The enduring value of the Pacers’ undeserved playoff berth

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As third parties have banded about all kinds of system-related ideas in light of the lockout, I’ve seen the 2010-2011 Indiana Pacers, who finished the regular season with a 37-45 record, categorically used as evidence in support of an altered playoff system. As much as I understand the sentiment that teams so far under .500 shouldn’t be able to compete in the postseason, I feel as though that notion ignores a tremendously important fact: despite their regular season record, the Pacers actually played quite well in their first round series against the Chicago Bulls.

That series only lasted five games, but the first four were decided by a total of 20 points; each and every one of those initial four contests went down to the wire, with the Pacers falling because of their inability to manufacture points against Chicago’s late-game defense. The games were competitive and intriguing, to a degree that makes me legitimately curious if the current playoff system’s harshest critics were able to tune in to see one of the league’s most understated young teams do battle with a finished product. It’s something we often forget when discussing the NBA’s up-and-comers; Indiana may not be able to match the terrific potential of a team like the Oklahoma City Thunder, but the Pacers have nonetheless amassed a group of quality players that just so happen to be climbing toward their basketball primes.

Danny Granger, in an interview with Zach Lowe for SI.com’s The Point Forward blog, talked about the Pacers’ youth, and the team’s late-game performance in those tightly contested games — games that weren’t supposed to be so competitive, and games that, according to the aforementioned dissenting group, shouldn’t have involved the Pacers in the first place:

SI.com: You guys pushed the Bulls in the first round. Four of the five games were really close. But one theme that kept popping up was the trouble you guys had scoring down the stretch. What happened?

Granger: I think that was our immaturity. I agree with what you say happened. We didn’t execute or run our plays the way we wanted. A lot of it had to do with the Bulls having the best defense in the league. But we have to be able to produce plays in crunch time.

SI.com: The team ran a lot of pick-and-rolls down the stretch of those games — you screening for Darren Collison, you taking a screen from Roy Hibbert and other combinations. But the numbers say you guys were one of the least efficient pick-and-roll teams in the league. How can you get better?

Granger: It’s just a matter of working it in. To be an effective pick-and-roll team, you have to have good decision-makers. I’m not saying that we didn’t have them, but I think we were just inexperienced in that scenario. We switched coaches during the middle of the season, and we switched our whole offense to implement more pick-and-rolls. Frank Vogel did a good job getting us on the same page, but you have to remember: In that series, we started Paul George, who was a rookie. Tyler Hansbrough was basically a rookie, since he was hurt his first year. Darren Collison was in his second year. Roy Hibbert is young.

Considering how closely Indiana kept pace with one of the league’s top teams, do the ends justify the playoff structuring means in this instance? Not solely; there’s no question that the Houston Rockets (43-39), Phoenix Suns (40-42), and even Utah Jazz (39-43) were screwed over by playing in the deeper Western Conference. The fact that the series was entertaining and competitive doesn’t really do much for the players on any of those three squads, who all were cut off after 82 games despite posting better records than Indiana.

But consider those quotes from Granger. That Bulls-Pacers first round series wasn’t exactly an all-timer, but it was pretty special nonetheless. The team that shouldn’t have qualified for the postseason played as valiantly as one could possibly hope, and though decision-making issues really did end up being their downfall, we were still able to witness a fun, young roster legitimately compete against an elite club. Maybe that result doesn’t justify the process in itself, but it should at least factor into our retrospective analysis of it.

Essentially, there were two lessons to be learned from that hotly contested series. First, that Indiana wasn’t just the team that lost 45 games and yet still managed to secure a playoff spot. They’re also the team that tested the top-seeded Chicago Bulls much sooner than expected, and — along with the Memphis Grizzlies — represent the potential of No. 8 seeds, even in this allegedly broken system, to cause some mayhem. The conference playoff structure may not be perfect, but in this case it created a commendable product undeserving of criticism or ire. Second, that the only way to frame the Pacers’ struggles is in the context of their youth. Indiana may have been unable to execute down the stretch against Chicago, but the series still showcased a dynamic Pacers roster with plenty of talent and lots of potential for further growth.

Steve Nash on his relationship with Kevin Durant: ‘We’re good’

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In an effort to gain leverage for a trade this offseason, Kevin Durant threw down a “either the coach and GM are gone or I am” ultimatum.

Now coach Steve Nash (and GM Sean Marks) are back in Brooklyn, on the same team and trying to build a contender together. Awkward? Not if you ask Nash, which is what Nick Friedell of ESPN did.

“We’re fine,” Nash said after the Nets’ first official practice of the season on Tuesday. “We’re good. Ever since we talked, it’s been like nothing’s changed. I have a long history with Kevin. I love the guy. Families have issues. We had a moment and it’s behind us. That’s what happens. It’s a common situation in the league.

“We all were hurting, seething, to go through what we went through last year, not being able to overcome all that adversity. Sometimes you lose perspective because you expect to win, but the reality is we were able to talk and discuss what we can improve on from last year. And also keep perspective. We went through a ton of stuff.”

First off, what else was Nash going to say? He knows the power dynamic in the NBA, and Durant has far more leverage than he does — not enough to get Nash fired this summer, but still more than the coach.

Second, Nash could be telling the truth from his perspective. NBA players and coaches understand better than anyone this is a business and things are rarely personal. Grudges are not held like fans think they are (most of the time). Nash saw Durant’s move for what it was — an effort to create pressure — and can intellectually shrug it off, reach out to KD and talk about the future.

