Pacers’ future has lots of questions, starting with where the offense will come from?

22 Comments

All through Team USA training camp in Las Vegas, Paul George talked about the Pacers getting back to the way they played the first half of last season, about being hungry again. The collapse the second part of last season and into the playoffs (they still made the Eastern Conference Finals but never felt like a real threat to Miami) was something that could be put in the past. With LeBron James moving to Cleveland the East was wide open and George thought the Pacers were right in the middle of it.

Then Friday night happened. George is out for the season and the Pacers are left staring at a tough season and some hard choices.

When George does get back on the court, this could be a very different looking Pacers team.

Next season the Pacers should still be solid because they will defend. Last season Indiana had the best defense in the NBA last season allowing jut 96.7 points per 100 possessions over the course of the regular season and their system is not going to change.

That starts with Roy Hibbert protecting the rim — Indiana did a great job of contesting defenders on the perimeter and guiding them into Hibbert and his 7’9” standing reach. He intimidated and owned the paint. He also struggled last season but with George and Lance Stephenson gone (Stephenson signed in Charlotte as a free agent) Hibbert is going to get more touches and be asked to carry more load on the offensive end and when that happens Hibbert is more engaged and active on both ends. The two-time All-Star could put up the best offensive numbers of his career.

But he could be the real long-term problem for the Pacers.

Hibbert can opt-out after next season and become a free agent. If he’s unhappy with the situation in Indiana, or if he just wants longer-term security, he might.

Which leaves the Pacers with the “should we trade him now and get something in return?” question. They quietly have been shopping him this summer with little real interest — he’s coming off a down season and if a team really wants him they know they might be able to get him as a free agent in a year. Nobody is going to give up much. Still, the Pacers have to consider the option, although this is not a franchise that believes in tear-it-down rebuilds.

With that dangling over their heads, the Pacers need to find some offense this season.

Last season Indiana’s 101.5 points per 100 possessions was 22nd in the NBA and that was with George and Stephenson doing most of the shot creation. Now the offense initiation is going to fall to George Hill — look for him to have an improved season, he was asked to be a caretaker/spot-up shooter with George and Stephenson around but now he can go back to being the aggressive player Gregg Popovich didn’t want to part with. But Hill and Hibbert, with David West and a few shooters does not a great offense make.

It will fall to coach Frank Vogel to wring points out of this stone. And his system struggled to do that when he had Stephenson and George.

Indiana could in theory add a piece. Because of the George injury the Pacers can get a “disabled player exception” and add a player worth up to the mid-level exception of $5.3 million. Except the Pacers are just a little over $2 million under the luxury tax line now and they didn’t want to go over that line in the best of times, let alone for this team that likely is not going deep in the playoffs.

Guys like Shawn Marion are still out there and could help, but can they land him.

Expect the Pacers to remain a top 10 certainly (likely top five) defense, but one that is going to fall closer to .500 (or below) because they cannot score enough. Also expect to hear them in a lot of trade rumors as they have a lot of hard questions about the long-term future to answer.

Thunder star Russell Westbrook scores 45, leads 25-point comeback against Jazz

AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki
6 Comments

The Thunder lost three straight games, fell behind by 25 in the second half at home and looked as if they had no interest in returning to Utah.

Then, Russell Westbrook reminded everyone why he’s a superstar.

Westbrook is a singular force who can take over a game and rally his teammates – not a liability who makes everyone around him worse. His confidence and determination in the face of calamity were invaluable tonight. He kept attacking, and as shots started to fall, he and his teammates massively increased their defensive intensity.

The result: A 107-99 Game 5 win over the Jazz that looked highly improbable 21 game minutes before it ended. But Westbrook (who finished with 45 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists) singlehandedly outscored Utah in that final stretch.

The Thunder are hardly out of the woods yet. They still trail 3-2 in the series with Game 6 Friday in Utah. Teams with home-court advantage in a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6 win it just 37% of the time. Those teams win the series just 26% of the time.

But thanks to Westbrook, Paul George (34 points) and plain all-around defensive effort, Oklahoma City still has a shot. At minimum, the Thunder won’t send George into unrestricted free agency with four straight losses.

Not that Oklahoma City erased all concerns.

Rudy Gobert devoured the Thunder’s offense in the paint – at least while he could avoid the foul trouble. Utah was +7 in Gobert’s 30 minutes and -8 in the 18 minutes he sat.

The Thunder made most of their comeback with Carmelo Anthony on the bench. They continued to play well once he returned in the fourth quarter, but by then, the Jazz had lost all rhythm.

