Indiana Pacers v Los Angeles Lakers

The Extra Pass: Should Indiana be worried about its offense? And Tuesday’s recaps.

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LOS ANGELES — Indiana is the best team in the NBA right now — they have the best record in the league (by percentage points over Oklahoma City) and they have the best point differential in the league. The Pacers are legitimate title contenders.

They have done all that in spite of their offense.

The Pacers are scoring 102.8 points per 100 possessions this season, which is 18th best in the NBA. That pedestrian number is masked by their top ranked defense, and with that they still have the best point differential in the league per possession. While there have been stretches where the offense has been above average, it has at no point been elite.

Is that something to worry about?

“Yea, a little bit, we want to be in the Top 10,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said before his team took on the Lakers Tuesday night — and struggled for a half on offense against one of the league’s worst defenses. “With where our defense is, we feel if we are in the top 10 we are where we want to be. It’s probably not as high as we want to be.”

“We’ve got to get back to being consistent on the offensive end, sharing the ball, moving it, setting guys up, getting guys open and continuing to play for one another,” Paul George said.

Tuesday night the Pacers looked like a team with tired legs at the end of a road trip —George was 4-of-21 and didn’t have the lift we are accustomed to. Danny Granger was 3-of-10 shooting. As a team the Pacers were 2-of-11 from three in the first half.

Once again, as it has been for much of the season, it was left to Lance Stephenson to create offense, particularly on the perimeter in the half court. He responded, as he has much of the season — but Vogel admitted this was not the vision he had starting the season.

“I wanted to expand his role,” Vogel said of his plans for Stephenson going into training camp. “What I envisioned was getting him out early, bringing him back to play with the bench unit and running offense through him. That sort of expanded when he started producing with the starting unit. So obviously, we’re a balanced team and we’re going to go to the hot hand so to speak, or to whoever is making the most efficient plays. With the second unit that’s who we’re going with, but a lot of times with the first unit he’s been great too.”

The second unit is becoming a little more about Granger, who is in a sixth man role that he willingly has accepted. But Granger is not yet his old self.

“He’s coming, he’s coming,” Vogel said of Granger. “He’s not there yet, he knows that. There’s going to be good nights and not so good nights, good plays and not so good plays. When you come back from a major knee surgery like that you’re not really yourself until the second year. He’s only 18 or 19 games. But he’s got four months to play before we start the playoffs, and that’s where we think he will be the biggest factor for us.”

Against the Lakers — who want to run but don’t really bother to play transition defense — the Pacers got 17.4 percent of their attempts in transition. That’s part of the plan, Vogel said, describing what he wants the Pacers to play with is “intelligent tempo.”

“We want to explore for early strikes every time we get the ball, we don’t want to do it at the cost of turnovers, low turnovers, and (we want) great shots — not good shots, or average shots, or bad shots. Great shots and low turnovers,” Vogel said.

Come the playoffs, there will be less of that — which is fine by Indiana. The game slows down in the playoffs and that means the Pacers can get back and set their fierce defense.

But they are still going to have to score in the half court, and do it a bit more efficiently than they have to this point. At least they’ll need to against Miami and it’s aggressive defense (the rest of the East, it won’t matter). The Pacers have time to get back to what Paul George seems to remember them doing better.

Their offense isn’t really something to worry about, but a little concern is not out of order.

—Kurt Helin
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source:  Pelicans 100, Cavaliers 89: Anthony Davis put up a monster stat line of 30 points, seven rebounds and eight blocked shots for the Pelicans, who had little trouble with a Cavs team playing without Anderson Varejao due to injury. On the Cavs’ side, Kyrie Irving was average and Dion Waiters was slightly above, but the bright spot was rookie and number one overall draft pick Anthony Bennett, who cracked double figures scoring for the first time with 15 points and eight rebounds in 31 minutes of action. — Brett Pollakoff

Knicks 114, Celtics 88: The Knicks got their third straight victory, and got a small measure of revenge in the process. Boston handed New York two of their worst losses of the season, but this time the result was never in doubt for the Knicks. New York led by as many as 35 points in this one before the game came to its merciful conclusion. Kenyon Martin returned to action, but left with another injury that appeared to be related to his chronic ankle issues. Iman Shumpert also left in the first quarter with a shoulder injury and did not return, and his status moving forward remains unknown. It was an easy win for the Knicks, but a potentially costly one. –BP

