Hawks take a 2-1 series lead over top-seeded Pacers

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When the Pacers put together the monster run to win Game 2 using their top-ranked defense, it was worth noting just how much the offense was continuing to struggle, which made you wonder if that was something that the team would be able to fix in time to win on the road and claim a lead in this series.

In Game 3 in Atlanta, the answer was a resounding no.

Paul George had early foul trouble that caused him to lose any sense of rhythm offensively, and Roy Hibbert was so ineffective on both ends of the floor that he was benched for the entire fourth quarter. The result was the Hawks pulling away for a 98-85 Game 2 victory that sent Indiana to a 2-1 series deficit.

“We’ve got to do a better job creating shots for ourselves,” Pacers head coach Frank Vogel said afterward, in making the most obvious of statements.

Make no mistake — the Pacers didn’t get here on the strength of their offense, which was ranked just 22nd in the league in terms of points per 100 possessions. But throughout the season, George was consistently able to string together solid performances, which were enough to keep the Pacers in it when their defense did the job.

But Indiana’s defense is no longer as formidable as it once was. The Hawks present matchup problems that the Pacers are still struggling to deal with three games into this series, with Jeff Teague’s quickness being at the top of that list. More importantly, Indiana hasn’t at all been able to stop Atlanta from doing what it’s done all season long, which is shoot a high volume of three-pointers and make a high percentage of its free throws.

The Hawks were second in the league during the regular season in three-pointers attempted per game with 25.8, and killed the Pacers from distance in this one by shooting 12-of-34 from three-point distance. Not a great percentage, but the ones that went down were huge, and the offense is predicated on outside shooting. When defenses start to key on it, the speed of Teague and his ability to get into the paint to create shots for himself and his teammates ends up causing rotation nightmares, as partially evidenced by Atlanta getting to the free throw line a whopping 37 times.

Hibbert is supposed to be the team’s anchor defensively, but the Pacers don’t need a rim protector on the floor if their defense is going to willingly allow the Hawks to take so many open threes. His ineffectiveness (four points, two rebounds, zero blocked shots, 2-of-9 shooting) caused Vogel to finally realize it, and he played Hibbert just under 19 minutes in total, only 6:30 of which came in the second half.

Despite Hibbert’s troubles and the Pacers’ desperate stance in the series, Vogel wasn’t ready to abandon his center just yet. But he did acknowledge that he would at least consider the possibility.

“We’ll look at everything,” Vogel said, when asked if he might take Hibbert out of the starting lineup. “We can’t say that right now. But I have great confidence in Roy Hibbert.”

Asked why he wouldn’t make the change given the circumstances, Vogel went with the bulk of the season’s work as the reason rather than the most recent developments.

“We won 56 games with him as our starter,” Vogel said. “That’s the simplest answer.”

But when pressed as to whether Hibbert will start in Game 4, he left the door open for a change to be made.

“We’ll see,” he said. “Probably.”

Whether Hibbert starts or he doesn’t is of little consequence. Indiana’s offense remains a disaster from a team standpoint, with careless passes leading to needless turnovers, or things devolving into forced isolation sets in the worst possible moments.

If that continues, it won’t matter whether Hibbert plays or he doesn’t, because this series will end in the Hawks’ favor before Indiana is able to make any truly impactful personnel decisions.

Pacers’ Lance Stephenson will get his chance, but coming off the bench

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Indiana is Myles Turner‘s team now. Gone from last season are Paul George, Monta Ellis, Jeff Teague, Aaron Brooks and more. More than just Turner, everyone on the Pacers’ roster is going to get a chance to shine.

That includes Lance Stephenson.

But he will do that coming off the bench, coach Nate McMillan told the Pacers’ website.

Coach Nate McMillan said he has a starting lineup in mind heading into training camp, but wouldn’t reveal it. He did acknowledge, however, that Lance Stephenson likely will start the season as the sixth man…

“I hope he can establish (that role),” McMillan said. “A sixth man is like a starter, and he can be a guy who can do a lot of things with that second group with his ability to handle the ball, score the ball. He’s an unselfish player.”

Stephenson was only with the Pacers for a few games at the end of last season, but he was their second best player in the postseason brought an energy and toughness the team lacked. He hit threes (62 percent for the Pacers), played hard, and looked more like the guy Indiana had years ago than the guy who has bounced around the league since. But that was a very small sample size, it’s something else to do this over the course of a season.

Indiana is rebuilding but they did not bottom out and tank, they brought in guys who can handle the ball such as Victor Oladipo (the George trade), Darren Collison, and Cory Joseph. Stephenson is going to have to accept and find a role behind and with those guys. But he’s going to get a chance, and he has played his best ball in a Pacers’ uniform.

Suns’ center Alex Len expected to sign qualifying offer, head to camp

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In the free-spending summer of 2016, Bismack Biyambo got a $72 million contract. Timofey Mozgov got $64 million.

