Paul George has Pacers on verge of conference finals

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WASHINGTON – Paul George stood at the entrance to the press-conference room.

“Are they ready?” George asked as he buttoned his shirt.

Earlier in the night, George wasn’t so docile. Ready for him or not – and they sure didn’t appear to be – the Washington Wizards saw plenty of the Indiana Pacers star.

George scored 39 points – the most by an Pacer in a playoff game in eight years – and led Indiana to a 95-92 Game 4 win Sunday. Up 3-1 in the series, the Pacers are just one game from the Eastern Conference Finals and can qualify with a home win in Game 5 Wednesday.

Before the game, Indiana coach Frank Vogel offered Paul George a break from always guarding Bradley Beal, the Wizards leading playoff scorer. During the game, Vogel repeatedly offered to rest George.

George said no each time.

He played more than 46 minutes, sitting only for the final 1:37 of the first quarter.

“I hate not finishing off my assignment,” George said.

Now, the Pacers appear primed to finish the assignment most expected them to complete – returning to the conference finals and battling the Miami Heat there. Indiana’s road looked rocky late in the regular season and downright hazardous during a first-round series against the Atlanta Hawks, but the Pacers keep doing just enough to overcome their self-inflicted adversity.

Sunday, Indiana trailed by 19 in the third quarter, briefly tied the game early in the fourth quarter and then trailed by nine with six minutes left. Does a comeback like that finally answer the questions surrounding the Pacers?

“Those are your guys’ questions,” Vogel said. “You guys can keep asking them or answering them. We never lost confidence in our group here, and tonight was indicative of why.”

That starts with George and Roy Hibbert, who has now contributed three straight quality performances with 17 points, nine rebounds and two blocks Sunday.

Until George Hill split a pair of free throws with six seconds left – leaving the Wizards a chance to tie on a 3-pointer with 6.1 seconds remaining that they bungled when Trevor Ariza threw the inbound pass out of bounds – George and Hibbert scored 18 straight Indiana points.

When Hibbert is steady, the Pacers stop underachieving. When George plays like this, their ceiling rises.

Nobody else on the roster can elevate Indiana like George. George, who scored a career-high 43 in Dec. 2013, is the only Pacer to score this much in any game in the last four years .

Sunday, he made 7-of-10 3-pointers, grabbed 12 rebounds and hounded Beal defensively while getting two steals.

“He’s made my job tough,” said Beal, who should be commended for still scoring 20 points on 14 shots.

Beal didn’t spend a second on the court without George also there, and the Washington guard rarely spent that time free of George.

Vogel praised George and David West for leading vocally, and George’s heavy workload backed up his words.

“There was a moment where I was pretty gassed,” George said. “But that second wind kicked in. Once we started to build momentum, it seemed like I wasn’t tired.”

Tired of the Pacers and their brand of defense-first, slow-the-pace basketball? Get over it, They’re almost definitely headed back to the Eastern Conference Finals to play foil to the popular Heat.

And they’re in this position thanks to to George.

“What he did tonight was special,” Vogel said. “There’s no other way to put it.”

After Thunder win, Russell Westbrook trolls Joel Embiid, waves goodbye, tells him to “go home”

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Joel Embiid was making friends all over the court on Friday night.

First, he got into a jawing match with Carmelo Anthony. Also during the first overtime, Embiid blocked Russell Westbrook‘s driving attempt at a game winner.

After the Thunder, Westbrook trolled Embiid by waving goodbye to the Sixers’ center, who was yelling back at him.

When asked about it, Westbrook said Embiid was talking a lot so he told the Sixers center to go home.

That can have some serious connotations — Embiid was born in Cameroon. Westbrook may have meant “go to the locker room” or “go to where you live,” but considering Embiid is an immigrant it comes off very poorly for Westbrook.

Embiid threw a little fire back at Westbrook.

The league office is going to be looking into this one.

