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Pacers become talk of the town with surprising first half

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indiana Pacers are playing harder, moving the ball faster and winning more games than most people anticipated.

Fans in this basketball-crazed state expect nothing less from their favorite teams. Around the league, though, the Pacers might be the biggest surprise of the first half of the season.

Just six months after trading four-time All-Star Paul George to Oklahoma City – setting up what many believed would be a long rebuilding process – new president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard has transformed the Pacers virtually overnight.

A younger, more energetic roster has given Indiana a more entertaining style with no significant drop in wins.

“We knew coming in that we would be developing a lot of guys,” coach Nate McMillan said. “They were young, many of them were in new roles. For us, it’s about developing that culture and that identity and we’re still doing that. I think we’re only starting to scratch the surface.”

With eight new players and three new starters, McMillan knew it would take time for everyone to get on the same page. At times, they still aren’t.

But even amid the growing pains, Indiana hit the midway point of the season with a winning record (21-20), good enough for eighth in the Eastern Conference. They have wins over San Antonio, Minnesota, Toronto and two over Cleveland.

Indiana is the only team with multiple wins over the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs and can make it three in a row when the Cavs come to town Friday. Cleveland swept the Pacers in the first round of the playoffs last year even with George and former All-Star Jeff Teague.

What’s changed? Just about everything.

The Pacers have broken away from their stodgy, half-court offense and are playing at the tempo Larry Bird, Pritchard’s predecessor, envisioned. As a result, the Pacers are tied for No. 8 in scoring (107.3 points), are No. 5 in 3-point percentage (37.9) and are just one victory behind last year’s 41-win pace.

“We have so much fun. We show him (McMillan) how hard we work on the defensive end and he gives us a little rope on the offensive end. I love it,” said Lance Stephenson, the Pacers’ showman and one of six holdovers. “It’s been great because you all had us predicted to be at the bottom of the league. We’ve just got to keep playing hard and playing together.”

When George’s plan to opt out of his contract this coming summer and leave town in free agency leaked publicly, Pritchard had two options: Rebuild now or make one more title run and risk losing his star player with nothing in return. Rather than build around unproven rookies, he dealt George to the Thunder for Victor Oladipo, the No. 2 selection in the 2013 draft, and Domantas Sabonis, the No. 11 pick in 2016.

Critics contended the Pacers didn’t get full value for George, but Pritchard got exactly what he wanted.

“When I think about Vic, he came into this league as a hot talent and he got moved around a little bit,” backup center Al Jefferson said. “But I knew when our front office traded Paul, I knew they weren’t going to trade him for just anybody. He (Oladipo) has responded very well.”

Sabonis, an undersized center dubbed as not strong enough to hold up in the post, is averaging 12.5 points, shooting 54.3 percent from the field and is among the top 25 in rebounds (8.0).

Oladipo, the former Indiana University star, has been even more impressive.

He’s spent most of this season ranked among the league’s top 40 in scoring (24.6 points), steals (1.9), 3-point percentage (41.0) and blocks (0.9). He’s heard chants of “M-V-P” and coaches around the league regularly talk about him making his first All-Star game.

“Obviously, I’ve been in a bigger role here,” Oladipo said. “But I feel like everybody here believes in me, everybody in the state believes in me and I believe we can play at the highest level every night.”

Pritchard’s other moves have worked out well, too.

Point guard Darren Collison is among the league leaders in assists (5.5), forward Bojan Bogdanovic is averaging 13.8 points and shooting a career best 47.4 percent from the field and guard Cory Joseph has provided steady play off the bench. Their performances coupled with the improvement of 21-year-old center Myles Turner, the steady play of Thaddeus Young and Stephenson’s energy have given the Pacers a solid foundation.

All they have to do in the second half is live up to the talk.

“It has been a fun group to coach because they come in and they work every day,” McMillan said. “We don’t always get it right. But they give you the effort each and every night.”

 

Enes Kanter’s teammate told him “You’re about to get 50 dropped on you” after LeBron troll

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Enes Kanter likes to inject himself in situations he doesn’t belong in.

The New York Knicks forward likes to take aim at the biggest star in the game, LeBron James, and has said in the past that he would fight LeBron if he had to.

Some previous comments from LeBron riled up members of the Knicks organization, and there’s been animosity between the two sides ever since.

So it wasn’t too much of a surprise when Kanter had something to say on Twitter about his former team, the Oklahoma City Thunder, dropping 148 points during a win over the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday. Heck, even former Cavaliers coach David Blatt jumped in on that one, albeit immediately before his own team got 151 scored on them.

Kanter took to Twitter, using LeBron’s own catchphrase against him:

Of course, that’s probably not the best idea. Kanter is a role player and LeBron is one of the best who ever played. Even if the Cavaliers are stinking it up lately, you can’t go after the King like that. You just might miss.

