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Lance Stephenson: Pacers missing ‘never-bow-down-to-anyone’ mentality, but I can help

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Lance Stephenson realized long ago that it was a mistake to leave the Indiana Pacers.

So when Larry Bird called with an offer to come back and jump-start his career, the tough, 26-year-old guard shed tears of joy.

On Friday, about 24 hours after the Pacers made the signing official and Paul George welcomed him home with a text message, Stephenson returned to his old stomping grounds, looking for ways to help the Pacers make yet another playoff run.

“I was in New York rehabbing. I was like: `Man, I keep getting hurt. I guess I’ll worry about next year,”‘ Stephenson said. “When I got the call, I said: `Are you kidding? The Indiana Pacers? I’m going home.”

Plenty has changed since Stephenson last wore an Indiana uniform in the 2014 Eastern Conference finals.

George and Lavoy Allen are the only other players still around from that team.

Stephenson’s familiar No. 1 jersey is now being worn by Kevin Seraphin, so Stephenson will switch to No. 6.

And instead of fighting for the top seed, the Pacers are struggling just to make the postseason.

They started Friday tied with Miami for seventh in the Eastern Conference, one game ahead of Chicago with seven to play. Indiana was scheduled to visit Toronto Friday night.

The Bulls have an easier schedule over the final stretch, the Heat own the tiebreaker over Indiana and the Pacers are still down two key backups – center Al Jefferson and forward Glenn Robinson III. A sprained left ankle is expected to keep Jefferson out until the final week of the regular season. Robinson could return next week from a strained left calf.

And as Stephenson has watched from afar, he thinks he can help Indiana turn things around with a new attitude.

“I think the thing they’re missing is that energy and that never bow-down-to-anyone (mentality),” he said.

That was certainly a trademark of Stephenson’s first stint in Indy.

The question is how long will it take him to make an impact this time?

He’s fought through injuries all season, and after brief stops in New Orleans and Minnesota, Stephenson figured his fate this season would be measured in 10-day contracts.

Instead, Bird, the Pacers’ president of basketball operations offered him a three-year deal – the first two guaranteed, the third a team option. It was too good to refuse.

“He’s probably the only guy who believed in my game,” Stephenson said. “He always pushed me, he always challenged me. To have that guy behind you is incredible.”

Stephenson insists he has changed since leaving, too.

He’s sporting a beard and the family members that lived with him in Indianapolis before now live in Las Vegas.

And after playing for five teams in less than three seasons, Stephenson said he has learned more about basketball, himself and how to be a better leader. Heck, he even laughed off a question about a possible rematch with LeBron James on Sunday in Cleveland, declining to answer a question that rekindled images of Stephenson blowing in James’ ear during the 2014 conference finals.

But the Pacers brought back the 6-foot-5 guard for one reason: They want Stephenson to play with the same, old passion that made him a fan favorite the first time around.

“I think I can help these guys on the defensive end, and bring that tough edge about bowing down to no one,” he said. “I’ve got this year and next year, so I’ve got a lot of time to prove myself and show that I can get back to where I was.”

Top-10 college recruit Anfernee Simmons may go straight to NBA

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A couple of years back, Thon Maker decided to play a post-graduate fifth year of prep school ball, not go to a major college, then jump to the NBA. He could because he had graduated a year before and was 19, the Bucks took him in the lottery, and so far it has worked out for everyone.

Now another recruit, Anfernee Simmons, may follow that path. Simmons is spending this year at the IMG Academy, and the combo guard is considered a top-10 recruit in this class.

Jonathan Givony of ESPN broke the story after speaking to Simmons.

“Some people have brought it to my attention,” Simons told ESPN during an interview in Connecticut, where his team was participating in the National Prep Showcase. “As long as the opportunity is there, I will do it.

“I can see myself going to the NBA combine, if I have enough teams to actually invite me or recommend me for the combine and enough teams want to bring me for workouts. I really need to hit the weight room hard and get a little stronger.”

This is a sensible approach — find out where you roughly fall in the draft, then make a decision. Listen to the teams, not friends/family/agents. If you have a first-round guarantee, then go pro.

Givony and others describe the 6’3″ Simmons as talented but still a project for the NBA level, starting with the fact he needs to get stronger (something true of most rookies). Not that it really scares off teams any longer, many are willing to develop and wait on a player with potential (he could spend a chunk of his first season in the G-League). Simmons is fast when he drives, and has a smooth release on his jumper. If he gets stronger and his game matures, a team may take a risk on him.

Shorthanded Cavaliers now without Iman Shumpert for 5-7 days

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Isaiah Thomas is still rehabbing his hip, he should return next month.

With him out, Tyronn Lue and the Cavaliers have had to lean more on Derrick Rose at the point, except he has a sprained ankle that is going to have him out a couple more weeks.

That has forced Iman Shumpert into the starting point guard role in Cleveland, although he mostly is there for defense/shooting as the playmaking duties fall to LeBron James.

Now the Cavaliers will have to get by without Shumpert for a while with water on the knee, Cleveland announced on Saturday. He left Friday night’s Cavs win against the Clippers with a sore knee and did not return

“Additional examination and imaging today at Cleveland Clinic Sports Health confirmed left knee effusion. He will be out 5-7 days while he undergoes treatment and rehabilitation,” the Cavaliers said in a statement.

This is going to force Lue to play Jose Calderon, who he has kept glued to the bench this season despite the injuries. J.R. Smith and Dwyane Wade will need to take on more run as well.

The Celtics have won four in a row — thanks to a more focused offense — and face the Pistons, Nets, and Hornets this week.

Joakim Noah on if he can play at former level: “Probably not. Probably not.”

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For three games, Joakim Noah has been clear of the 20-game PED suspension he started at the end of last season.

For three games, he has not even dressed for the Knicks.

This is the former Defensive Player of the Year who was already on the decline when Phil Jackson gave him a $72 million contract that is now the worst in the NBA. Noah is out of the rotation, where Enes Kanter starts at center (with Kristaps Porzingis at the four) and Kyle O’Quinn coming off the bench.

Noah told Marc Berman of the New York Post he is frustrated but gets the situation.

“I’ll be all right. I’ll be all right,’’ Noah said in his first comments since being reinstated. “I understand the situation. I’m going to make the best of it.”

When asked if he still feels he can be close to the player he was in his 2013-14 campaign, Noah said: “Probably not. Probably not. You know. I can help. I feel like I could help this team and that’s just my reality. But I just want to just be the best that I can be.

“It’s not about trying to be what I was three, four years ago, because it’s not the reality.”

Noah is a smart and mature player, he understands his reality, and he has the exact attitude you want a veteran off the bench. He can help in practices, he can help because he understands how to play defense and can teach it, and eventually, he will get a chance on the court. He is not part of the future of the Knicks, but he can guide these young players.

The Knicks new management will look for a way to unload Noah’s contract, but considering the sweeteners the Knicks would need to throw in to get a team to deal for Noah, it’s unlikely we see any action on that front for a long time.

Frustrated Gregg Popovich calls all three referees “f****** blind”

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The Spurs completed an amazing comeback win against the Thunder Friday night, coming from 23 down to knock off the Thunder when Carmelo Anthony‘s game-tying three was just a two because his toe was on the line.

Gregg Popovich was into this one.

So much so that when he didn’t like an out-of-bounds call he made sure all three officials knew exactly how blind he thought they were.

The best part of this is Popovich covering his eyes, just to really emphasize his point.

We’re really going to miss Pop when he steps away to live at a winery full time.