Rockets 97, Spurs 90: Each team was missing one of its key players, but the game remained largely competitive nonetheless. The Spurs were without Kawhi Leonard due to a foot fracture, and the Rockets were without James Harden due to a bruised left thumb. San Antonio squandered a 15-point first half lead, and Houston rallied with a 33-18 third quarter that put them in command. Jeremy Lin hit some clutch shots late to seal it, and Dwight Howard finished with 23 points and 16 rebounds, but shot just 5-of-15 from the field. Howard shot a ridiculous 25 free throws, making 13 as part of San Antonio’s strategy to intentionally put him on the line. As punishment from the gods for employing this soul-crushing strategy, Boris Diaw led the Spurs with 22 points. Houston is now 3-0 against San Antonio on the season, the first time since 1997 where they’ll win the season series. — BP

Pistons 103, Magic 87: Detroit snapped a four-game losing streak thanks to a big performance from Andre Drummond, who finished with 13 points, 17 rebounds and a couple of blocked shots. The Pistons had a 22-point advantage in the paint, and Orlando rookie Victor Oladipo finished with a team-high 19 points off the bench in the losing effort. — BP

Grizzlies 98, Trail Blazers 81: Memphis plays good defense and that was able to turn ever Trail Blazer not named LaMarcus Aldridge (27 points) into a poor shooter — Blazers besides Aldridge shot 29.7 percent. On the other side, Portland is not a strong defensive team and the Grizzlies took advantage racing out 10-0 to open the game, going on to put up 61 first half points on 56.5 percent shooting and hit 4-of-8 threes, Mike Conley had 16 of his 19 in the first half, Zach Randolph had 23 on the night (but needed 22 shots). Damian Lillard was 2-of-9 from three leading a 4-of-24 shooting from beyond the arc night for Portland, and they need those buckets to fall for their offense to click. — Kurt Helin

 Wizards 88, Warriors 85: It felt like this game was played with those just-a-little-to-small carnival basketball rims — the winning Wizards shot 37.8 percent, the losing Warriors 37.5 percent. Stephen Curry had 23 points but needed 23 shots to get there, while Klay Thompson was 5-of-17 and David Lee was 2-of-10. Bradley Beal had 20 points, John Wall was just 6-of-19 shooting but he hit a three with 1:28 left that proved to be the game winner. –KH

 Pacers 104, Lakers 92: Indiana looked like a team on the end of a 10-day trip — they had no legs and it showed with Paul George shooting 4-of-21 and Roy Hibbert was 5-of-11 shooting. That’s why this was a tied game at the half. But the Pacers win with defense — they held the Lakers to 39.4 percent shooting — and by limiting their own mistakes, such as only giving up 4 turnovers all game. Those things and a deeper bench had the Pacers pulling away to win in the second half. Lance Stephenson led the way with 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting, plus he had 14 rebounds. Pau Gasol kept his run of strong play going with 21 points and 13 rebounds. –KH

Evan Fournier “hated” being left off the French national team

ORLANDO, FL - NOVEMBER 11:  Evan Fournier #10 of the Orlando Magic sets up the offense during the game against the Los Angeles Lakers at Amway Center on November 11, 2015 in Orlando, Florida.  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 Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
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One of the most surprising developments of the summer came when Evan Fournier, coming off an excellent year with the Magic, was left off the French national team that went to Rio to compete in the Olympics. Fournier himself doesn’t have a good answer for why he wasn’t included, according to an interview with the French magazine L’Equipe (translation via EuroHoops.net).

“I hated not being in the Olympic Games,” he said. “I had suspected that I won’t make the cut a week before I was informed about it. I was reading interviews where only Rudy (Gobert) was mentioned among the players who didn’t play in the OQT but would go to Rio. In the end, I received a voicemail by Vincent Collet that briefly explained the reasons I was left out.”

Fournier said he didn’t have much communication with the national team, except for when head coach Vincent Collet asked him for tickets to a Magic game.

“The only time I’ve heard from the Federation this year was during a visit from Patrick Beesley (French NT technical director) in Orlando where he told me the dates of the qualifying tournament and Olympics. He didn’t tell me ‘If you do not come in Manila, then you do not come in Rio’. The second time was from an sms by Vincent Collet. It was our only contact outside competitions in the last three years. He was asking me for tickets to a game for his friends. I never closed the door to the French national team but these events sent me a clear message. That i’m not in the project. It’s that simple and it hurts.”

It’s a little bizarre that Fournier, at 23 years old and one of the better basketball players from France, isn’t on the team and a clear reason hasn’t been given. But it sounds like that isn’t going to change anytime soon.

