ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Indiana Pacers

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Last season: The Pacers continued their upward trajectory – missing the playoffs in 2009-10, reaching the first round in 2010-11, reaching the second round in 2011-12 and reaching the conference finals in 2012-13. With George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert, Indiana had statistically the best lineup in the NBA. The Pacers played great defense and good-enough offense, and that got them to a Game 7 against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals. For now, that qualifies as a highly successful season.

Signature highlights from last season:  Forcing a seven-game series with Miami had nothing to do with the Heat overlooking the Pacers. Indiana was just that good and that fearless.

Key player changes: The Pacers’ offseason was all about upgrading their bench. They traded for Luis Scola and signed Chris Copeland and C.J. Watson.

Tyler Hansbrough and D.J. Augustin signed with Toronto, and Gerald Green and Miles Plumlee were traded to get Scola. But if the new bench performs as well as hoped, those players will be just afterthoughts.

Keys to the Pacers’ season:

1) Was last season’s playoff run a fluke? Without doubt, the Pacers deserved to reach Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. Indiana played better than its first two postseason opponents, the Hawks and Knicks, and nearly as well as the Heat. But most teams that make it that far have already proven their abilities through sustained excellence during the long regular season.

Indiana had a good regular season, going 49-32, but that still falls well short of the average conference finalist, and perhaps, that indicates the Pacers were playing at their peak form during the playoffs rather than demonstrating a new baseline.

For what it’s worth, none of the last three teams to reach the conference finals without winning 50 games (adjusted for shortened seasons) – the 2012Celtics,2003Nets,2002Celtics – returned to the conference finals the following year.

2) Is David West too old? West is one of the NBA’s most underrated players. Tough and smart, West has been a huge asset to the Pacers both on the court and in the locker room. But he’s 33, an age when many players decline significantly or have already. West’s backup, Luis Scola, is even older. If West takes a step back, that could be a major setback for the Pacers. Nearly as much as their recent All-Stars, Paul George and Roy Hibbert, West is crucial to the Pacers’ success.

3) How well will Paul George and Danny Granger play together? They say they’ll be fine, and they very well could be. But this is really tough to project, because George is like a superhero who just discovered his powers. Until George learns how to stop clumsily shooting spider webs all over the place and when not to show up the local jocks by outrunning their car, there’s little use trying to gel with Granger. Once George stops evolving at a rapid pace, then maybe he can find chemistry with Granger.

For the Pacers, their wish here is a balancing act. They want George to get a lot better  (and he’s already at a high level), even if that means George’s game continuously takes different shapes, but they still want him and Granger to have time to mesh.

Why you should watch the Pacers: This is a team with legitimate title aspirations. The Pacers’ defense is already at a championship level, but their offense must catch up. It seems they have enough pieces to build a better offense, but it’s just a matter of figuring out how the puzzle fits together. Frank Vogel is a good coach, and his tinkering will be intriguing.

Prediction: 54-28. Until they indicate otherwise, the Heat belong atop any Eastern Conference projections. After that, take your pick between the Pacers, Nets and Bulls. The growth of Paul George and the reliability of David West and the bench will determine whether Indiana returns to the conference finals or falls short in a tougher Eastern Conference.

Nets’ national anthem singer kneels to finish performance

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NEW YORK (AP)—  The national anthem singer at the Brooklyn Nets’ home opener took a knee at the end of her performance.

Justine Skye was nearing the completion of the song Friday night when she went to one knee for the finish. There were some cheers, but appeared to be more boos from the crowd at Barclays Center to see the Nets play the Orlando Magic.

NBA players have continued to stand during the playing of the anthems, as required by league rule.

Mavericks’ rookie guard Dennis Smith Jr. misses game with knee swelling

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DALLAS (AP) — Dallas Mavericks rookie point guard Dennis Smith Jr. missed Friday’s game against the Sacramento Kings with swelling in his left knee.

Smith, the ninth pick in the NBA draft out of North Carolina State, had 16 points and 10 assists in the Mavericks’ season-opening loss to the Atlanta Hawks.

Smith participated in the Mavericks’ shootaround on Friday morning and was a late scratch. It is not known if Smith will play Saturday for Dallas.

The Mavericks were also missing guard Devin Harris, who was granted leave of absence after his brother died on Thursday.

Watch Lonzo Ball’s 29 point, 11 rebound, 9 assist game Friday night

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This was more of what fans expected from Lonzo Ball.

After a rough first game against the Clippers — with Patrick Beverley in his face all night — Ball found plenty of room to operate against the soft defense of the Phoenix Suns. With room to operate Ball had 29 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists — just one assist short of a triple-double. He helped the Lakers pull away to a lead in the third then hold on for a 132-130 win over the Suns.

Ball wasn’t terribly efficient, 12-of-27 shooting, but he was 4-of-9 from three, he played with great pace, he was decisive, and was finding guys with his passes. It was a step forward, even if it was against a sad defense (Eric Bledsoe can be a good defender, but he has seemed disinterested in recent years).

Ball and the Lakers are going to be up and down this season, the goal is for there to be more ups near the end of the season.

LeBron James rejects Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim

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Through the first couple games of the season, Giannis Antetokounmpo has put up impressive numbers — he dropped 34 points, 8 rebounds, and 8 assists on the Cavaliers Friday night.

But the Cavaliers still have LeBron James.

He had 24 points and 8 assists, leading Cleveland to the win.

LeBron also reminded the Greek Freak just how good a rim protector he is. Few people can slow Antetokounmpo on the drive, but LeBron is one of them.

Is it too early to root for a Cavs vs. Bucks playoff series?