The Extra Pass: Fixing Pacers offense not simple, easy

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The Indiana Pacers are a mess.

A second place in the conference mess. The team’s month-long swoon — one that has gone from “oh, these stretches happen to every team” to “maybe we should really be worried here” — finally caught up with them when the Pacers’ loss to the Spurs Monday night allowed the Miami Heat to pass the Pacers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

A team that looked like a legit title contender the first months of the season has been 8-10 since March 1 and in the past couple weeks their game has smelled like organic fertilizer. The most points the Indiana Pacers have scored in their last five games is 84 (their lone win in that stretch, vs. Miami). Against the Spurs Monday night the Spurs put up 77 points on 37.7 percent shooting. It wasn’t pretty.

While the Pacers’ vaunted defense has slipped (102.1 points per 100 possessions in their last five games, 11 more than they surrendered on average in first 30 games of the season) it is their offense that has been painful to watch. In the first 30 games of the season they were scoring 103 points per 100 possessions, which wasn’t exceptional (would be 18th in the NBA for the season), but with their defense it was enough.

In their last five games the Pacers have scored just 85.8 points per 100 possessions. They are pointing fingers at each other over it.

The rut their offense is in, the problems in their game, are just not ones easily fixed. Here’s a short list.

• Lack of elite ball handling/shot creation. Against the Spurs 22.9 percent of the Pacers’ shots came from the pick-and-roll ball handler (the largest single way they generated shots), and they shot 5-of-14 on those and turned the ball over on 22.7 percent of those plays (stats via Synergy Sports). Because a lot of guys with questionable handles have the ball in their hands, when the defensive pressure picks up — as it did against the Spurs — they struggle. And that defensive pressure is only going to get more intense as we get into the playoffs.

• Early in the season the Pacers adjusted for that lack of ball handling by creating shots through good ball movement, spacing and moving better off the ball. Those days are gone. Their offense is often stagnant and too often guys seem to overload the strong side and not space the floor to create driving lanes. When they cut it seems to be going through the motions, not with a purpose. The Spurs in particular also did not really respect the three point shooting of the Pacers and packed the lane at points.

• The Pacer really miss C.J. Watson — the solid, veteran point guard has played just 8 minutes since March 4 due to a combination of elbow and hamstring issues. With him leading the way the Pacers bench had been a strong suit early in the season (or at least not the black hole it had been last season) and Watson was a key reason. He could be back within the next week and if so that would be a big boost — he can provide some of the ball handling they need, help stabalize the offense. He could also lead a bench where Luis Scola and Evan Turner have not looked good of late.

• The Pacers screen setting and use of screens has been unimpressive. The number of screens set where the guy setting the pick doesn’t make contact with the defender (because he rolls out too early or because the ball handler leaves space to get through) is entirely too high.

• Their slow pace of play lets the defense get set, so they get no easy baskets in transition.

• When Roy Hibbert talks about selfish players, he is talking about Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner. As Tom Haberstroh of ESPN pointed out on twitter, in the 149 minutes Turner and Hibbert had played together since the trade deadline move to bring Turner to Indiana, he has gotten one assist passing to Hibbert. One.

• Turner has not been a fit, he played less than 7 minutes against the Spurs. Meanwhile, Danny Granger has thrived in Los Angeles given more freedom in an offense and as he got his legs back under him (although he is out injured, and you have to wonder if he can stay healthy).

• The Pacers are not working inside out with Hibbert, not getting him the rock when he does establish position. That said, he’s grown frustrated and is now part of the problem, not the solution.

The list could go on, but you get the idea.

Indiana had made their offense work thanks to Paul George playing at an elite level, Lance Stephenson not being selfish (is it just me that thinks after the All-Star Game, and in a contract year, he has looked out for his numbers a lot more?) and some solid bench play. No more.

It’s not that they can’t get back to sharing the ball, spacing the floor, to hitting some of the jumpers they are missing now (which is an issue). They can. But can they do those things at a level that would lift them past the Miami Heat over the course of seven games? I picked the Pacers to do that (to win it all, actually) before the season but I’m no longer sold. I’m not sure they can fully pull out of this skid.

