Heat don’t scare Pacers

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The Miami Heat have been the most heavily scrutinized team in NBA history, and opponents aren’t immune from getting sucked into the publicity whirlwind. For better or worse, playing the Heat is different than any other game. Some teams, like the Bulls, thrive when facing the challenge. Others, like the Nets, crumble under the pressure.

The Pacers do neither.

Indiana just plays its game.

The Pacers don’t have the most high-end talent among the remaining teams. (That’s the Heat.) The Pacers don’t have the most depth, either. (That’s the Spurs.)

But after winning Tuesday night to even up the East finals at 2-2, Indiana has shown the most resolve in these playoffs.

The Pacers lost back-to-back games to the Hawks by 21 and 11 and won the next game. They lost to the Knicks by 26 and won the next game. They lost again to the Knicks by 10 and won the next game.

Now, after losing to the Heat by 18, Indiana has bounced back again – this time with a 99-92 victory over the Heat in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals.

No team has lost more games by double digits in these playoffs than the Pacers. In fact, Indiana has lost more double-digit games than the other three conference finalists combined.

But these Pacers keep fighting back.

George Hill was part-time starter and part-time sixth man for the San Antonio Spurs at age 23. For a player who spent four seasons playing for a team that sounds like a list of Hoosier State tourist locations – Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis – such a large role at such a young age had to be a dream come true. Then the Spurs traded him to Indiana, a team that went 37-45 the year before and still cut his minutes.

Lance Stephenson was once New York City’s schoolboy star du jour, earning the nickname Born Ready. Then, he faced legal trouble and eligibility questions, spent an OK season at Cincinnati, was drafted in the second round, struggled through his first two NBA seasons and appeared headed out of the league.

Paul George told anyone who would listen that he had sky-high potential; that he could be the next Tracy McGrady. An All-WAC second-team season didn’t exactly prove his upside, but George went pro anyway. He was so focused on the draft, he shared that Fresno State’s losing season actually help him – because he could prepare for the draft while other prospects were still playing in the NCAA Tournament. He went No. 10 – much, much, much higher than anyone would have imagined a year prior. Then, early in his rookie year, after all his hard work to achieve his draft dream, George was regularly receiving DNP-CDs.

David West was so highly regarded at Xavier that he made Sports Illustrated’s All-Decade team with players from more traditional powers Duke and Connecticut. But when it came to the draft, West faced typical questions for a power forward who spent four years in college (size, athleticism, upside) and slipped to 18th in the draft behind luminaries such as Troy Bell, Reece Gaines and Marcus Banks.

Roy Hibbert wasn’t exactly Patrick Ewing or Alonzo Mourning, but Hibbert changed himself from a player who couldn’t do a single push-up into someone who credibly belonged on a list of Georgetown’s great centers. Still, questions about his mobility pushed Hibbert’s draft stock below Joe Alexander, Jason Thompson and Anthony Randolph, down all the way to No. 17.

These players have been hit a lot harder than they were by the Heat in Game 3. The narrative suggested they should crumble at the sight of Miami showing its might, but their personal experiences have given them strength in these difficult situations.

Together, Hill, Stephenson, George, West and Hibbert have grown even stronger, worked even harder, gotten even better. Their resolve has increased. They’re not phased by losing, winning, playing the Heat or anything else.

The Heat could very well still win this series, but they won’t get to the Finals by intimidating Indiana. They’ll have to win on the merits of their play.

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Paul George hits game winner, lifts Thunder past 76ers 117-115

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Paul George converted a four-point play with 5.1 seconds left, sending Russell Westbrook and the Oklahoma City Thunder to a wild 117-115 victory over Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers on Saturday.

George’s clutch shot capped a wild finish that included another memorable exchange with Westbrook and Embiid. Westbrook hit the floor out of bounds under the basket after a foul by Embiid late in the game, and Westbrook fouled out with 14.9 seconds remaining after he got Embiid while shooting a 3-pointer.

Embiid made all three foul shots, tying it at 113, and Jimmy Butler‘s driving layup put Philadelphia in front with 6.9 seconds to go. But George drained a 3 while being fouled by Butler and made the foul shot.

Philadelphia had one last chance, but Butler missed a 3-point attempt in the final seconds. The 76ers have lost 19 in a row to the Thunder.

George finished with 31 points, six rebounds, five assists and three steals. Westbrook had 21 points, 10 rebounds and six assists for Oklahoma City, and reserve Dennis Schroder also scored 21 points.