What this brings into question was one of the Nets’ biggest issues last season — mental toughness and togetherness. Do the Nets have the will to fight through adversity and win as a team? Individually Durant, Kyrie Irving, Nash and others have shown that toughness in the past, but as a team it was not that hard to break the will of the Nets last season. Are their relationships strong enough, is their will strong enough this season?

It feels like we will find out early. If the wheels come off the Nets’ season, it feels like it will happen early and by Christmas things could be a full-on dumpster fire. Or maybe Nash is right and they are stronger than we think.

Billy Donovan to choose Bulls’ starting PG during training camp

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Speaking at Chicago’s media day, Bulls head coach Billy Donovan said he will choose his starting point guard over the course of training camp. Lonzo Ball was expected to reprise his role as the starter, but he recently underwent arthroscopic surgery on his troublesome knee and raised some eyebrows at media day when he said he couldn’t run or jump. Simply put, there is no guarantee we even see him at all this season.

Donovan is fortunate that he has a plethora of options though, as Goran Dragic, Alex Caruso, Ayo Dosunmu and Coby White will all battle it out. “We’ll have to see how these guys gel and mesh once training camp starts and we start practicing,” Donovan said. “But I think we have enough back there that we can get the job done from that standpoint.”

Dragic is the most “seasoned option” to use Donovan’s own words and would be the safe pick, but at 36 years old, he doesn’t exactly raise Chicago’s ceiling. Plus, Donovan already hinted at managing his minutes throughout the season.

Alex Caruso is Chicago’s best defender and is going to play a massive role whether he starts or comes off the bench, although the latter seems more likely since he’s not a natural point guard.

Coby White showed improvement as a shooter last season, hitting 38% of his triples. However, it’s no secret that his name has been in the rumor mill and the Bulls hardly mentioned him at media day.

With that said, I think Ayo is the dark horse to start after showing some serious promise during his rookie season. In 40 starts, Ayo put up 10.9 points, 5.4 assists, 3.6 rebounds, 1.1 triples and 1.1 steals and was one of the best perimeter defenders on the team. Zach LaVine went out of his way to hype up Dosunmu at media day as well, so you have to love his chances of running away with the job.

Anthony Davis says his goal is to play in all 82 games

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Anthony Davis played 40 games last season, and 36 the season before that. Charles Barkley has nicknamed him “street clothes.”

In a critical season for him and the Lakers, the biggest question with Anthony Davis is not his skill set and if he can be elite, but how much can the Lakers trust him to be on the court? Davis said on media day his goal is to play all 82 games (speaking to Spectrum Sportsnet, the Lakers station in Los Angeles).

A full 82 may be optimistic, but Davis saw last season as a fluke.

“Last season, I had two injuries that you can’t really control. I mean, a guy fell into my knee, landed on the foot,” Davis said earlier at media day. “And the good thing for me is that the doctors after they looked at us, they could have been, like 10 times worse.”

Davis talked about his workout regimen, getting his body both rested and stronger for this long season, knowing more will be asked of him. New coach Darvin Ham wants to run more of the offense through Davis, but all the Lakers’ plans are moot if Davis and LeBron James are not healthy and on the court for at least 65 games this season.

“The focus of my game is being available…” LeBron said Monday. “Availability is the most important thing in his league and to be able to be available on the floor.”

Ham has to walk a line of pushing this team to defend better, show a toughness it lacked last season, and make the playoffs in a deep West while keeping his stars’ minutes under control. In a league all about recovery, the Lakers need to prioritize that, too.

“Just being efficient with how we practice, how we manage shootarounds, how we manage their minutes,” Ham said Monday. “I don’t need ‘Bron or Ad playing playoff minutes in October, November, December.”

It’s the first days of training camp, everyone is feeling good, everyone is rested, and everyone is optimistic. The real tests for the Lakers and Davis start in a few weeks — and just how much will the Lakers’ stars play.

Report: Celtics reach out to former assistant Larranaga about joining Mazzulla’s staff

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The Boston Celtics are reportedly looking for a veteran assistant to put on the bench next to 34-year-old Joe Mazzulla, the man thrust into the head coach’s chair for a title contender in the wake of Ime Udoka’s suspension.

Who better than a guy who spent nine years on the Celtics’ bench? Boston reached out to Jay Larranaga, currently on the Clippers bench, about returning to the East Coast, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Clippers had no turnover on Tyronn Lue’s staff heading into this season. Mazzulla has become a trusted member of the Clippers staff, working a lot with the big me on the roster. However, if the Celtics back up the Brink’s Truck, the Clippers will not stand in his way if he wants to leave. It’s a question of comfort level, lifestyle, and of course money for Larranaga.

The Celtics made Mazzulla their interim head coach after an investigation found a “volume of violations” of team policy by Udoka, who had an improper relationship with a team staff member. So far the Celtics and Udoka have been able to keep the details of what happened under wraps, but league sources described the situation to NBC Sports as “ugly” and “messy,” especially if/when those details do find their way to the public.

For Celtics players, just getting back on the court, practicing Tuesday and focusing on basketball — not the turmoil around the franchise — was a good thing.

“Once we got out on the court, it was just nice to get back out the court and review our defense and to talk about offense and doing what we do,” Al Horford told the Associated Press. “It’s a good thing to just play basketball. That’s what we’re here for. It’s important to just start this thing back up again.”

Getting another coach on the bench will be important for the Celtics as well.