The good news is they have not only the next 16 days to figure it out, but also they have the first round of the playoffs (which in the East will essentially be a tune-up round against an inferior opponent, a team like Charlotte will fight but can’t beat even these Pacers).

However, if they can get back to a Game 7 against the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals, now that game will likely be in Miami (a team that has won 10 of their last 11 when Dwyane Wade sits and rests). The Pacers have surrendered their home court.

Not that it will matter if they keep playing like this.

Raptors troll Bucks after closing in Game 6 with RapsIn6.com website (VIDEO)

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Despite a disastrous fourth quarter performance, the Toronto Raptors closed the series against the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday night. The Raptors came away from Game 6 with a 92-89 victory and a chance to take on the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round.

Meanwhile, the rivalry between the Raptors and the Bucks appears to be alive and well, as the Raptors pushed a video on social media after the game ended that was pointed toward the Bucks.

In it, the Raptors mascot registers a domain name for the team at RapsIn6.com, then proceeds to sip tea in the style of the famous Kermit meme.

In case you are out of the loop, this is a reference to Brandon Jennings saying Milwaukee would beat the Miami Heat in six games back in 2013.

Meanwhile, game ops at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee played the theme song from the children’s TV show “Barney” during Raptors player introductions.

Nothing really happens if you go to RapsIn6.com. There’s nothing on the website save for the video the Raptors posted to social media, which you can watch above.

Toronto has their core together and presumably will for a little while. The Bucks are a growing young team. I’m cool with them duking it out in the postseason for years to come.

Bucks storm back at home, Raptors hang on for 92-89 win, advance to second round

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Nothing can be easy for the Raptors.

They were cruising, up 25 in the third quarter, whipping the ball around on offense, hitting threes, making sharp rotations on defense, and generally overwhelming a Bucks team that did not look ready for the moment.

Then everything changed. The Raptors offense went ice cold, and the ball movement stopped, and the Bucks were getting big plays from Giannis Antetokounmpo and — out of nowhere — Jason Terry. Across the third-and-fourth quarters the Bucks went on a 34-7 run, hitting 5-of-7 from three, one of those a Terry three to put the Bucks up 80-78.

The Raptors then responded like a veteran team, going on a 9-0 run led by DeMar DeRozan, who was the best Toronto player in the series. The Bucks had their chances, but shot 6-of-14 on free throws in the fourth, and Milwaukee started to look tired like the comeback had taken too much out of them. They made the mental mistakes of a young team learning hard lessons.

Toronto hung on for a 92-89 win, and they take the series 4-2.

The Raptors will open their conference semifinal series against the Cavaliers on Monday night in Cleveland.

The star of the night for Toronto was clearly DeRozan, who finished with 32 points on 12-of-24 shooting. Beyond that, he was quick with the recognition of double-teams and was moving the ball, plus had a key defensive play late. However, his biggest moment was this dunk.

The Bucks came out with some desperation early. Antetokounmpo had 14 in the first quarter and got his team off to a good start, but the Raptors settled down, got the ball inside, kicked out for threes, and led by 28-24 at the half.

Milwaukee fell into playing a lot of isolation basketball, while the Raptors were moving the ball and finding the mismatches. The result was a 13-point second quarter from the Bucks (who shot just 3-of-17 from outside the paint in the first half and 1-of-9 from three), and a 51-38 Raptors lead at the half. DeRozan had 16 at the break.

The second half saw the Raptors seem to pull away, going up 25 at one point and being in total control.

Then the Bucks made it interesting. It started with a 15-3 run at the end of the third, which carried over to the fourth quarter and soon the lead was in single digits. The key was some ball movement for the Bucks, some made threes, great play from Antetokounmpo.

However, the larger issue was the Raptors just came apart on offense. From the 6 minute mark of the third quarter through the middle of the fourth, the Raptors were 4-of-16 shooting total, 2-of-8 from three, and that was led by DeRozan suddenly going 1-of-6. The Raptors let them back in the game.

What veteran teams know how to do — and what the Bucks are still learning — is how to bounce back from those stretches. Kyle Lowry made some solid plays, DeRozan dunked, the Raptors got some stops, and they found a way to hang on for the win.

