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.

Joel Embiid has 28 points, 14 rebounds leads Sixers to Seventh straight win

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Joel Embiid had 28 points and 14 rebounds, and the Philadelphia 76ers extended their season-high win streak to seven with a 116-105 victory over the Orlando Magic on Saturday.

Six 76ers scored in double figures. Ben Simmons had 17 points and seven assists, and 3-point specialist J.J. Redick added 16 points on 6-for-8 shooting – and just one 3-pointer. Marco Belinelli had 15 points, Robert Covington had 12 and Dario Saric scored 11.

Aaron Gordon led Orlando with 20 points, including four 3s, to go with seven rebounds and seven assists. Evan Fournier scored 16 points, and former Sixer Nik Vucevic had 15 points and nine rebounds for the Magic, who have lost five straight.

Philadelphia led 58-40 at halftime and 71-49 in the third when Orlando used an 11-2 burst, capped by Aaron Gordon’s 3-pointer, to close within 13.

But the Sixers put on a show to finish the quarter.

Embiid overpowered a few Magic defenders for a slam, and then gestured to the crowd after being fouled while soaring to the hoop on a dunk attempt. After Embiid and Trevor Booker swatted consecutive shots in the final seconds, T.J. McConnell used a crossover move to finish a drive at the buzzer and give the Sixers an 87-71 lead entering the fourth.

Orlando used a late 15-2 run to get within nine and nearly cut it to six with 1:21 left, but a 3-point attempt by Mario Hezonja spilled out.

Midway through the first quarter, Philadelphia had more turnovers (three) than field goals (two) and trailed 15-6. The Sixers then erupted for a 21-3 run and ended the quarter up 27-18.

E-A-G-L-E-S

Orlando head coach Frank Vogel wore an Eagles Super Bowl champions T-shirt during his pregame media availability. A native of Wildwood, New Jersey, Vogel makes sure to get a taste of home when he returns to the Philadelphia area.

“Cheesesteaks, Tastykakes, Yuengling beer if we beat the Sixers,” Vogel said. “Wawa coffee, but I get Wawa in Orlando now. I did get a cheesesteak today.”

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz rang the ceremonial Liberty Bell before the game.

“I think it’s awesome,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said. “He can come over and ring as many bells as he chooses.”

 

Report: Jimmy Butler telling people he will be back for playoffs

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We don’t know a lot about Jimmy Butler‘s meniscus injury (other than that it’s not an ACL injury as feared). Because of that, it’s impossible to put a timeline on his return. We don’t know what kind of surgery he likely needs — a traditional meniscus partial removal takes six weeks or so to get a player back on the court (but is harder on the knee long-term as cushioning in it is removed, Dwyane Wade had this), but a repair could take three months or more before he is back on the court. Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said this pregame Saturday:

However, Butler himself is telling people he will be back for the playoffs.

Is that the optimism of a fierce competitor? Players are often the worst judge of their ability to return from injury.

Or, does he know that a meniscus repair is out of the question with his injury, that a partial removal is the only option (as is true in some cases)? That has a speedier return that could have him back for the playoffs.

In the short-term, Minnesota is going to need a lot more out of Andrew Wiggins, and they need to play a lot better team defense, to hold on to a playoff slot in the West. The Timberwolves have been -8.3 per 100 possessions without Butler this season, but went 2-2 in the four games he missed. Minnesota is currently the four seed in the West at 36-26, but just three games from falling out of the postseason in a crowded conference.

Jimmy Butler has meniscus injury, not ACL. Will miss time, return TBD.

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Rarely is a meniscus injury good news, but it is for the Timberwolves.

It looked like Jimmy Butler had torn his ACL in a loss to Houston Friday night, he had to be helped off the court and he could not put weight on it. But instead, he has an injured meniscus in his right knee, an MRI revealed.

Notice the report says meniscus “injury” not “tear.” Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports reported it is a tear.

If surgery is needed and recovery times differ depending on the severity of the injury. Officially, there is no timetable for his return yet — he could be back for the playoffs. Or not.

