NBA Playoff Preview: Indiana Pacers vs. Washington Wizards

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SEASON RECORDS

Indiana Pacers: 56-26

Washington Wizards: 44-38

KEY INJURIES

Indiana Pacers: Andrew Bynum (out indefinitely, knee)

Washington Wizards: none

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Indiana Pacers: Offense 101.5 (22nd in the NBA), Defense 96.7 (1st in the NBA)

Washington Wizards: Offense 103.3 (18th in NBA), Defense 102.4 (10th in NBA)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) How much can/will the Wizards stretch the Pacers?

The Hawks took Indiana to seven games by stretching the floor, pulling Roy Hibbert out of the paint and gunning 3-pointers.

That was Atlanta’s identity. It’s not exactly the Wizards’.

Washington’s four most-used bigs – Marcin Gortat, Nene, Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphin – lack range to shoot from the perimeter. And typically, the Wizards used two of them at a time.

In a first-round win over the Bulls, Gortat, Nene and Booker (Seraphin didn’t make the rotation) were Washington’s power forward-center combination 84 percent of the time. In the regular-season, the Wizards weren’t quite as dependent on a non-shooting PF-C combo, but they still used one 65 percent of the time.

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Fortunately for the Wizards, they have a couple bigs with shooting range on the roster: Al Harrington and Drew Gooden. Those two played together frequently, building a bit of chemistry and making them more effective in tandem Trevor Ariza can also play small-ball power forward.

So, the Wizards can definitely stretch the floor at times. The main question is how much they’re willing to alter their rotation to do it more.

Would Randy Wittman do something radical – staring Harrington and Gooden – and force the Pacers to make the adjustments they’re reluctant to make? Harrington and Gooden playing together at any point would wrinkle Indiana’s preferred scheme, but if they play together with Hibbert and a tradition power forward (David West or Luis Scola) in the game, it would go much further.

Wittman should deploy Harrington and Gooden primarily against Hibbert, but matching rotations could be difficult. Doing so to begin halves would be the simplest – and most daring – way to do it.

The Wizards might not have to go to such extreme measures, but the goal – stretching the floor – should play a big factor in this series.

2) Will the Pacers protect the ball?

The Pacers are not a good passing team, and the Wizards excelled at forcing turnovers during the regular season.

Against Chicago’s limited offense, the Wizards didn’t take quite as many chances going for turnovers. They just played sound defense and let the Bulls miss shots.

How will Washington approach the Pacers’ never-good, lately imploding offense? The question might be decided on the other end of the floor.

If the Wizards can score against Indiana’s once-stout defense, they can afford to lower variance defensively. If they can’t, they might need to go for turnovers and the fastbreak points steals generate – even if that strategy allows the Pacers more layups and dunks due to out-of-position defenders.

3) Have Roy Hibbert and the rest of the Pacers lost their mental edge?

Indiana finished the season with a 10-13 stretch and then struggled more than most expected in a first-round win over the Hawks. No Pacer has fallen harder than Hibbert, who went from All-Star to nearly benched.

But Vogel stuck with the center, and Hibbert rewarded that faith with 13 points, seven rebounds and five blocks in a Game 7 win over Atlanta. Unquestionably, the Hawks were a bad matchup for Hibbert, but that doesn’t explain his second-half slide. It’s tough to say exactly where Hibbert stands entering this series.

Maybe rallying to win from down 2-1 and 3-2 to Atlanta has righted the Pacers’ ship. More likely, they remain fragile.

Where is Hibbert’s confidence? Where is Indiana’s? Where the answers fall on the spectrum could determine the series.

PREDICTION

For most of the season, the Pacers were the better team. But it matters only which is better now.

Wizards in 7

Stephen Curry, was Warriors/Celtics a Finals preview? “Very, very likely, right?”

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The Golden State Warriors remain the prohibitive favorite to win the NBA title.

Thursday night, the Boston Celtics earned some validation that they belong in the conversation. Using a stymieing defense that threw off the vaunted Warriors offense, Boston came from 17 down in the third quarter to beat the Warriors.

With the Cavaliers stumbling out of the gate, does this make the Warriors/Celtics game a Finals preview? Stephen Curry (who was 3-of-14 shooting with four turnovers on the night) said yes, as you can see in the NBC Sports Bay Area video above.

“Very, very likely, right?” Curry said. “They’re playing the best right now in the East. Obviously, they need to beat Cleveland, who’s done it three years in a row. We’ll see, but I heard the weather’s great here in June.”

The weather in Boston is great for a short window in the spring, then the humidity kicks in. But that’s not the point.

I came into this season thinking the Celtics were a year away still, and when Gordon Hayward went down it strengthened that belief. But this team is a contender now — they are far better defensively than expected, and young players Jaylen Brown (22 points against the Warriors) and Jayson Tatum have stepped up more than expected. Kyrie Irving and Al Horford have developed a fast chemistry. And Brad Stephens is proving he is in the very upper echelon of NBA coaches.

It’s not even Thanksgiving, talk of the NBA Finals is premature. Curry is right, the Celtics still have to go through LeBron James and his Cavaliers to reach the Finals, which will not be easy.

Still, June basketball in Boston seems like a real possibility again.

Report: Momentum building toward ending one-and-done rule

Associated Press
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“My sense is it’s not working for anyone. It’s not working certainly from the college coaches and athletic directors I hear from. They’re not happy with the current system. And I know our teams aren’t happy either in part because they don’t necessarily think that the players are coming into the league are getting the kind of training that they would expect to see among top draft picks in the league.”

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said that during the NBA Finals last year about the one-and-done rule for players trying to enter the NBA — they can’t be drafted by NBA teams for one season after their high school class graduates, so the best players go to college for one season (and most go to classes for less than that). As Silver said, nobody really likes the system, but it was the compromise struck between the owners (who would like to raise the draft age to 20 or higher) and the players’ union (who want the draft age at 18, as soon as guys come out of high school).

