to go down swinging.”

They submitted last year in Game 6 at home, when James scored 33 points with 11 rebounds, six assists and three blocks in Cleveland’s 113-87 win.

“He canceled Christmas,” Casey said earlier this season. “One of these days … one of these days.”

For the Raptors to knock off the Cavs, whose shaky defense still showed some significant holes against the Pacers, Toronto stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry will have to be at their best.

“The two-headed monster,” Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue said.

DeRozan averaged 23.5 points per game in the opening round against the Bucks, and may need to bump that into the 30s for the Raptors to have a chance.

Toronto lost three of four against Cleveland this season with the only win coming in the season finale, when Lue rested James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love.

Here are some other things to keep in mind as James takes another step toward a possible seventh straight trip to the Finals:

ROAD WARRIOR: James loves the road, where he has won at least one game in a record 27 consecutive playoff series.

The three-time champion revels in the discomfort of being booed and hated.

“Home cooking is great; love the home fans for 14 years,” he said. “But I love playing out on the road more than I love playing at home. It’s just a weird thing. I love the adversity. … It’s the bunker mentality of knowing it’s 15 guys plus the coaching staff and whoever there that’s traveled with us against the whole state and the whole city.”

Or in this case, all of Canada.

KYLE IS KEY: Lowry is back to full speed after missing 21 games following surgery on his right wrist. He averaged 14.3 points and 5.2 rebounds against the Bucks, but the Raptors will need more from him to dethrone the Cavs.

Lowry might be able to exploit Cleveland’s suspect perimeter defense and lack of a true rim protector by driving to the basket.

FREE-THROW WOES: After making a career-low 67 percent of his free throws in the regular season, James went only 22 of 38 (58 percent) from the line in the opening round.

None of his misses was too costly, but the pressure only intensifies from here with every make and every miss meaning more.

DEMAR THE STAR: DeRozan can get his shot off any place, any time. Like they did with Paul George in the first round, the Cavs are expected to focus their attention Toronto’s best player, harassing him with double teams to make him give up the ball.

“He’s one of the best one-on-one players in our league right now, and he does a good job of getting to the free-throw line,” Lue said. “His mid-range jumper is automatic and he can also get to the basket where he’s very athletic. He’s a tough cover and we just want to make him make field goals and not free throws and make it hard on him.”

ON THE MOVE: James has been climbing various lists all season and he’s still rising. He enters the series 60 points behind Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (5.682) for the second place on the career postseason scoring list. Once he passes Mr. Sky Hook, next on the list is His Airness, Michael Jordan (5,987).

More AP NBA: apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Wizards’ Markieff Morris rolled his ankle so hard he “thought it was broke” (VIDEO)

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The Washington Wizards dropped Game 1 of their semi final round against the Boston Celtics on Sunday. A big part of that loss was the absence of Markieff Morris, who turned his ankle with just a few minutes to go in the first quarter.

Morris was shooting a jumper from the left elbow extended with Boston’s Al Horford contesting. Horford didn’t give Morris enough of a chance to land, and a foul was called.

The video of Morris’ ankle turning is pretty gross, especially if you’re a basketball player, so just be forewarned.

Via Twitter:

After the game Wizards coach Scott Brooks said he did not have an update on Morris’ status but that they would see how he was feeling on Monday.

Morris, meanwhile, said he initially thought he had broken his ankle.

Speaking to MassLive.com, Morris said as much:

“This was my worst one,” Morris said. “I kind of twist my ankles like this, that’s my injury, an ankle twist. But this was by far the worst one. I honestly thought it was broke. They got the swelling to go down a whole lot, but it almost was like the size of a softball.”

Game 2 of the series is in Boston on Tuesday.

Utah’s depth, 26 from Gordon Hayward lift Jazz to Game 7 win 104-91, eliminates Clippers

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This ended up being a series — and a Game 7 — about depth.

