NBA Playoff Preview: Indiana Pacers vs. Miami Heat

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SEASON RECORDS

Indiana Pacers: 56-26

Miami Heat: 54-28

KEY INJURIES

Indiana Pacers: Andrew Bynum (broken)

Miami Heat: none

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

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

Miami Heat: Offense: 109.0 (2nd in the NBA). Defense: 102.9 (11th in the NBA)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) How will the Heat match up?

The Pacers – admirably or stubbornly – do what they do. They’re going to be big, and they’re going to be methodical.

The Heat are much more flexible, and it will be on Erik Spoelstra to determine how he wants to structure lineups around LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Maybe Miami goes small with Bosh at center and a stretch four – LeBron, Rashard Lewis or Shane Battier – to space the floor. That would ensure Roy Hibbert defends outside the paint, removing the anchor of Indiana’s defense and removing Hibbert from his comfort zone. However, it would also leave the Heat vulnerable defensively to Hibbert’s post-ups and make Miami pick its poison on whether LeBron doesn’t guard Paul George or David West. Any sign Hibbert has lost confidence to the point he can’t score regardless, this should become the preferred strategy.

On the other hand, the Heat could also go big to counter Hibbert and West. Greg Oden was signed to match up with Hibbert, though that went disastrously in their regular-season meeting meeting. Small sample? Yes. Worth another shot? Maybe. Probably, even. Chris Andersen is Miami’s most reliable big man outside of Bosh, and he’ll definitely play a major role in this series. But he’s 35 and hasn’t played 30 minutes in regulation in four years. There’s only so much he can do.

Udonis Haslem could split the difference.

Haslem is an extremely physical player who, despite being just 6-foot-8, can work on Hibbert. He also has a nice mid-range jumper to pull Hibbert from the paint, though not all the way to the 3-point arc. Haslem started in the first round against the Bobcats, and then he played just three minutes against the small-ball Nets.

Spoelstra is more than willing to change his rotations based on opponent.

It’s not just who plays, but when they play – especially Bosh. Bosh is a solid defender in the right matchups, but Hibbert – and, to a lesser extent, West – can beat him up inside. Ideally for the Heat, they won’t waste all Bosh’s energy in a losing defensive match up only have him spent offensively.

2) How much does homecourt advantage matter?

All season, the Pacers made their goal securing the No. 1 seed and homecourt advantage. They’re so serious about beating Miami, they were looking for an edge since day one after losing a road Game 7 to the Heat last year.

Miami doesn’t take the regular season as seriously – see its record vs. Brooklyn in the regular season and postseason – and Indiana got the top seed it desired despite a late-season slide.

So, will all that work pay off?

In postseason series during the last four years, the Pacers are 4-0 with homecourt advantage and 1-3 without it. In individual games against Miami during the same span, the Pacers are 8-5 at home and 3-11 on the road.

It seems this should be important to Indiana.

Then again, the Pacers are 5-6 in their last 11 home games. Plus, in the Big Three era, the Heat are 11-1 with homecourt advantage and 2-0 without it in a series. They can win anywhere.

Maybe it will matter most as a mental reminder to the Pacers about why they worked so hard in the first place, potentially helping them summon some of the confidence they showed regularly early in the season and appears only occasionally now.

3) How hungry are the Pacers?

In 2012, Miami eliminated Indiana in six games in the second round. In 2013, Miami eliminated Indiana in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Pacers are chomping at the bit, getting closer and closer to toppling the aging Heat.

From Miami’s perspective, keeping a hungry team at bay is hard. Yes, teams should – and generally do – give maximum effort at this point in the season. But when you’re coming from the position of power, there’s a lower threshold of energy you can reach once you get on the court.

The sensation of being corned and the desire to overcome a challenge are not easy to fake. The Pacers have it. The Heat have to fake it.

Since the NBA expanded to a 16-team playoff format in 1984, teams have met in three consecutive postseasons 22 times. The same team has won all three matchups just eight times. Five of those eight had Phil Jackson – the ultimate playoff motivator – as coach.

That leaves just three teams in 30 years that have beaten the same playoff opponent in three consecutive years without Jackson.

