Thursday night NBA playoff previews: Does Pacers season end tonight?

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Three elimination games on tap Thursday night — somebody’s season is ending.

Indiana Pacers at Atlanta Hawks (Hawks lead series 3-2). This is the big one Indiana — win or go home. This is the one for Atlanta — they do not want a Game 7 back in Indy. Indiana coach Frank Vogel may have could something late in their Game 5 loss to the Hawks — a small lineup featuring Chris Copeland playing the four and spacing the floor. Expect to see a lot of that lineup, Vogel can’t worry about anything other than winning Game 6 and if something works he needs to ride it as far as he can. That’s sort of what Mike Budenholzer has done for the Hawks this series — for example the pick-and-pop was working in Game 5 (Mike Scott always seemed to be open), the Pacers weren’t adjusting their coverage so the Hawks went to it again and again. The Pacers are going to have to defend like their reputation, but if the Hawks are just hitting shots the Pacers are going home.

Oklahoma City Thunder at Memphis Grizzlies (Grizzlies lead series 3-2). Expect overtime. The last four games in this series have gone to OT, and we will all be disappointed if we do not get free basketball again. The real questions in this game hinge on the Thunder offense and how difficult the Grizzlies defense has made life difficult for Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Tony Allen has been brilliant for Memphis, harassing and being physical with Durant — but this is bloody Kevin “about to be named MVP” Durant, he has to rise above that and make plays. He’s not, at least not consistently. Westbrook gets the ball and just pounds it and pounds it, and he Thunder offense stagnates. It stalls out. Durant and Westbrook aren’t passing, but the guys off the ball aren’t moving. The result is too much isolation ball, which the Grizzlies can defend. On the other end of the court, Memphis lacks the pure skill of the Thunder but they are making the extra pass, guys are cutting, the ball is switching sides and that is leading to Zach Randolph getting good looks inside or Mike Miller having space to set is feet for a three. If it all plays out like that Thursday night the Thunder will be done for the season — and there will be a lot of hard questions to answer.

Los Angeles Clippers at Golden State Warriors (Clippers lead series 3-2). The real Clippers were back in Game 5 and we can expect to see that same unburdened, energized team in Game 6. Which is trouble for Golden State — the Warriors had success this series going small with Draymond Green and David Lee up front, but in Game 5 DeAndre Jordan made them pay for that. Jordan is not always the most consistent of players but the Clippers need him to be. Golden State needs Stephen Curry to knock down shots — in every game but Game 4 (when the Clippers were distracted by the Donald Sterling fiasco) they have slowed Curry with aggressive pick-and-roll traps, with defenses designed to take the ball out of his hands. In Game 5 Curry was flustered and turning the ball over too much, he needs to be a force both hitting shots and setting up teammates in Game 6. The Warriors need the three ball to fall, or they will be golfing on Friday.

Report: Pacers bring back Lance Stephenson in time for playoffs; deal for three-years, $12 million

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The Indiana Pacers need healthy bodies for their playoff run, and they had three rotation guys injured between Al Jefferson, Glenn Robinson III, and Rodney Stuckey. Wednesday, the Pacers waived Stuckey to create an open roster spot to bring in some help (they were not going to pick up his option for next season anyway).

Who are they bringing in? The prodigal son Lance Stephenson returns, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports.

The surprising part of the deal was the security Stephenson got, as first reported by Adam Zagoria at his blog — three years, $12 million, with a player option for the final year. (This has since been confirmed by other sources.) Other teams were looking at giving Stephenson a 10-day contract, the length of the Pacers’ offer is a surprise.

Stephenson played in six games for Minnesota recently, averaging 3.5 points per game off the bench, but an ankle sprain kept the Timberwolves from really having to decide whether to keep him for the season. Stephenson knows how to create shots for himself and can be a good defender when focused, something we saw with the Pelicans at the start of this season — he became a key part of their rotation averaging 9.7 points and 4.8 assists per game until he tore his groin.