Utah – led by Jae Crowder‘s 27 points – looks deeper. Anthony was still Oklahoma City’s third-leading scorer with just seven points.

And the Thunder haven’t won in Salt Lake City this series.

But they’ll make another trip there. Considering where this game and series looked midway through the third quarter tonight, that’s a heck of an accomplishment.

Another massive third quarter lifts Rockets past Timberwolves into second round

Getty Images
3 Comments

We saw this movie just a couple of nights before, but Rockets fans love the ending and would gladly pay to see it 12 more times this postseason.

Much like Game 4, the Rockets were down at the half in Game 5 Wednesday after having played disinterested defense and with cold shooting from their stars (James Harden and Chris Paul combined to go 3-of-16 from the floor). Minnesota was up 59-55 and had hope.

Then the third quarter the Rockets flipped the switch. Again.

Harden had 15 points in the third — matching the Timberwolves as a team. Minnesota started to double Harden and take the ball out of his hands (especially late in the shot clock), but he often moved the rock and it led to open threes — the Rockets were 6-of-10 from three in the quarter. Houston won the third 30-15, not as overwhelming as the 50-point quarter the game before but once again enough to comfortably pull away from Minnesota and cruise in for a 122-104 win.

With that, the Rockets win the series 4-1 and now await the winner of the Utah vs. Oklahoma City series.

In that series, the Rockets will need to play with more consistent focus than they brought against the Timberwolves — they can’t just play a couple of good halves in the next series and expect that to be enough. Unlike Minnesota, those teams in the next round will make Houston pay a steep price for a lack of focus.

Houston got a massive night from Clint Capela, who led the Rockets with 26 points and 15 rebounds, running the rim hard in transition and making plays inside while the rest of the Rockets launched threes over the top.

Harden finished with 24 points and 12 assists, and Eric Gordon had 19 off the bench in the win.

Minnesota had 23 points from Karl-Anthony Towns and 17 from an energized Jeff Teague.

For the Timberwolves, a team with elite young talent, this was a glimpse of what it will take to reach the heights they envision. This was a good step — the franchise’s first trip to the playoffs since 2004 is not to be diminished. It matters. But there are higher levels this team can attain. Defensively they have to be better, offensively they need to feed Towns more and play to their strengths better. It’s a work in progress.

Houston just showed them where they want to be.

Hawks, coach Mike Budenholzer agree to part ways

Getty Images
8 Comments

This was expected.

It was pretty obvious Mike Budenholzer didn’t want to stick around and lose a lot of games with the Atlanta Hawks as they rebuild the next few years, especially after he had been stripped of his GM powers. Budenholzer went well down the road with the Phoenix Suns about their open coaching position before thinking better of it. Since then he has set up a meeting with the Knicks about their coaching vacancy, a job he reportedly wants badly.

At this point there was no need for the Hawks and Budenholzer to continue their sham marriage, so they have agreed to amicably separate, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and since confirmed by the Hawks.

Budenholzer said this to Wojnarowski of ESPN:

“I am grateful for the five years that I spent as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, and will always cherish the incredible contributions, commitment and accomplishments of the players that I was fortunate enough to work with here,” Budenholzer told ESPN on Wednesday night. “From ownership to management, support staff to the community, I’ll look back with great pride on what we were able to achieve together with the Hawks.”

For Budenholzer, the long-time Spurs assistant and a strong Xs and Os coach, look for him to both push for the Knicks job and be in the running if/when the Milwaukee Bucks job opens up whenever their season ends. In both cases he’s a fit — those are teams that need a culture and system reset, and Budenholzer proved he can bring that to Atlanta (that was a good team before they let Al Horford and Paul Millsap walk for nothing).

With Atlanta, they likely will turn to a top assistant coach who will get a chance to develop young players on that team (and not cost Atlanta as much as an established coach). Stephen Silas of the Hornets is a rumored name, but there are others.

LeBron James overrules controversial finish with game-winning 3-pointer (video)

14 Comments

LeBron James‘ turnover with the game tied late looked like a bad call. LeBron’s block of Victor Oladipo on the ensuing possession looked like a goaltend.

Did the Cavaliers get robbed of a crucial possession? Did the Pacers get robbed of two go-ahead points?

LeBron nullified those questions with a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give Cleveland a 98-95 win and a 3-2 series lead. The game-winner capped a great game by LeBron (44 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists) and moves the Cavs to the verge of advancing.

When a team with home-court advantage can close out a best-of-seven series with a road Game 6, it has 52% of the time. It has won the series 92% of the time.

The odds are even better with LeBron. LeBron has won 11 straight closeout games, nine of them on the road. He’ll have another opportunity Friday with Game 6 in Indiana.