Paul George reminds us how bright the Pacers’ future can be

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LeBron James went around a Chris Bosh screen and threw a pass to Dwyane Wade. The Heat were using their three best players, a formula the Pacers have been unable to solve the last few years, dropping playoff series to Miami in 2012 and 2013 – and, maybe by the end of the week, 2014.

Suddenly, Paul George jumped the passing lane, stole the ball, surged toward the rim and separated himself from the Heat.

Erik Spoelstra stepped on the court and signaled timeout before George even dunked.

Miami, the back-to-back defending NBA champions, can keep stifling the Pacers. For now.

But George and crew won’t stop coming.

Indiana beat the Heat in Game 5 Wednesday, extending the Eastern Conference Finals at least to a Game 6 Friday and maybe a Game 7 Sunday. Even if the Pacers drop one of those, this is not over.

Lance Stephenson (23), George (24) and Roy Hibbert (27) are younger than Miami’s youngest starter – Mario Chalmers (28), and Chalmers is only 15 days younger than George Hill. The Pacers are too youthful, too hungry and too experienced to quit now.

Only Oklahoma City (in 2011 and 2012) has made back-to-back conference finals in the current 16-team playoff format with a lower average age than the Pacers, who have an average age of 26.4* in the last two postseasons.

*Weighted by minutes played in the playoffs, using a player’s age Feb. 1 of that season.

Of course, age alone doesn’t guarantee Indiana will eventually advance further. This team needs work – better chemistry, better ball-handling, better passing, better reserves and maybe better coaching.

But when George plays like he did tonight, it should be clear how high the ceiling and how wide the window are for Indiana.

At times, George looks like the NBA’s most athletic 3-and-D player. That role makes him extremely serviceable, good enough to help an otherwise talented Pacers team join the Eastern Conference elite. If his career unfolds as a 3-and-D+++ player who never taps his full potential, that would hardly be a tragedy.

Yet, there’s no reason George can’t become so much more.

With the Pacers’ season on the line, he scored 37 points, grabbed six rebounds and made six steals. He looked every bit a superstar, and if he hits that peak more often, he’ll be one rather than just imitate one from time to time.

Like George, the Pacers are still finding themselves. This is in no way a team on its last legs, even if its on its last legs in this series.

On the other hand, Indiana’s foil – Miami – is the third-oldest conference finalist in the last 15 years with an average age of 31.0. The Heat must either add youth to their supporting cast with little flexibility below the luxury-tax line, or they’ll eventually age out of contention.

There’s no guarantee Indiana will supplant them, but George has the potential to ensure it happens. He pulled the Pacers into a Game 6. He can pull them deeper into championship contention.

Game 5 was not a changing of the guard. The Heat still lead this series 3-2, and they’ll still likely win it.

But Paul George and the Pacers are making waves that could erode Miami’s beach soon. Maybe as soon as next season.

Rumor: Portland coach Terry Stotts could lose job after being swept out of playoffs

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Regular season: Terry Stotts was mentioned as a Coach of the Year candidate after leading the Portland Trail Blazers to 49 wins and the three seed in the West, led by a top 10 defense.

Playoffs: Portland was swept out of the postseason in the first round by Anthony Davis.

The latter part of that is going to lead to some real soul searching and changes coming to the Trail Blazers. That could include Stotts losing his job, reports Marc Stein of the New York Times.

There is plenty of blame to go around for Portland’s quick exit from the postseason, Stein is right that it’s not all on Stott’s shoulders.

However, this is the third time in four years Portland is out in the first round, and it leads to the question “what is it about their style that makes them so defendable and beatable in the playoffs?” This is a little like Toronto in recent years, where despite a lot of talent they were predictable and therefore defendable in the postseason. How much of that falls on Stotts?

After a period of reflection in Portland, there are going to be changes in the wake of this sweep. Stotts’ job will be part of that discussion, no matter how good a job he did.

That said, if Stotts were to be let go he would hand on his feet very quickly.

After Ricky Rubio’s triple-double, Russell Westbrook promises to “shut that s*** off”

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Ricky Rubio outplayed Russell Westbrook Saturday night in Utah and now the Jazz are up 2-1 in that series.

Rubio did his damage from the midrange — he was 5-of-5 between the key and the arc — on his way to 26 points, to go with 11 rebounds and 10 assists. All series the Thunder have dared Rubio to shoot and to beat them, Saturday he did. It was a stark contrast to Westbrook’s 14 points on 17 shots Saturday with eight turnovers.

When asked about Rubio’s big night postgame, Westbrook was looking ahead to Game 4 and using a little NSFW language (hat tip to Ben Golliver of SI, who loves him some playoff podium video).