DeRozan and Lowry — 13 points — were the only Raptors to finish in double figures.

Antetokounmpo had 34 for the Bucks and carried his team for long stretches. Khris Middleton added 19, and Matthew Dellavedova had a dozen off the bench.

 

Serge Ibaka, Giannis Antetokounmpo trade massive blocks during Raptors-Bucks (VIDEO)

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Giannis Antetokounmpo is a long dude. So is Toronto Raptors big man Serge Ibaka. The two faced off in Game 6 at the Bradley Center on Thursday night, so it makes sense the two wound up using one of their most impressive physical assets against each other.

Let the battle of length begin!

Via Twitter:

That’s Ibaka blocking the Milwaukee Bucks star on an attempt at the rim, on a dunk no less. That was impressive, no doubt, but just a minute later, it was Antetokounpmo coming through with a big time block on DeMar DeRozan:

But DeRozan got his revenge later in the fourth quarter, throwing down a dunk over the Bucks defense that was perhaps the finger in the wall needed to stop the leak that was Toronto’s disastrous final period.

DeRozan and the Raptors got the last laugh, winning the closeout game on the road, 92-89. Toronto will go on to play the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semi finals.

Should the Trail Blazers go after Pacers star Paul George? CJ McCollum says yes

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The Portland Trail Blazers need to do something drastic this offseason. Fans in Oregon should be expecting something big with a roster of players prime for the trade market and three first round picks in GM Neil Olshey’s pocket for the 2017 NBA Draft.

Who should Portland go after? That is a tough question to answer.

The Blazers are not exactly a huge free agent destination, although the city is changing its reputation toward NBA players in recent years with the help of star players Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum, who have fully embraced Oregon’s largest city.

McCollum, in fact, has his own opinion on who the Blazers should go after this summer: Indiana Pacers star Paul George.

Via Twitter:

George, who is under contract for 2017-18 but has a player option for 2018-19, has been rumored to desire playing in Los Angeles. In any case, fans around the league are looking at George as a potential trade candidate.

He would certainly do well on the Blazers, who had a disappointing 41-41 season in 2016-17. After a surprising effort last year, the Trail Blazers were slotted to expand upon their finish in 2016. But a sluggish start from Damian Lillard mixed with one of the worst defensive rosters in the NBA found them battling for the No. 8 seed come the end of the season. Even still, a miraculous stretch of good play after the All-Star Game was what it took for the Blazers to beat out the likes of Denver, Dallas, and Sacramento for the final playoff spot.

We know now that the Blazers were swept by the top-seeded Golden State Warriors, and up here in the Northwest it only solidified the fact Portland needs to get better on the wing.

Last season, Al-Farouq Aminu showed he could shoot a league average percentage from 3-point range, which helped relieve some pressure off Lillard and CJ McCollum. But Aminu regressed to shooting 33 percent from deep in 2017, and although Maurice Harkless did an excellent job as a young starter he’s not yet the kind of dynamic offensive player the Blazers need to be a Top 4 team in the West.

Aminu projects for Portland better as a 4, and with Jusuf Nurkic now anchoring the center position, the goal for Portland will be to strengthen the wing and flesh out the bench.

George would be an excellent get, but the Blazers would need to have the salaries match in any trade with Indiana. Allen Crabbe seems the most likely option, given his RFA match for Portland was a clear move to retain an asset. Evan Turner occupied a lot of guard minutes for Portland, and it seems the Blazers aim to keep him.

Meanwhile, you have other players like Meyers Leonard and Ed Davis who still have some value and could help Portland’s cap situation or work as part of a trade with Indiana.

Having watched Portland closely the past six seasons or so, and seeing how parts of this roster has developed, it would make the most sense to add a third star to this team. Turner hamstrings the bench unit with his gargantuan $17 million salary next season, so building out the bench unit under him still won’t put the Blazers in a position to compete with the top teams in the West without another star.

I think the clearest way to capitalize on the prime part of the careers for Lillard and McCollum is to grab another star right now. George might be out of reach — and he reportedly wants to play in LA anyway — but I think the Blazers should think big this offseason. Whether that means trading for George or doing something else bold remains to be seen.