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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Report: Stephen Curry targeting return for Warriors-Wizards on March 1

Stephen Curry
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Stephen Curry has been busy since breaking his hand in the Warriors’ fourth game – challenging Chris Mullin in pop-a-shot, recruiting Giannis Antetokounmpo, sideline reporting and nothing else.

When will Curry return to his main role?

Marcus Thompson II of The Athletic:

The question is not if Stephen Curry is coming back this season, but when. And, from what I’ve been told, you might want to clear your schedule for March 1. The Warriors host the Washington Wizards that night.

That’s not set in stone, of course. More like a target date. But expect a return by the face of the franchise before next season.

I wouldn’t get too hung up on the exact date. That’s a ways off. But Curry having a specific target in mind speaks to his progress.

Golden State is the only Western Conference team not in the playoff race. It’s too late for Curry to change the arc of the Warriors’ season. They’re headed toward excellent draft position.

But Curry is a basketball player, and if he’s healthy enough to play, he’ll play. Returning this season could set him up to thrive next season, when Golden State – with Klay Thompson healthy plus whatever D'Angelo Russell and a high pick become – will again hold big-time potential.

Curry returning would also make the Warriors more entertaining the last month and a half of the season. It’s important for them to keep their big-spending fans satisfied.

Watch Klay Thompson’s emotional jersey retirement at Washington State

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Klay Thompson will forever be No. 1 at Washington State.

In his three seasons as a Cougar, Thompson set the school record for three pointers — 242 — and set the school’s single-season record for points scored (733), became the school’s third all-time leading scorer (1,756) and averaged 17.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.3 steals a game.

We all know what happened next: He was drafted No. 11 by the Warriors and went on to an NBA career that includes three NBA titles with the Golden State Warriors, twice being named All-NBA and five times an All-Star, he holds the NBA record for most made threes in a game (14), and he has a gold medal from the Rio Olympics. And he’s still adding to that legacy.

Saturday, Thompson had his No. 1 jersey retired by the school.

Stephen Curry was in Pullman for the ceremony.

Even LeBron James shouted it out on his Instagram story.

Thompson is the second men’s basketball number retired by WSU, the other being Steve Puidokas’ No. 55 (the school’s all-time leading scorer, he played there in the 1970s).

 

 

Luka Doncic on Kings: ‘I honestly thought they were going to pick me’

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Luka Doncic, in just his second season and at age 20, is an MVP candidate who is showing himself to be an elite, franchise-changing player.

Which lead fans in Phoenix and Sacramento to ask, “How did we pass on this guy in the draft?” He was the MVP of the second-best league on the planet at age 18, what led two teams to pass on him and a third — the Atlanta Hawks — to trade him on draft night in June 2018.

Doncic himself thought he was going to the Kings’ at No. 2, he told Sam Amick of The Athletic.

“They came to Madrid (to see him play for Real Madrid and to share a dinner on June 5, 2018),” the 20-year-old Doncic told The Athletic about the Kings’ contingent’s visit during the draft process. “They came with the owner. Everybody came, so I honestly thought they were going to pick me.”

So, I asked, was it ever made clear to him why they didn’t?

“I mean, I think it’s because of Euroleague; it’s different basketball,” Doncic said.

Kings GM Vlade Divac instead drafted Marvin Bagley III, believing the Duke big man would be a better fit next to emerging point guard De'Aaron Fox. Bagley has put up nice numbers this season, 14.2 points and 6.8 rebounds a game, but missed 30 games with a foot injury. He has not looked like a franchise-changing player.

Sacramento isn’t the only team where fans have questions about the top of the 2018 draft. In the Suns case, they drafted Deandre Ayton out of in-state Arizona, a move that it is rumored to have been pushed by owner Robert Sarver (and a number of teams had Ayton and Doncic rated close to equal, which is a misread of the increasingly positionless direction of the NBA, but that’s another topic). Atlanta drafted Doncic third and traded him to Dallas, but got back Trae Younghimself on an All-Star trajectory in his second season — and another first-round pick. Young says it is still too early to judge that trade.

Meanwhile, the Kings appear on track to miss the playoffs for a 14th straight season. The luster of the beautiful new Golden 1 Center arena is starting to wear off, and fans in the California capital want some wins. Hard to blame them, but they may need to be patient. Again.

Royce O’Neale agrees to four-year, $36 million contract extension to stay in Utah

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Royce O'Neale is a name casual NBA fans may not recognize.

However, GMs around the league recognize him is the kind of role player teams need to win. O’Neale is asked to guard the opposing team’s best wing player nightly, while on the other end of the court he’s shooting 44.3 percent from three. He’s become a critical part of Utah’s rotation.

So the Jazz have locked him up with a contract extension, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

The Jazz — who have won 16-of-18 — just got Mike Conley back in the rotation, and have jumped up to a top-four seed in the West (as of this writing). Things are looking up, and also they have set themselves up well financially for the future.

Bigger bills are coming in Utah, in the summer of 2021 the Jazz will need to max out Donovan Mitchell with an extension plus re-sign Rudy Gobert. Which is why locking in a quality role player like O’Neale at a fair price now is a smart move.