Could the Heat make it No. 4? They have a member of the one of the previous three – LeBron, whose Cavaliers beat the Wizards in 2006, 2007 and 2008. As usual, Miami’s demeanor will be defined by its megastar.

PREDICTION

The Pacers’ late collapse was very real, but also probably overblown. A good, but not elite, team is left in the rubble. It’s also a team designed specifically to match up with the Heat, Indiana could definitely overcome the quality gap between the teams.

The biggest potential variable is one that hopefully won’t be an issue at all – Wade’s health. If he goes down, this series loses a lot of prestige. He looks fine, but his knees are a constant concern and will be for the rest of his career. As long as Wade avoids injury, the Heat will just be too much.

Heat in 6

Report: LiAngelo, LaMelo Ball have deal to play professionally in Lithuania

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This feels like a publicity stunt. Whatever the under/over is on how long it will last, bet the under.

That said, the two younger brothers of Lonzo Ball — LiAngelo, 18, and LaMelo, 16 — have reached a deal to play for a team in the highest level of the Lithuanian league. The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski and Jonathan Givony of ESPN (before the signing became official).

LiAngelo and LaMelo Ball are in serious discussions to sign professional basketball contracts with Lithuanian club Prienu Vytautas, sources told ESPN.

The club plans to decide in the next 24-to-48 hours whether to finalize agreements with the two American teenagers, sources told ESPN.

If signed, the franchise has hopes that the Balls – including their father LaVar — could be a marketing boon for the fledgling franchise, sources told ESPN.

Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports reports the deal is done.

Lithuania is a hoops-mad Baltic country of an estimated 2.9 million people who has three players currently in the NBA — Jonas Valanciunas, Donatas Motiejunas, and Mindaugas Kuzminskas — and has put 11 players in the league total, including Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Arvydas Sabonis, and Sarunas Marciulionis. You might remember the Lithuanian National Team wearing Grateful Dead inspired uniforms and taking the bronze medal in the 1992, 1996, and 2000 Olympics.

This is a country that takes its basketball seriously, and the Balls are a traveling circus and reality show. This could be a real culture clash, the kind of thing that ends quickly and spectacularly poorly. Here is some insight into the team from FIBA’s Lithuanian hoops writer.

Don’t expect the Ball children to play much, especially not at first.

The pay at this level is reportedly north of $1,500 a month, but that could be higher if the brothers are seen as a draw. With the report of the tight financial squeeze, this is likely a gambit on the coach’s part to boost revenue (in Europe, coaches are the CEOs of the organization, much more akin to the power top college coaches have than an NBA coach).

This is a league where men play and the game is taken seriously, it has produced not only Lithuanian players but Boston Celtics center Aron Baynes played there. This team apparently does not run the (suprisingly standard in Europe) two-a-day practices on non-game days, but their practices are longer and harder than most American versions. There are a lot of quality players — former American college/D-League guys, as well as good Europeans — who would love a shot like this. Who deserve a chance like this. If the younger Ball children do not perform and do not take this seriously, it will turn on them quickly.

LiAngelo Ball had gone to UCLA to play basketball this season, but after being suspended for shoplifting in China, his father LaVar pulled him out of college, designed a “Gelo 3” signature shoe for his son from the Big Baller Brand, and started looking for a professional contract. I’m not sure LiAngelo belongs at this level. As one scout told me last summer, LiAngelo was only at UCLA because Lonzo was a top recruit and LaMelo had a lot of potential. That scout wasn’t sure LiAngelo could stick in Europe.

LaMelo is a generally highly-rated recruit, a guy with crazy shooting range for a high-school Junior, but scouts had a lot of questions about his defense and the rest of his game outside of just shooting. LaMelo put up 70 points in an AAU game, but he cherry-picked the entire time, and the sense is there is a lot of that in his game. His father LaVar pulled LaMelo out of Chino Hills High School this season after a new basketball coach said he was going to push his guys to play within a system on both ends. How well LaMelo adapts to a very different culture on and off the court at his age is a big question.

Maybe this works out. Maybe the Ball children are more mature in personality and game than I think, maybe this is the financial boost that Prienu Vytautas needs and it works for them. It’s possible. I just don’t expect it.

Matt Barnes announces retirement from NBA after 15 seasons

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When too many fans think of Matt Barnes, they think of the guy who tried to fight Derek Fisher, the nightclub incident in New York, the guy who was a pest on the court and racked up more than his share of technicals and fines in a 15-year NBA career.