It’s a little strange to see him back in Pacers colors. It will be particularly strange if the Pacers stay in the seven seed and the Cavaliers remain the two-seed setting up a first-round playoff series. Because I don’t think any of us need to see this again.

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Tuesday’s win gives Wizards first division crown since 1979

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Divisions are almost forgotten in the NBA. They exist still as quaint reminders of days gone by, but they don’t matter other than as a potential tie breaker with a non-division-winning team. Winning your division doesn’t even guarantee a team a playoff spot anymore.

Yet, the last time Washington had won a division title they were in the Atlantic division and when you turned on the radio you were likely to hear that new hit Heart Of Glass by Blondie. It was 1979.

That was until Tuesday when John Wall led a 13-point comeback in the fourth quarter against the Lakers to get the Wizards the win and the SouthEast division title.

According to CBSSports.com, that 38-year division title drought was longer than any team in any major U.S. professional sports — NHL, NFL, and MLB.

Congrats to the Wizards. They also have locked up home court in the first round, and they are currently the No. 3 seed in the playoffs (who they face in the first round is up in the air still as only three games separate seeds five through nine).

With Scott Brooks at the helm this feels like a far more dangerous — and healthy — team heading into the postseason. Wizards fans have waited a lot time for a team like this.

Report: Pacers waive Rodney Stuckey, will likely add player before playoffs

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Rodney Stuckey was having a down year for the Pacers when he was healthy, averaging 7.2 points and 2.2 assists per game, with a well below average 48.3 true shooting percentage. Stuckey also was not healthy often, playing in just 39 games.

The Pacers are banged up — Glenn Robinson III and Al Jefferson are hurt — and need a healthy body on the roster for the playoffs, plus they weren’t going to pick up Stuckey’s $7 million option for next season anyway, so they chose to wave him Wednesday, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical on Yahoo Sports.

The question now is who the Pacers bring in to fill that spot. With Jefferson down, do they lean on someone they know in Tyler Hansbrough? Is there someone out of the D-League or free agent pool that intrigues them?

The Pacers need to do something to start winning some games and making Paul George happy.

Paul George on Pacers after loss: “No sense of urgency, no winning pride”

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Indiana still has a 75 percent chance of making the playoffs (according to fivethirtyeight.com), they are two games clear of the nine seed with seven games to play.

But they fell to that seventh seed with a loss to Minnesota on Tuesday night, an evening that Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Miami all won. Chicago is the nine seed right now, lurking with its soft schedule, and looking for another team to slip up, and in a key game Indiana did.

The Pacers lost to the Minnesota Timberwolves Tuesday night despite being at home and having a nine-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. Indy had no answer for Karl-Anthony Towns, who dropped 37. Paul George had 37 points as well, and afterwards pissed and frustrated would be good words to describe his mood. Here’s his quote, via Nate Taylor at the Indy Star.

“We should have a professional approach, man, and defend our home court, especially to a team that’s not even in the playoffs,” George said of losing to the Timberwolves (29-44). “That’s what it comes down to. As a team, we’ve got to have a grit and we’ve got to own up, man up….

“There’s no urgency, no sense of urgency, no winning pride,” he said. “This locker room is just not pissed off enough.”

If you don’t have urgency playing for your playoff lives with seven games left in the season, when will you have it?

Yes, this was a frustrated George venting after a loss. However, it also points again to the challenges Larry Bird and the Pacer front office have this summer — George wants to win, wants to play for a contender. Or if not that, maybe in his hometown. If George doesn’t make an All-NBA team (he likely just misses out, forward is a stacked position in the league right now) and the Pacers can’t offer him a “designated player” max, Indiana needs to put a contender around him, or consider trading him so they don’t lose him for nothing in a year. Both of those options present challenges come July.

In the short term, the Pacers need to make the playoffs. Even if they do, play like this against the Cavaliers (their current first-round matchup) or any of the other top-four teams in the East and Indy’s stay in the postseason will be short and uneventful.