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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.”

 

MVP James Harden, dominant Rockets show up in second half, crush Timberwolves

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We had to wait three-and-a-half games for it.

We had seen James Harden play like an MVP all season. We had seen the Rockets bury threes at a record rate all season. We had seen Houston’s switching defense impress all season (sixth best in the NBA). We had seen Houston rack up 65 wins and make it look easy.

Then we got to the playoffs and the Rockets couldn’t put it all together at once. Harden struggled after Game 1, including going 0-of-7 in the first quarter Monday night. The defense was inconsistent and the threes were not falling. All of it let the Timberwolves hang around in the series — down 2-1 — and the same in Game 4, down just a point at halftime.

Then the Harden and Rockets we all expected showed up.

Houston put up 50 points in the third quarter alone, shooting 61 percent overall and 9-of-13 from three, plus they got to the line 13 times and made every shot. The Rockets opened the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, with almost all of the damage from Harden, who had 22 in the quarter.

The Rockets pulled away and cruised from there to an easy 119-100 win.

“We hit the switch, the switch we’ve been trying to hit since the beginning of the playoffs on both ends of the floor,” Harden said postgame. “It’s pretty scary what we’re capable of when defensively we’re locked in like that, and offensively we got rolling.”

Houston now leads the series 3-1 and can close it out at home in Game 5 Wednesday night.

In the first half this looked nothing like something that would end with a comfortable Rockets win. Houston struggled at the start of Game 4, opening 0-of-5 in the paint, including Harden missing an open layup. As a team, the Rockets started the game 4-of-16 from three, and a lot of those were uncontested looks. The Rockets play a lot of isolation, but even for them the ball seemed to stick in the first half. If not for Trevor Ariza knocking down three from beyond the arc, the Timberwolves might have been able to pull away.

The fact they didn’t was a blown opportunity for the Timberwolves, something they just can’t do in this series. It was a one-point Rockets lead, 50-49, at the half.

Minnesota had some moments on offense in the game, usually when attacking quickly off the Rockets switch. Derrick Rose had some moments and finished the game with 17 points. Karl-Anthony Towns had 22 points and 15 rebounds, Jimmy Butler had 19 points on 17 shots.

But that was no match for the Rockets when they flipped the switch.

It was a barrage of threes that we have waited for all season, and it all started with Harden and Chris Paul, they had all of the first 15 points of the second half for Houston. Harden finished with 36 points and hit 5-of-11 from three. CP3 had 25 points and six assists, Eric Gordon finally woke up in this series with 18, and Ariza finished with 15.

Minnesota is a talented team, but they are learning fast what a contender can do — even not at their peak the Rockets had taken two of the first three in the series, and when they did flip the switch it was another level. A level the Timberwolves want to get to, there are just some rough lessons along the road to getting there.

James Harden puts on show to start second half vs. Timberwolves

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James Harden started Game 4 0-of-7 from the floor, including missing a lay-up. It was an extension of Game 3, and it let the Timberwolves hang around for a half despite their own offensive woes.

Then in the second half the MVP Harden showed up.

Houston started the second half on an 11-0 run that extended all the way to 25-4, and a lot of it was Harden (with a little help from Chris Paul). Harden had 22 points in the third (with 4:30 left in the quarter). After a couple rough games the Timberwolves were going under the pick when Harden had the ball, and suddenly he made them pay.

Or, he was just stepping back.

With all the buckets the Rockets turned a close game into a 25 point lead.

Tyronn Lue doesn’t hold back with retort to heckling Pacers’ fan

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It’s a part of the NBA experience that most fans don’t get to hear — some fans courtside heckling opposing players and coaches, and those guys occasionally firing back. We only tend to hear about it when things cross a line.

Sometimes the interactions are just funny, such as this one passed along by J. Michael of the Indy Star.

Well played, Lue.

Although is Cleveland really a city at the forefront of fashion? Well, I suppose if you went to college in Nebraska…

Report: Pelicans picked up Alvin Gentry’s option for next season before sweep

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Last summer the buzz was all over the league: Pelicans GM Dell Demps and coach Alvin Gentry were given a “playoffs or bust” mandate by management. If the Pelicans were not in the postseason — and just barely getting in and then blown out in the first round might be good enough — there was going to be a housecleaning.

The Pelicans made the playoffs as the six seed with 48 wins despite losing DeMarcus Cousins to a torn Achilles midway through the season.

That alone was good enough to get Gentry another season in New Orleans, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

As noted, this happened before the Pelicans swept the Trail Blazers out of the first round and into a summer of re-evaluation. This option season is the last of Gentry’s original deal with the Pelicans.

Gentry has the Pelicans playing fast, using the elite defense of Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday to get stops, and right now Davis is leading an offense that is just getting it done, with guys such as Nikola Mirotic stepping up. Gentry has earned another year, and a shot to integrate Cousins into this style and level of play, to see where that could take New Orleans next season.

It will be interesting to see if Demps can add more shooting and versatility with a capped out roster.