Ask Barnes former teammates about him, and they loved him — off the court and on. He was the quintessential guy you wanted on your team and hated to play against.

Barnes announced Monday on Instagram that his 15-year NBA run was over.

Barnes won an NBA title with the Warriors last season, and he played well for the team after signing in Golden State — Kevin Durant went down with a knee injury and Barnes stepped up his role and play. He earned that ring. However, this season there seemed to be no fit for him in the league.

Barnes was drafted in the second round out of UCLA by the Memphis Grizzlies and went on to play for nine teams during his career. He was the guy teams turned to for a spark off the bench — both because he could shoot the rock and because he played a fiery, emotional game. Barnes finished his career averaging 8.2 points and 4.6 rebounds per game.

I’m going to miss him. While he had a rough exterior and was plenty chippy on the court, off the court he was one of the more thoughtful basketball interviews out there — ask him about the game and he gave smart, calm, intelligent answers, not just clichés. He was active with charities and gave of his time and money, it wasn’t just a tax write off. I wish him the best and know he’ll enjoy life after basketball.

Shaq on free throws: ‘I told Rick Barry I’d rather shoot 0% than shoot underhand’

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Rick Barry famously made 90% of his free throws while shooting underhand.

Shaquille O’Neal infamously shot just 53% on his free throws, inspiring hack-a-Shaq.

Why didn’t Shaq use Barry’s technique?

Shaq, via Emmanuel Ocbazghi, Noah Friedman and Graham Flanagan of Business Insider:

Shaquille O’Neal: Because it’s boring.

Business Insider: But it’s been proven to be somewhat effective.

O’Neal: No, it’s not. It’s not proven. Just ’cause a couple guys did it doesn’t mean anybody can do it.

I told Rick Barry I’d rather shoot 0% than shoot underhand. I’m too cool for that.

O’Neal is somewhat trying to protect his larger-than-life, jokester image. But he’s also speaking to truth.

Barry would have been a good free-throw shooter overhand, too. Shooting underhand wasn’t necessarily going to fix Shaq’s problems at the line. Just because it worked for Barry doesn’t make it a “proven” technique.

Yet, every poor free-throw shooter – from Shaq to Andre Drummond to Andre Roberson – has been pestered about shooting underhand. It might be the right form for some players, but it’s no silver bullet.

Report: George Hill unhappy after Scott Perry promised him, Zach Randolph, Vince Carter that Kings would compete for playoffs

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After a recent Kings loss, George Hill tweeted:

Reading too much into vague tweets is often folly, but Hill hasn’t looked happy in Sacramento. Despite signing him, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter last summer, the Kings are 8-18.

Tony Jones of The Salt Lake Tribune:

These are vets brought in to help a young team, and according to sources, were brought in with the promise of a team aiming to be playoff competitive.

But that promise was made to them by Scott Perry, who since left Sacramento and now makes personnel decisions for the New York Knicks. So the direction of the franchise has shifted since Perry left. An organization that brought in veterans aiming to win now is aiming to lose.

Not surprisingly, Hill isn’t happy, according to multiple sources

The Kings aren’t bad because they shifted direction after Perry left for the Knicks. They’re bad because they lack talent.

This team was mostly assembled by the time Perry departed, and it looked lousy. To whatever degree Sacramento is emphasizing youth post-Perry – Garrett Temple, Randolph and Hill rank in the top four in minutes – the won-loss record wasn’t changing much.

If Hill, Randolph and Carter didn’t know that, they have nobody to blame but themselves. Smart veterans like them should have understood the bargain they accepted.

Hill ($40 million guaranteed over two years), Randolph (two years, $24 million) and Vince Carter (one year, $8 million) took the money. In exchange, they’re stuck on a bad team. And that’s fine. Many of us prioritize salary in career decisions.

But now they’re dealing with the downside of that arrangement – grinding through a long, losing season. It’s disingenuous to sulk and blame Perry (though, if Perry pledged a team realistically competing for the playoffs, he overpromised).

Unfortunately for everyone involved, Sacramento isn’t making rapid improvement overnight. So, something might have to give with Hill’s mood.