The Thunder had dropped five of six, including a 138-128 overtime loss against the Los Angeles Lakers on Thursday night.

Embiid, who was a game-time decision because of back tightness, had 31 points, eight rebounds and six assists. JJ Redick scored 22 points for Philadelphia, and Ben Simmons finished with 20 points, 15 rebounds and nine assists.

Oklahoma City led by as many as 16 points in the first quarter, but Philadelphia rallied in the second and trailed 59-56 at the break.

 

Rumor: Suns, Magic have inquired about Knicks’ Frank Ntilikina

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Where do the Knicks stand on Frank Ntilikina, the No. 8 overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft (taken ahead of Dennis Smith Jr. Zach Collins, and Donovan Mitchell)?

This should tell you all you need to know: The Denver Nuggets decided to cast Emmanuel Mudiay aside and the Knicks traded for him and instantly Mudiay jumped Ntilikina on the depth chart.

Ntilikina has played good defense but unimpressive offense for the Knicks this season and there is a thought from other teams around the league they may try to trade the young European.

A few teams are interested, according to Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News, but — shocker! — there may be a split in the front office about what to do between president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry.

Despite the Knicks’ clear lack of confidence in Ntilikina, teams have inquired about the 20-year-old, with the Magic and Suns expressing interest, according to a source. And this is where it gets interesting. There seems to be a debate within the Knicks on whether to deal Ntilikina. He was drafted by Mills and has supporters in the front office. But, according to a source with knowledge of the situation, Perry, who took the job after Ntilikina was drafted, recently approached the Atlanta Hawks to gauge whether the team was interested in dealing for the guard (Hawks have Trae Young and weren’t interested).

The Suns and Magic both desperately need point guards. However, neither are offering much in trades knowing that come free agency next July there will be better, more established targets — D'Angelo Russell, Terry Rozier, among others.

Ntilikina is a good perimeter defender whose skills could be developed in the right situation into a rotation point guard. Probably. But because the offers will be lowball, the Knicks would essentially just be dumping the No. 8 pick of a season ago, a guy who is only 20 years old. That would be a mistake — if the Knicks can’t get decent value back, keep Ntilikina and try to develop him themselves. Point guards take longer to come around in the NBA, maybe Ntilikina will develop into a player the Knicks want to keep.

But the rumors are out there and it’s something to keep an eye on.

Markelle Fultz returns to Philadelphia to do shoulder rehab with team

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Markelle Fultz is back with the 76ers.

Not in uniform for games, but he is back from Los Angeles and in Philadelphia working out with the team to recover from thoracic outlet syndrome, according to multiple reports. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the story, then Noah Levick of NBC Sports Philadelphia confirmed it.

Fultz was in the arena for the Sixers game Saturday against the Thunder on national television (though not suited up to play).

There is no timetable for Fultz’s return, although his agent has said he expects Fultz to be back on the court this season. Whether that would be with the Sixers is another question, teams have called about the availability of the No. 1 pick from the 2017 NBA Draft, but the offers have been so lowball that none of them have been seriously considered by Philadelphia.

After consulting with a number of specialists just a few weeks into the season (and just after the Jimmy Butler trade), the 20-year-old Fultz was diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, a pinching of the nerve through the collarbone area. Since December he has been in Los Angeles is doing physical therapy to relieve the issue.

Fultz has returned to Philadelphia and is continuing that therapy.

 

Report: Rockets trying to trade Carmelo Anthony, likely to waive Nunnally to create roster spot

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To bring in some front line depth in the form of Kenneth Faried Monday, the Houston Rockets first have to clear a roster spot.

That led to a lot of speculation it could be Carmelo Anthony who is let go, he remains on the roster but not with the team, in a kind of limbo while the Rockets and ‘Melo’s agent look for a landing spot. (He reportedly has several options and will choose one before the trade deadline, but if he really liked any of those options he would have already taken them rather than waiting for a better offer.)

The Rockets are “aggressively” trying to trade Anthony and find him a new home before Monday, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN reported. However, James Nunnally is the most likely guy out, he was just signed to a 10-day contract.

If the Rockets haven’t waived ‘Melo yet, they’re not going to do it now.

Houston GM Daryl Morey is also working the phone lines to find wing depth to add to the Rockets’ roster. While James Harden‘s historic streak has carried the Rockets back into the playoff picture in the West, this is not the same Houston team that was a threat to the Warriors a season ago. Morey’s off-season gambles — including Anthony — have not panned out, and he is now trying to correct them.