Those kinds of contracts — and there were plenty more of them — had a lot of NBA big men (and players in general) heading into this summer thinking they were going to get PAID. Instead, teams learned the lessons from their drunken spending binge and the market got tight. Especially for centers.

Which leads us to the news Suns big man Alex Len is going to bet on himself and sign his qualifying offer before coming to camp, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Barring an unforeseen change of events, Phoenix Suns center Alex Len is planning to sign the team’s $4.2 million qualifying offer before training camp, clearing the way to become an unrestricted free agent in 2018, league sources told ESPN….

Phoenix wants to study’s Len’s progress in the 2017-18 season before committing to a long-term, lucrative contract extension to him. Len has started 80 games over the past two seasons, including 34 in 2016-17 when he averaged eight points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.3 blocks a game.

Phoenix wants to leave its options open. Len is mobile, can protect the rim, and has some skills that would help him fit in a modern NBA style offense — he could play with Devin Booker and Josh Jackson — plus last season he improved his shooting around the rim and in the paint. However, he’s not consistent on either end of the court. He shows his potential in flashes, but the Suns need to see more.

Len will now be an unrestricted free agent next summer — he is playing for his next payday. If that can’t motivate him, nothing will.

Report: Lottery reform will really help teams in middle of lottery

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Tanking in the NBA is a problem more of perception than reality — Adam Silver and the league office doesn’t like that there are portions of team’s fan bases rooting for their team to lose. It doesn’t like that tanking is openly discussed on radio shows and online. Combine that with the resting of star players on the road, and in nationally televised games, and the league sees sports talk radio talking points as real problems for the league’s image.

Spreading out the NBA’s schedule is done, and with that the resting of players’ in those high-profile games will decrease (of course, if teams want to sit LeBron James or Stephen Curry or Kawhi Leonard in a nationally televised game, they will just say he has a sore back/ankle/shoulder that needs rest).

Lottery reform looks like it will pass as well, even though it’s putting a band-aid on a broken leg. The league’s new rules will decrease and flatten out the odds at the top of the lottery, and it will reward the teams more in the middle, according to a new report from Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

 The worst three teams’ odds would now have an equal chance at the No. 1 overall pick: 14 percent. Presently, the teams with the three worst records have descending chances of 25 percent, 19.9 percent and 15.6 percent. Also, the worst record can drop as far as No. 5 in the new lottery proposal, down from No. 4….

Teams in the Nos. 7-10 range will have a stronger chance to move up into the top three picks, ESPN has learned, with No. 7’s chances improving from 15 percent to 23, No. 8 from 10 percent to 19 percent, No. 9 from six percent to 15 percent and No. 10 from four percent to 10 percent.

He adds that the odds for the three teams at the top of the lottery — picks 11, 12, and 13 — increase only a couple of percentage points, which the league believes means teams will not try to tank their way out of the playoffs and into the lottery. There is extra money in terms of ticket sales and revenue — at least $5 million for a couple home games — for teams that get into the postseason, and that money can matter to teams.

That said, teams are still going to tank for picks. The league seems to be chasing the ghost of Sam Hinkie with this proposal, trying to make it less likely teams go on a multiple year deep dive, but that was never really a problem anyway — few owners would have the stomach for that, and the one that did (Joshua Harris in Philly) eventually bowed to the pressure from the league and others and canned Hinkie as GM. No GM is trying to put his job at risk with a rebuilding plan.

Tanking will continue because teams need one of the game’s franchise changing stars — of which there are maybe 10 in the league at any one given time — to compete at the highest levels, and for 24 or so markets the only way to get that player is via the draft. What’s more, land that player and thanks to the CBA, teams control that player for four years at a very affordable salary, then thanks to extensions/restricted free agency the team can keep that player for another four or five years. They have this great talent locked in for at least eight or nine years (for example, Kevin Durant spent nine years in Seattle/Oklahoma City before moving on, same with LeBron the first time he left Cleveland, and that list goes on). Now with the “designated player” designation — call it the Kevin Durant rule — teams are more likely to keep that star for another four or five years beyond that.

If you really want to end tanking, make rookie contracts two years then they become unrestricted free agents. Now the motivation to tank for a pick goes away, but of course, small and mid-market teams would rightfully complain about that because then they will have a very hard time keeping talent around.

Bottom line, if you have a truly elite player you win more basketball games, and for most teams the only way to get that player is the draft — so tanking will continue. It’s a smart strategy to rebuild.

The new lottery odds will pass, and they are not a bad thing, but it is far more about perception than reality. And you can be sure there will be unintended consequences.

Jeopardy uses “crying Jordan” meme for question

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You know a meme has jumped the shark when it appears on Jeopardy. (Also, the phrase “jump the shark” has jumped the shark.)

The “crying Jordan” meme reached that level this week when Alex Trebek asked a question about it.

This in no way means we should stop using the crying Jordan meme — even if it bothers MJ himself, and it does — because it’s still funny.