However, momentum is building to change the rule, something we have written about before and now is gaining more traction, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

With momentum gathering to reshape the one-and-done draft entry rule, NBA commissioner Adam Silver and NBPA executive director Michele Roberts met with the new Commission on College Basketball in Washington on Thursday, league sources told ESPN….

Nevertheless, there’s a growing belief within the league that Silver’s desire to end the one-and-done — the ability of college basketball players to enter the NBA draft after playing one year in college — could be pushing the sport closer to high school players having the opportunity to directly enter the league again. For that change to happen, though, the union would probably need to cede the one-and-done rule and agree to a mandate that players entering college must stay two years before declaring for the draft.

While the NBA and players’ union will talk to the NCAA about their plans, ultimately the college body has no say in what the NBA draft and eligibility rules are.

The best players of their generations came straight to the NBA out of high school — Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Kevin Garnett, and others —  however, what bothered owners were the misses in the draft. There were busts, and owners/GMs want to reduce as much risk as they can in the draft (even though there are busts on guys who they saw plenty of in college, hello Michael Olowokandi).

NBA teams are now better suited to develop players than they were a couple of decades ago — every team has an assistant coach focused on just that. The best teams in the NBA right now — Golden State, Boston, San Antonio — are the best at developing players. That’s not a coincidence, and it has teams copying (or attempting to) what the successful ones do. Combine that with the growth of the G-League and teams growing their understanding how to use it, and they are better positioned to draft a player out of high school and develop him over time than they ever have been.

 

There are still a lot of questions and hurdles. If a player declares for the draft and has an agent, but isn’t drafted (or even isn’t drafted in the first round, so no guaranteed contract) will he have the option to come to college for two (or three) years anyway? Will the NCAA allow that? And Silver has talked before about the changes in the draft needing to reflect changes in how we develop players down to the AAU level, which is its own complex set of problems.

It’s not moving quickly, but these are steps in the right direction. One-and-done doesn’t work well for anyone. The college baseball style rule (go straight to the pros or spend three years in college in that sport’s case) isn’t perfect, but it’s better than the system in place. There seems to be momentum toward change. Finally.

Watch James Harden, Rockets drop 90 on Suns — in first half

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This game had all the drama of The Last Airbender. Which is to say none. It was essentially over when the Rockets went on a 21-6 first-quarter run — unlike Boston in the earlier Thursday game, Phoenix isn’t built to come back against elite teams.

When the 15-1 Rockets run came at the end of the first quarter, it was clear Houston could do what it wanted on offense, and by half the Rockets put up 90 points. The Rockets were putting on a show (and eventually won 142-116).

James Harden had 33 points on 12 shots in the first half (he finished with 48 points for the night). Ryan Anderson hit four threes on his way to 18 before the break. Eric Gordon had 10. As a team, Houston shot 62.2 percent, and 60 percent from three in the first half. They got to the line 25 times. I could go on, but you get the picture.

If you want more highlights, here is Harden’s 48 for the night. Enjoy.

 

Paul George getting comfortable with new Thunder teammates

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Paul George couldn’t find a rhythm on offense his first few weeks with the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The four-time All-Star struggled to fit in with fellow All-Stars Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony after he was traded from the Indiana Pacers. He settled for jumpers too often, shot too quickly at times and didn’t get to the free throw line as often as usual. As he adjusted, the Thunder started the season with a 4-7 record.

Once George broke out, the Thunder turned their fortunes. George erupted for 42 points in a win over the Los Angeles Clippers last Friday, then scored 37 points in a victory over the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday. He scored just 13 points in a win over Chicago on Monday, but his shots were higher quality and flowed with the offense better.

The Thunder take a three-game win streak into Friday’s game with San Antonio.

“I’m just staying in attack mode, playing downhill, being aggressive when I have the ball, being aggressive off the ball,” George said.

George leads the Thunder with 21.9 points per game. It’s quite a feat to be the top scorer on a team with Westbrook, a two-time scoring champion and the reigning league MVP, and Anthony, the No. 24 scorer in NBA history. But George has that kind of talent, and he gets to play off the other two stars.

“It’s hard because they have so many options,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “A lot of times you have the one-two option, but they have the one-two-three option. It’s tough.”

George said during the preseason that he was adjusting to how fast Westbrook moves in transition. Now, he’s in better position to attack because he is prepared. That has led to easy baskets and more free throws. He has shot 26 free throws the past three games after shooting just 27 in the previous 11 games.

“I think just trying to get out ahead of him as much as possible, I think, is key,” George said. “That way, when he’s making plays in full court, I’m already in position ready to receive the ball instead of catching up, getting my feet ready, trying to decide what to do. I’m ready to shoot or attack at that point.”

Thunder coach Billy Donovan said George is starting to figure out how to use his shot selection to keep defenses guessing.

“I think he’s just been balanced,” Donovan said. “He’s an elite scorer. He can do it a lot of different ways. He’s done it off the dribble, he’s done it off of catch and shoot, he’s done it off the drive. I think it’s just his balance of getting more comfortable with what we’re doing offensively and trying to figure out spots where he can be aggressive.”

Donovan said the best part of George’s performances against the Clippers and Mavericks was his efficiency – he only took 22 shots in each contest.

Even when George doesn’t shoot well, he’s effective as both an on-ball and off-ball defender. He leads the league with 2.4 steals per game.

“Honestly, defense is the part that I lock in at,” George said. “Offensively it is going to come, defensively is where I like to leave a mark and really try to be special on that end. It’s just sticking to the game plan personally in matchups, sticking to the gifts that God has given me.”