Via ESPN:

“One texted [teammate] me just to say — I’m not going to say who — but he texted me ‘You’re about to get 50 dropped on you, boy.'” Kanter said before Sunday’s matinee against the Los Angeles Lakers. “I responded something back, but I’m not going to say what it is.”

Kanter added that he’s just “having fun” and wanting to put “a smile on people’s face” with his constant prodding.

We’ll see if he ends up smiling the next time Cleveland and New York meet on April 9 at MSG.

David Blatt’s troll on the Cavaliers backfires when opponent scores 151 (VIDEO)

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David Blatt, perhaps sensing his time to pounce as rumors swirl around Tyronn Lue’s departure, decided to troll the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday. It did not go so well.

Blatt, who was fired from the head coaching spot in Cleveland in 2015, now heads Darüşşafaka S.K. in the Turkish Super League. Coaching Team Europe vs. Team Asia in the Turkish BSL All-Star Game, Blatt joked during a TV interview that he was just hoping his team didn’t give up as many points as the Cavaliers did to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Saturday. That game ended with a score of 148-124.

Via Twitter:

So what happened to Blatt’s Team Europe in the All-Star Game?

According to Erik Gundersen over at LeBron Wire, Team Europe promptly got rolled on with a tally of … 151 points.

The final total in the Turkish All-Star matchup was 151-142 in favor of Team Asia.

Oops.

Salah Mejri threatened to come to Blazers locker room after Jusuf Nurkic tussle

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The Portland Trail Blazers and Dallas Mavericks had a game of many emotions on Saturday night at Moda Center. Of course, the game wasn’t that close — Portland led by 17 at the half and finished the game by beating Dallas, 117-108.

But as we’ve seen in the NBA recently, the propensity for NBA players to get into physical spats is high. So it was no surprise that we saw yet another scrum between NBA players on the east side of the Willamette on Saturday as Dallas’ Salah Mejri got tangled up with Jusuf Nurkic and Evan Turner.

The play began with Nurkic getting a clean block on Mejri. Because of the position of the two players, Nurkic’s arm was angled as such that after the block it came clean through to rest on Mejri’s shoulder. Mejri turned, and the whole thing became a tangle of arms and elbows.

Neither Mejri or Nurkic took kindly to that, so the two squared off. Nurkic gave Mejri an ineffectual little push, while Portland’s Evan Turner jumped in to hold Mejri back. The Mavericks center promptly flopped all the way to the ground, inexplicably grabbing his face. It was Premier League-level flopping from Mejri, just top notch stuff.

Via NBC Sports Northwest:

After the game, Turner told media that Mejri threatened to come get the Blazers.

“He’s like ‘I’ll come to the locker room!'” said Turner. “Out of a 225 lb. dude [Turner] a 275 lb. dude [Nurkic] and a 7-footer [Mejri] who hit the ground?”

Portland’s CJ McCollum didn’t seem too impressed with the threat.

“If they really want to fight, they know where to find people,” said McCollum.

Much like any arena, the visiting locker room is just down the hall from the home squad at Moda Center, so it would have been easy for Mejri to get to. Nothing happened, so it turned out as an empty threat.

Meanwhile, Turner was assessed a technical foul for the tussle — presumably for “pushing” Mejri. There was notable tension the rest of the game between Mejri, Nurkic, and the crowd at Moda Center, but nothing else of consequence happened.

LeBron James: “We could easily get bounced early in the playoffs”

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Cleveland’s defense was pathetic Saturday and the Thunder routed them because of it. The Cavaliers gave up 148 points, allowed the Thunder to shoot 58 percent, and basically were little more than traffic cones for Russell Westbrook, Paul George and the rest of the Thunder to dribble and pass around. The Cavaliers have lost 8-of-11 and coach Tyronn Lue’s seat is getting warm.

Can the Cavaliers even get out of the East? LeBron James wasn’t even asking that question after the Saturday loss, he wants his team to get to the conference finals first. Via Dave McMenamin of ESPN.

“Playoffs? We can’t even start thinking about that, not the way we’re playing right now,” James said. “We could easily get bounced early in the playoffs if they started next weekend. Haven’t even began thinking about the postseason.”

It’s January, it’s far too early to write LeBron and the Cavaliers off — his teams have won the East for seven straight seasons in a row for a reason. Cleveland’s mid-season malaise is a thing and they snap out of it, Isaiah Thomas will find his legs and play better, but this season has shown some troubling structural flaws in the Cavaliers. Ones that could bite them in the playoffs. Ones they are active in the trade market trying to address, or at least shore up a little.

Nobody around the league is comfortable picking against a LeBron team in the East — he has been to seven straight Finals for a reason (and how impressive an achievement that is gets overlooked). But this seems to be the weakest LeBron team since he bolted Cleveland (the first time?), and a second-round matchup vs. Toronto is no gimme anymore. LeBron is right to be concerned.