There you have it, a personal guarantee.

Rubio struggled some in Game 1, taking 18 shots and mostly the ones the Thunder wanted him to. However, after that he has been better at getting to his spots and taking the shots in rhythm, and it’s worked — he’s averaging 20.3 points, 8.3 rebounds, and 8 assists per game this series. OKC has been focused on making life difficult for rookie Donovan Mitchell (with limited success) and it’s freed up Rubio to make plays.

More than just slowing the Spanish point guard, Westbrook and the Thunder need to figure out how to get their offense back on track against a Jazz defense that was best in the NBA once Gobert got healthy last season. Oklahoma City lost Game 2 when their big three — Westbrook, Paul George, Carmelo Anthony — went 0-of-15 in the fourth quarter. In Game 3, OKC averaged 100 points per 100 possessions (well below their season average of 110.2) and Westbrook shot 29.4 percent. Do that again in Game 4 and it will not matter what Rubio shoots, what matters is the Thunder could be looking at a 3-1 deficit. The Thunder need to even this series before it heads back to Oklahoma City.

Gregg Popovich will not coach Game 4 following death of his wife, Erin

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San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich will not be on the sidelines again for Game 4 Sunday following the death of his wife, Erin, to a lengthy illness.

Ettore Messina will again coach the Spurs.

Popovich also missed Game 3. His San Antonio Spurs are down 3-0 to the Golden State Warriors in the first-round matchup. None of that matters compared to the loss of a woman he loved and was married to for four decades.

Erin Popovich’s passing has cast a pall over the series, especially with Warriors coach Steve Kerr being very close to the Popovichs dating back to his playing days with the Spurs.

The reaction and sadness about Erin’s passing has reached well beyond this series.

Our thoughts are with the Popovich family in this difficult time.

Anthony Davis’ 47 points, Pelicans sweep Trail Blazers out of playoffs

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Anthony Davis scored 33 of his franchise playoff-record 47 points in the second half, and the New Orleans Pelicans completed a first-round playoff sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers with a 131-123 victory on Saturday.

Jrue Holiday capped his 41-point performance with an 18-foot pull-up jumper that gave the Pelicans a six-point lead with 40 seconds left.

Rajon Rondo added 16 assists, and Davis also had 11 rebounds and three blocks for New Orleans, which is moving on to the second round of the playoffs for only the second time since the NBA returned to the city 16 seasons ago.

C.J. McCollum scored 38 for the Trail Blazers, who responded to a blowout loss in Game 3 by keeping Game 4 close until the final minute. Al-Farouq Aminu scored 27, Damian Lillard added 18 points and Jusuf Nurkic had 18 points and 11 rebounds before fouling out.

Lillard’s difficult driving layup had just tied the game at 60 when the Pelicans briefly pulled away, going on an 11-2 run capped by Davis’ 3.

Soon after, Nikola Mirotic added step-back 3. Davis, who scored 19 in the third quarter, then added a layup while falling down after a hard foul by Aminu, after which Davis flexed both biceps while still sitting on the court.

Holiday’s transition 3 made it 87-72, prompting Portland to call timeout while Holiday walked slowly toward mid-court, nodding and smiling wide as he soaked in the crowd’s adulation.

New Orleans led by 13 to start the fourth quarter, but Portland refused to wilt, opening the period on a 15-4 run that included Nurkic’s hook shot, 20-foot jumper and dunk. McCollum’s transition layup made it 104-102 with nearly nine minutes to play.

Portland got as close as a single point on Aminu’s layup with 5:08 to go, but Davis responded with 12 points over the final 4:56, starting with a layup as he was fouled and a 3-pointer. Holiday scored six points during the final 2:52, starting with his 3-pointer. The pair combined for all but one of New Orleans’ points during that pivotal stretch.

Leading up to Game 4, Lillard spoke of the need for the Blazers to ramp up their intensity and physicality. From the tip, it looked as though they’d done so.

In stark contrast to Game 3, when New Orleans led by 18 in the first quarter, this game was tight and testy.

Anthony and Ed Davis received double technical fouls after bumping one another following one of Anthony Davis’ dunks – and that was just the beginning.

McCollum was called for a flagrant foul when he stormed into the lane behind E'Twaun Moore and grabbed the Pelicans guard by the shoulders to thwart a driving layup attempt. Moore then shoved McCollum and was assessed a technical foul.

And in the final seconds of the half, double technicals were assessed to Rondo and Portland center Zach Collins after Rondo lowered his forehead into Collins’ chest and Collins shoved back.

When halftime arrived, New Orleans led 58-56.