If it is a tear, as expected, that means surgery. Most of the time a surgical meniscus repair will keep a player out at least three months, which would end Butler’s season (a meniscus removal heals faster, but is rarely done anymore because long-term it is harder for the knee and the player, think of Dwyane Wade as an example).

Butler leads the NBA in minutes played per game, although he had eight days off before Friday’s game. He was selected an All-Star reserve by the coaches but chose to sit out the big game because he said he needed rest for the rest of the season. His coach, Tom Thibodeau, leans heavily on his best players and does not subscribe to the kind of rest we see in Golden State, San Antonio, and other programs trying to keep players fresh.

Minnesota has to hang on for the playoffs, the team is -8.3 points per 100 possessions when Butler is not on the court this season. At 36-26, the Timberwolves are currently the four seed in the West, but just three games from falling out of the playoffs.

Steve Ballmer: “Difficult” Blake Griffin trade moves Clippers toward modern NBA

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Last summer, Clippers owner Steve Ballmer went all-in on Blake Griffin. They wooed him with a mini-museum tour of his life, did a mock jersey retirement, told him they wanted him to be a “Clipper for life,” then sealed the deal with a five-year, $173 million maximum contract offer. Griffin accepted and never even met with another team.

Within eight months, the Clippers traded Griffin to Detroit for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovich, and a lightly protected 2018 first-round pick.

What changed? Was it another injury to Griffin that sidelined him and had the Clippers questioning their investment? Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN asked Ballmer about the decision.

“[Griffin] is obviously a superstar player,” said Ballmer. “But if you look at what happened injury-wise, if you look at the kind of chemistry we were getting on our team, the thing you can see at the high level with the numbers when I started — one guy got all the assists, one guy got all the points and one guy got all the rebounds. It’s not all quite that way, but I think in the modern NBA, we were seeing it more and more — there’s a greater distribution of responsibility….

“We have to add some pieces obviously, but I think we’re building for what I think is the modern NBA, and that trend has only accelerated since we signed Blake last summer.”

Ballmer thinks he can use this trade and the Chris Paul one last summer to begin to retool a roster in that fashion, saying that winning a ring is his goal. Maybe he can, but…

The Clippers are a long way from being that kind of a modern NBA team.

Talent still wins out in basketball. Those elite “modern NBA” have superstars — Stephen Curry, James Harden, etc. — who rack up a lot of numbers, but also where the other players are versatile threats. With Brad Stevens in charge, Boston runs a modern, egalitarian offense, but at the heart of it is Kyrie Irving and, eventually, Gordon Hayward as stars who can just get buckets and use their gravity to draw defenders, opening things up for others. Then there are All-Star level players around them such as Al Horford.

Without Chris Paul and J.J. Redick this season, the Clippers had to run the offense through Griffin because, well, who else? Danilo Gallinari can create some when healthy, but he’s really a second or third option and works better of the ball. DeAndre Jordan is a threat as a roll man but it takes a special point guard and passer to bring out the best in him. Austin Rivers has developed into a solid rotation point guard in the NBA, but he’s not a No. 1 option. Lou Williams is really their only other guy who can create at that level. The Clippers may have leaned on Griffin too much, but it’s not like Doc Rivers had better choices sitting around.

What is going to be interesting is to see what the Clippers do this summer — do they back up the Brinks truck and re-sign DeAndre Jordan? Do they try to bring back Bradley and Patrick Beverley? Do they keep or trade Lou Williams, who just extended with the team but at a very reasonable price ($8 million per year)? Can they move Danilo Gallinari (which would require attaching a first-round pick)?

Ballmer says he doesn’t want to bottom out and rebuild, but if Jordan leaves how much does that change the scenario? The Clippers 2019 first-round pick belongs to Boston but is lottery protected. What the Clippers don’t want is for a year from now to be exactly where they are today in the standings — on the cusp of the playoffs trying to get in. While the lottery odds change in 2019, they need to either be a rebuilding team that’s going to keep that pick, or find a way to push up into the standings (which is not going to be easy in a deep West).

It’s good to be moving toward a more modern NBA, but it’s going to be a process for the Clippers.