DeMarcus Cousins doesn’t expect Pelicans to trade him at the deadline

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The New Orleans Pelicans have a decision to make as they approach the trade deadline: Do they think they can re-sign DeMarcus Cousins next summer to stay in the Big Easy with Anthony Davis?

If the answer is no, then they have to consider trading Cousins at the deadline to at least get something back. There is a lot of context, however, that makes this seeming binary trade/keep decision far more complicated.

Cousins himself doesn’t think he is going anywhere, as he told Marc Spears of ESPN’s The Undefeated.

While the Pelicans have a lot to consider with the unrestricted free agent, Cousins says he is confident that he will still be playing for New Orleans after the Feb. 8 trade deadline.

“I am confident in my team,” Cousins said. “I am starting to understand this business a lot more than I did before. You can kind of tell when things are about to come about. We’re a very competitive team. A talented team. I don’t think that will be the case at all….

“A.D. hits me with little jabs about free agency all the time, but he also understands,” Cousins said. “It was Jrue in that situation last [offseason], and we understood his situation. Of course, they throw their little jabs. They throw their little jokes. But they are serious at the same time. They are respectful about it at the same time.

The Pelicans are 15-14 and the seven seed in the West entering Friday night’s games, and if New Orleans has a shot at the playoffs come the deadline there is no way he gets moved. Ownership and management want a playoff appearance. They have greenlit adding one of the game’s top centers (Cousins) to go next to Davis, and last summer they paid big to keep Jrue Holiday at the point in New Orleans. If the Pelicans don’t make the playoffs (and possibly even if they do squeak in and get swept out in an ugly fashion), everyone in the organization expects a housecleaning. They have been on edge all season. With jobs on the line, they are not trading Cousins and getting worse short term even if you could argue it was the right basketball move long term.

Will Cousins re-sign with the Pelicans next summer? That will be about the money — what the Pelicans offer, and what other teams will offer in what is expected to be a tight free agent market, especially for centers.  DeAndre Jordan will be on the market as well, not to mention second-tier guys who will be more affordable for teams such as Brook Lopez. In that market, Cousins may want to stay where he likes his teammates and seems happy.

But first he has to get past the trade deadline.

Joel Embiid scores over Carmelo Anthony, then they exchange words (VIDEO)

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Joel Embiid gives zero… well, you know where I’m going with that.

Embiid trolls the world and backs down from no man, and that includes Carmelo Anthony. Late in the fourth quarter of the barn burner between the Thunder and 76ers Friday night, Embiid backed ‘Melo down and scored over him, then did a little jawing — which Anthony didn’t appreciate.

I love that Embiid egged on the Sixers crowd after this. He knows his audience. After the game he said this.

Embiid talks a lot — A LOT — but he is backing it up.

For example, in the first overtime Russell Westbrook thought he made a drive that was going to win the game, and Embiid rejected him.

If you did not watch this game, go find a replay. This is the new best game of the season.

Rudy Gobert leaves game vs. Celtics with likely knee sprain. Again.

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Rudy Gobert missed 11 games this season due to a bone bruise in his knee. While the Jazz defense suffered as should have been expected with their anchor gone, their offense found a groove without him — and with more Donovan Mitchell and Derrick Favors — resulting in Utah going 7-4 with their star center out.

Now the Jazz will be without him again for a while — he seems to have sprained his left knee just minutes into Friday night’s game against the Celtics when Favors fell back into him. That is the same knee he injured before. Gobert was forced to leave and will not return to the game.

If that diagnosis holds, it will be weeks again the Jazz will be without Gobert.

The Jazz know how to play without Gobert. Favors moves to center and while he’s not near the same defender his offensive skills got them buckets and opened up the floor. The rookie Mitchell, as well as Ricky Rubio at points, took advantage of it to give the Jazz a top-10 offense with Gobert out. They need to find that groove again.

Still, Utah needs Gobert back and himself to really reach the heights they are capable of.