NBA Playoff Preview: Indiana Pacers vs. Miami Heat

56 Comments

SEASON RECORDS

Indiana Pacers: 56-26

Miami Heat: 54-28

KEY INJURIES

Indiana Pacers: Andrew Bynum (broken)

Miami Heat: none

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession)

Indiana Pacers: Offense 101.5 (22nd in the NBA), Defense 96.7 (1st in the NBA)

Miami Heat: Offense: 109.0 (2nd in the NBA). Defense: 102.9 (11th in the NBA)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES

1) How will the Heat match up?

The Pacers – admirably or stubbornly – do what they do. They’re going to be big, and they’re going to be methodical.

The Heat are much more flexible, and it will be on Erik Spoelstra to determine how he wants to structure lineups around LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Maybe Miami goes small with Bosh at center and a stretch four – LeBron, Rashard Lewis or Shane Battier – to space the floor. That would ensure Roy Hibbert defends outside the paint, removing the anchor of Indiana’s defense and removing Hibbert from his comfort zone. However, it would also leave the Heat vulnerable defensively to Hibbert’s post-ups and make Miami pick its poison on whether LeBron doesn’t guard Paul George or David West. Any sign Hibbert has lost confidence to the point he can’t score regardless, this should become the preferred strategy.

On the other hand, the Heat could also go big to counter Hibbert and West. Greg Oden was signed to match up with Hibbert, though that went disastrously in their regular-season meeting meeting. Small sample? Yes. Worth another shot? Maybe. Probably, even. Chris Andersen is Miami’s most reliable big man outside of Bosh, and he’ll definitely play a major role in this series. But he’s 35 and hasn’t played 30 minutes in regulation in four years. There’s only so much he can do.

Udonis Haslem could split the difference.

Haslem is an extremely physical player who, despite being just 6-foot-8, can work on Hibbert. He also has a nice mid-range jumper to pull Hibbert from the paint, though not all the way to the 3-point arc. Haslem started in the first round against the Bobcats, and then he played just three minutes against the small-ball Nets.

Spoelstra is more than willing to change his rotations based on opponent.

It’s not just who plays, but when they play – especially Bosh. Bosh is a solid defender in the right matchups, but Hibbert – and, to a lesser extent, West – can beat him up inside. Ideally for the Heat, they won’t waste all Bosh’s energy in a losing defensive match up only have him spent offensively.

2) How much does homecourt advantage matter?

All season, the Pacers made their goal securing the No. 1 seed and homecourt advantage. They’re so serious about beating Miami, they were looking for an edge since day one after losing a road Game 7 to the Heat last year.

Miami doesn’t take the regular season as seriously – see its record vs. Brooklyn in the regular season and postseason – and Indiana got the top seed it desired despite a late-season slide.

So, will all that work pay off?

In postseason series during the last four years, the Pacers are 4-0 with homecourt advantage and 1-3 without it. In individual games against Miami during the same span, the Pacers are 8-5 at home and 3-11 on the road.

It seems this should be important to Indiana.

Then again, the Pacers are 5-6 in their last 11 home games. Plus, in the Big Three era, the Heat are 11-1 with homecourt advantage and 2-0 without it in a series. They can win anywhere.

Maybe it will matter most as a mental reminder to the Pacers about why they worked so hard in the first place, potentially helping them summon some of the confidence they showed regularly early in the season and appears only occasionally now.

3) How hungry are the Pacers?

In 2012, Miami eliminated Indiana in six games in the second round. In 2013, Miami eliminated Indiana in seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Pacers are chomping at the bit, getting closer and closer to toppling the aging Heat.

From Miami’s perspective, keeping a hungry team at bay is hard. Yes, teams should – and generally do – give maximum effort at this point in the season. But when you’re coming from the position of power, there’s a lower threshold of energy you can reach once you get on the court.

The sensation of being corned and the desire to overcome a challenge are not easy to fake. The Pacers have it. The Heat have to fake it.

Since the NBA expanded to a 16-team playoff format in 1984, teams have met in three consecutive postseasons 22 times. The same team has won all three matchups just eight times. Five of those eight had Phil Jackson – the ultimate playoff motivator – as coach.

That leaves just three teams in 30 years that have beaten the same playoff opponent in three consecutive years without Jackson.

Could the Heat make it No. 4? They have a member of the one of the previous three – LeBron, whose Cavaliers beat the Wizards in 2006, 2007 and 2008. As usual, Miami’s demeanor will be defined by its megastar.