Without Blake Griffin, the Clippers depth was tested and faltered, particularly on the offensive end. The Clippers scored just 15 points in the third quarter of Game 7 as the Jazz took a comfortable lead. Los Angeles shot 6-of-25 (24 percent) from three in Game 7. J.J. Redick was a non-factor. A Los Angeles offense that averaged 110.3 points per 100 possessions during the season was at 94.7 in Game 7 and 107.7 for the entire postseason

Utah, on the other hand, had their star center Rudy Gobert in foul trouble all game — he played 5 minutes in the first half, 13:26 for the game, and finished with just one point. Gordon Hayward, Utah’s leading scorer on the season, started the game 4-of-14 through three quarters (but played a strong fourth and finished with 26 points).

The difference was Utah got a huge Game 7 from Derrick Favors, who had 17 points and 11 rebounds, that made up for what the Jazz lost with Gobert. George Hill added 17 points at the point for Utah, which had seven players in double figures. They found ways to get offense from sources other than their brightest stars.

Combine that depth with the fantastic defense the Jazz played all season and the result was an impressive 104-91 win in Game 7 on the road. Utah beat the Clippers three out of four games in Staples Center this series (and Los Angeles picked up one in Utah).

The win advances the Jazz to take on the Warriors starting Tuesday night in Oakland.

The game was also the final one in an amazing 19-year career for Paul Pierce. The Clipper forward said he would retire at the end of the season, and he is bound for the Hall of Fame.

However, this series was more about depth and how the teams handled adversity due to it.

Utah struggled with injuries all season — their preferred starting five played in just 13 games together in the regular season due to injuries. That led to guys learning new roles, learning how to adapt, and play in different combinations — all things that mattered against the Clippers and in Game 7.

“It was a battle, the whole series was a battle,” Gordon Hayward said after Game 7. “Tonight was no different. It was fun out there, though. Especially competing with my teammates, with what we’ve been through this year with injuries and everything, it’s just a great win for us.”

The Clippers lost one of their big three when Blake Griffin went down with a foot injury that required surgery. Los Angeles has a top-heavy (and expensive) roster that lacked the depth to make up for it or adjust to Griffin being out.

“Not having Blake is a major wound. Obviously, you take your best scorer, your second best rebounder, your second best passer off a team,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said postgame. “But give Utah credit, they won this series.”

For the Clippers, the entire series became about Chris Paul needing to do everything — and he almost did. The Jazz were aggressive defensively trying to take the ball out of CP3’s hands Sunday, and he still had 13 points and 9 assists in Game 7, he pushed his team as far as he could, but he was 1-of-7 from three and the other Clippers shooters did not step up.

“They trapped him a lot, the same thing they did last game, to be honest,” Rivers said. “We just didn’t move the ball great as a whole group. I thought CP was great overall, he got a little tired, I thought a couple guys did… we just had such a short rotation it was very difficult. But I thought they did a great job trapping and I didn’t think we did a very good job of, after CP got rid of the ball, attacking back. I thought we lost our trust a little bit, we’d catch it and throw it back to CP instead of attacking.”

Paul was blunter in his assessment of himself.

“I’ve got to be better, especially in a Game 7 like this,” Paul said.

To be fair, Paul tweaked his ankle in the third quarter, and while he played through it he was never quite the same after.

This loss leads to an interesting offseason for the Clippers where Griffin and Paul are expected to opt out of their contracts and become free agents, joining J.J. Redick, Marreese Speights, and Luc Mbah a Moute. The Clippers are expected to bring back Paul on a five-year max contract, but this loss could be the one that has management thinking it’s time for something new — does Clipper owner Steve Ballmer want to foot the luxury tax bill that would come with one of the highest payrolls in the league to run this back?

“We’ve been reading our obituary for three months,” Rivers said.

For the Jazz, it’s just another step up the ladder for an improving young team. Now they get to test themselves against the best in the league, starting Tuesday night at Oracle.