Indiana Pacers v Miami Heat - Game 3

Paul George: Cavaliers are Eastern Conference favorites

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The Heat have won the last four Eastern Conference titles, making them the first team with four consecutive conference crowns since the Celtics (1984-87).

But with LeBron James headed back to Cleveland, the Heat are no longer Finals favorites.

Who in the East is?

How about last year’s No. 1 seed and conference finalist? Couldn’t the Pacers just slide up one slot to frontrunner status?

Indiana star forward Paul George, via Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

“With Lance being gone and everyone thinking this is going to be a rebuilding year for us,” Paul George said during Team USA training camp this week, “immediately when LeBron went to Cleveland, that made them the front-runners.”

But the Pacers, with a strong core led by George still in place, are certainly not rebuilding, right?

“People do look at it that way,” George insisted, perhaps even trying to sell it. “I’ve got a lot of pressure and I’m coming into this year and I’m ready to live up to that pressure.”

George isn’t wrong. I’d take LeBron’s Cavaliers – and the Bulls with a healthy Derrick Rose and Pau Gasol coming on board – over Indiana. The Heat, Raptors, Wizards and Hornets – who stole Lance Stephenson, one of the Pacers’ top players – might belong higher in the pecking order, too. Without Stephenson, Indiana is not the same team.

But I don’t think George is interested in an accurate assessment.

The Pacers started 33-7 last season, overtaking Miami as conference favorites in the process. Then, under the weight of expectations, Indiana collapsed. The Pacers, plagued by in-fighting and finger-pointing, clearly weren’t ready for the spotlight.

George, correctly, believes Indiana performs better when viewed as the underdog. So, he’ll say what he can to help the team achieve that status.

Thankfully for him, LeBron remaining in the East all but guaranteed he won’t have to stretch too hard. Unless LeBron signed with Indiana, Milwaukee or Philadelphia, Indiana had minimal shot of being viewed as Eastern Conference favorites.

Nets’ Greivis Vasquez pulls out of Olympics for Venezuela

DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 11:  Greivis Vasquez #21 of the Milwaukee Bucks takes the court against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center on November 11, 2015 in Denver, Colorado. The Nuggets defeated the Bucks 103-102. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
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Venezuela is in its first Olympic basketball tournament in more than 20 years — they upset Canada and Argentina to win the FIBA Americas tournament last summer and earned the right to go to Rio.

But they are going to have to play there without the one NBA player on their roster. Greivis Vasquez, who had ankle surgery last December, announced he had to pull out, via the Nets.

If you want to know what this means for the Venezuelan team heading into Rio, well, they shot just 23.9 percent in an 80-45 loss to Team USA Friday night in Chicago — and that was by far the USA’s worst performance in the exhibition run-up to the Rio Games.

Vasquez should be getting decent minutes off the bench behind Jeremy Lin in Brooklyn this season. They need him healthy as the team tries to move from “god awful” to just plain “not good” next season.

Report: Monty Williams to accept role on Spurs coaching staff next season

LAS VEGAS, NV - JULY 18:  Draymond Green #14 of the 2016 USA Basketball Men's National Team drives against assistant coach Monty Williams of the 2016 USA Basketball Men's National Team during a practice session at the Mendenhall Center on July 18, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
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Another smart move by the Spurs.

Monty Williams is one of the better assistant coaches in the NBA right now, and he was available (remember he understandably left Oklahoma City last season after the tragic death of his wife). He’s part of Mike Krzyzewski’s staff with USA Basketball this summer — watch him in practices at age 44 and he’s a better defender plenty of players in the league — and he wanted to get back on the bench.

San Antonio has snapped him up, reports Marc Stein of ESPN.

Sources told ESPN that Williams — who left the Oklahoma City Thunder’s bench in February after the tragic death of his wife, Ingrid — has been urged by Spurs coach Gregg Popovich to take as much of a role with the organization as he feels comfortable for the 2016-17 campaign.

The specifics of what role Williams would fill and how much time he could commit have not yet been determined, but sources say San Antonio has opened the door to either a coaching and player-development role or a front-office position (or a hybrid), depending on what he prefers.

One source close to Williams told ESPN that the 44-year-old “absolutely” intends to be a head coach in the league again after his expected stint with the Spurs. The source also said numerous teams, including Oklahoma City, have made similar offers to Williams for next season.

Williams will get another shot in the big chair down the line. In the short term, this is a smart move — nothing looks better on a resume than “Spurs” around the league right now.

Team USA has sing-along on plane leaving Chicago. Well, except for ‘Melo.

OAKLAND, CA - JULY 26:  Carmelo Anthony #15 of the United States Men's National Team looks on during player intro duction prior to playing the China Men's National Team in a USA Basketball showcase exhibition game at ORACLE Arena on July 26, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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Team USA had their “Tiny Dancer” moment.

Like “Stillwater” in Almost Famous, Team USA’s Jimmy Butler, Draymond Green and Kyrie Irving were leading a sing-along of Vanessa Carlton’s “A Thousand Miles” on the team plane out of Chicago to Houston for the USA’s final exhibition game. Hat tip Alysha Tsuji who pulled the snapchats.

Everyone was loving it… except for Carmelo Anthony, according to DeMar DeRozan.

Melo ain't having it…😂

A video posted by DeMar DeRozan (@demar_derozan) on

Watch Kyle Lowry’s tip-pass alley-oop to Jimmy Butler in USA win

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There were a lot of ugly things for Team USA in its exhibition win over Venezuela — the 4-of-25 shooting from three comes to mind. There was more, it was not a strong offensive performance from Team USA.

But like usual, we can overwhelm teams with athleticism, and that means wins and highlights. Like Kyle Lowry‘s tip-pass alley-oop to Jimmy Butler.

Or DeMar DeRozan‘s late-game windmill dunk.