PREDICTION

The Pacers’ late collapse was very real, but also probably overblown. A good, but not elite, team is left in the rubble. It’s also a team designed specifically to match up with the Heat, Indiana could definitely overcome the quality gap between the teams.

The biggest potential variable is one that hopefully won’t be an issue at all – Wade’s health. If he goes down, this series loses a lot of prestige. He looks fine, but his knees are a constant concern and will be for the rest of his career. As long as Wade avoids injury, the Heat will just be too much.

Heat in 6

Kevin Knox won over Knicks and now expects to win over their fans

Getty Images
Leave a comment

GREENBURGH, N.Y. (AP) — Kevin Knox took a call from someone who knew exactly what he experienced on draft night.

New Yorkers didn’t welcome Kristaps Porzingis with open arms, either.

“He asked me how the fans reacted and I told him I got the same amount of boos as he got,” Knox said Friday. “He just laughed and he said it’s all motivation and fuel to the fire, and he said just work and he said sooner or later they’ll be cheering for you.”

That’s what happened with Porzingis, who quickly won over those who loudly booed his selection in 2015 with his talent, competitiveness and work ethic.

The Knicks see the same traits in Knox, convincing them that the Kentucky freshman was not only the player to take with the No. 9 pick but that he’s ready to start and match up with the NBA’s best small forwards next season.

That’s why they decided a day before the draft they were taking Knox if he was available and didn’t waver from that even when Michael Porter Jr. was still on the board – disappointing some at Barclays Center who chanted for Porter and then booed Knox.

“I love the fact that he wanted to be at Kentucky, that he wanted to be a Knick,” Knicks coach David Fizdale said. “Says a lot about that kid that he wants challenges and so I think he’s going to fit exactly the way we want to build our culture.”

Beyond the 15.6 points he averaged last season while sharing SEC Freshman of the Year honors with Collin Sexton – drafted one pick earlier by Cleveland – Knox impressed the Knicks with his confidence. He chose to play at Kentucky out of Tampa Catholic in Florida and compete for playing time with the other talented players in Lexington, then agreed to play 3-on-3 in workouts when many top prospects prefer to do them individually.

And the annual outsized expectations faced by John Calipari’s teams should help Knox prepare for the pressure of New York, perhaps giving him a quicker adjustment period than Frank Ntilikina, the Knicks’ lottery pick last season, had after coming to the U.S. from France.

“That actually is going to be up to Kevin, what the learning curve is and how long the adjustment takes,” team president Steve Mills said. “But what I will say is that while all college basketball programs prepare guys to play in the NBA, the sort of pressure and the limelight and the spotlight you’re under when you make a decision to play at Kentucky I think does prepare you in a different way to play in a place like New York. So I think some of the things that are tougher for rookies to make adjustments to are some things that he’s already been through.”

The adjustment is likely much longer for 7-footer Mitchell Robinson, who the Knicks took with the No. 36 pick. A high school All-American in 2016-17, he enrolled at Western Kentucky but never played, instead leaving school and opting to train for the draft. He said he worked out daily, but hasn’t played competitively in a year so it’s unknown how soon he could contribute.

But Fizdale sounds ready to put Knox on the court right away on a team that used Tim Hardaway Jr. and Courtney Lee as undersized small forwards last season.

“They’re both 6-5 and he’s got to guard LeBron and (Kevin) Durant and those are the 3s in our league,” Fizdale said. “So I feel like it’s a very good opportunity to have a chance to start.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

As expected, Denver’s Wilson Chandler to opt into $12.8 million next season

Getty Images
1 Comment

Wilson Chandler played a workmanlike role for the Nuggets last season — more than 30 minutes a game (in 74 games), 10 points a night, shot 35.8 percent from three. His efficiency and value slipped from previous seasons but he still played a role for the team.

Not the kind of role that’s going to earn him a big payday as a free agent, so he will opt into the $12.8 million for next season, a story broken by Chris Haynes of ESPN.

Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler will exercise his player option for the 2018-19 season, league sources tell ESPN.

Chandler, 31, is opting into a $12.8 million salary instead of entering free agency this summer. Denver was notified of his decision on Friday.

Chandler’s name has come up in trade discussions in recent years, and no doubt the Nuggets would be happy to move his salary now, too. However, in a tight financial market it’s unlikely that’s happening without Denver throwing in a sweetener, and that’s not likely either. So it will be another season of Chandler in Denver.