Jamal Crawford rocks Seattle pro-am defender with fake behind-the-back dribble (video)

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 27:  Jamal Crawford #11 of the Los Angeles Clippers reacts to a foul called on his team in a 108-98 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers during Game Five of the Western Conference Quarterfinals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs on April 27, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and condition of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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The Seattle pro-am always produces great highlights.

Here’s another.

Jamal Crawford pretends to go behind his back with his dribble, leaving his defender off balance and whining about a carry. In a pro-am. However you can try to preserve your dignity, I guess.

51 Q: Tom Thibodeau can coach, is he ready to run a franchise?

CLEVELAND, OH - MAY 12: Head coach Tom Thibodeau of the Chicago Bulls yells to his players in the second half against the Cleveland Cavaliers during Game Five in the Eastern Conference Semifinals of the 2015 NBA Playoffs 2015 at Quicken Loans Arena on May 12, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. The Cavaliers defeated the Bulls 106-101. 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 Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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The Minnesota Timberwolves were probably not going to get Tom Thibodeau without the promise of organizational control. After his contentious relationship with the Bulls’ front office led to his exit after five seasons in Chicago, he took a year-long sabbatical from coaching and observed how other organizations run their operations from both a coaching and a front-office standpoint. He was in high demand as a coaching free agent and could essentially name his price, and if he wanted personnel control too, he could have it. That’s what ended up happening in Minnesota, and Thibodeau will be the latest test case in whether the two-in-one model works. Thibodeau’s coaching ability is indisputable. How he’ll fare as an executive is a different question entirely.

The Timberwolves had a solid offseason after a rumored draft-night trade for Jimmy Butler fell apart. Given Thibodeau’s history of stubbornness and intractability, it was a valid fear that he’d take the same approach to roster-building as his former mentor Doc Rivers has in Los Angeles, simply bringing back all of his old mainstays from the Bulls days. With Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Pau Gasol and Kirk Hinrich on the market, the opportunity was there to get the band back together, spending too much money in the process and hindering the development of maybe the most promising young core in the NBA in the name of more wins in the short term.

But Thibodeau didn’t do that. Instead, he and GM Scott Layden plugged some holes with value deals. Getting Cold Aldrich for three years at $22 million gives them a more than serviceable backup center, and they landed Brandon Rush on a one-year deal for $3.5 million to provide some outside shooting. They didn’t do anything to sacrifice long-term flexibility and didn’t sign anyone that will get in the way of Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins or Zach LaVine getting plenty of playing time.

The idea of a coach making personnel decisions is a dicey one for several reasons, not least of which being that it’s harder to have the emotional detachment to trade a player if you see them every day in practice. But the Chicago team Thibodeau inherited in 2010 was a readymade contender that needed a coaching upgrade. This Minnesota team isn’t there yet, and even his ability to get more wins than expected out of any roster he’s given won’t make them truly competitive in the upper echelon of the Western Conference playoff picture, at least not yet. So far, his moves reflect an understanding of that reality.

The first big roster decision Thibodeau will have to make during the season will be the point guard situation. Thibodeau loves Kris Dunn, whom he drafted at No. 5 overall in June, and Dunn provides shooting that Ricky Rubio does not. If Dunn takes the starting spot in training camp, Thibodeau will have to look long and hard at moving Rubio. Gorgui Dieng and Shabazz Muhammad could also wind up on the block, depending on how the rotation shakes out, and how Thibodeau fares at getting a return on his trades will be worth monitoring.

With that said, it’s pretty hard to screw up a core that includes Wiggins and Towns, and Thibodeau seems to know what he has in those two. As long as he can put complementary pieces around them and keep their development up to pace on the court, this experiment should prove to be a success.

Julius Randle lacerates hand, to be re-evaluated in two weeks

Julius Randle
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Julius Randle suffered a season-ending injury in his first NBA game.

His third pro season includes an even earlier setback.

Lakers release:

Lakers forward Julius Randle suffered a laceration to his right hand (webbing between middle and ring fingers) yesterday while practicing. He received seven stitches and will be re-evaluated in approximately 14 days.

Thankfully, this doesn’t sound as major and happened well before training camp. Even if he needs twice as long to heal after his announced reevaluation, he’ll be ready for the preseason.

The key is getting Randle fully recovered. His ball-handling ability for a power forward is a key facet to his game, and a cut in his hand could impede it.