Deandre Ayton arrives as symbol that Suns are on the rise

Getty Images
3 Comments

PHOENIX (AP) — Since the heady days of Steve Nash came to an end, there have been few signs of joy from a dwindling fan base that watched the Phoenix Suns tumble to the bottom of the NBA standings and miss the playoffs for the eighth year in a row.

Then came the announcement that Deandre Ayton would go to the Suns with the first overall pick. A huge cheer went up from the several thousand fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Thursday night for the draft party. General manager Ryan McDonough, owner Robert Sarver and coach Igor Kokoskov came out of their meeting room to watch and bask in that rare moment of sheer joy from the fans.

“It was a pretty special moment for our franchise,” McDonough said.

Not only that, but McDonough engineered a last-minute trade for swingman Mikal Bridges of Villanova, the 10th pick. It was a spendy move because Philadelphia demanded and got Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick. But the Suns are weary of stockpiling assets. It’s time to cash in, they figured, and did it with that trade.

“We weighed the pros and cons of trading it heavily and carefully,” McDonough said. “We were only going to put it in play if we had a chance to get a special player and that’s how we feel about McKell.”

All four of the Suns’ picks showed up on a crowded dais in Phoenix on Friday – Ayton, Bridges, French point guard Elie Okobo (chosen 31st) and forward George King of Colorado (the 59th selection).

The 7-foot-1 Ayton towered over the others, in a white unbuttoned collared shirt and a sharp blue suit, but he looked and sounded a bit weary from the whirlwind of being the No. 1 draft pick. His only sleep lately, he said, was a couple of hours on the plane ride from New York on Tuesday.

“I’m just excited to finally get a jersey on and be able to play five-on-five again,” Ayton said.

Ayton had been the frontrunner for the No. 1 pick ever since the draft lottery and any doubts were erased when he went through an individual workout with the Suns, the only team which he did so.

McDonough said that Ayton’s workout “in and of itself was as impressive as I’ve ever seen in my 16 drafts in the NBA.”

Ayton is seen as strictly a center, so how does he fit in the modern style of the NBA, when center plays is diminished and players are essentially interchangeable, is a question. Ayton replied that he’s no ordinary center.

“I don’t like it when people think I’m just a guy down low,” he said. “They haven’t watched me shoot the basketball.”

Ayton and Bridges say they got to know each other well at the college awards ceremony in Los Angeles but never figured they’d be on the same team.

“It’s like I’ve known him my whole life,” Bridges said.

Now comes the hard work, molding a team with Ayton, Devin Booker and Josh Jackson. A billboard of those three already has been erected downtown.

The Suns, so bad for so long, seem on the brink of being relevant.

“We’re very hungry,” Ayton said. “I think the great team chemistry and the work ethic that we have, especially us guys coming in, we’re going to bring it to the next level. We’ve got young lets. We can run all day. … We can really start a winning legacy.”

And Ayton is the reason for the sudden leap in optimism, even though he won’t turn 20 until next month.

“I embrace it a lot,” he said of the expectations placed upon him. “Through my career I’ve always had that on my shoulder, the expectations. I represent a whole nation (Bahamas) I just do that the best that I can and just help this community start over and be the best player I can possibly be. I just want to be the best great player.”

Kokoskov says Ayton possesses “a unique talent for the decades.”

Ayton said he wants “to be the best person on and off the court.”

Now the Suns move on to the next phase. Free agency starts July 1 and McDonough wants some veteran players to add to this very young core. He said the team should have $15 million to $20 million to spend.

“We were aggressive last night with the picks and the trade up to get Mikal,” McDonough said. “We’re going to continue to be aggressive for the next couple of weeks in free agency. We’ve got some money to spend and we’re looking to spend it on the best players we can get.”

Hornets GM Kupchak: Kemba Walker focal point of franchise going forward

Getty Images
3 Comments

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — General manager Mitch Kupchak wants point guard Kemba Walker to end his NBA career right where it started — with the Charlotte Hornets.

Kupchak said Friday that Walker is “revered” in the Charlotte community, and that he and owner Michael Jordan look at the two-time All-Star as “the focal point of this franchise going forward.”

The 28-year-old Walker has been the subject of possible NBA trade talks as he prepares to enter the final year of his contract with the Hornets. That speculation has amped up recently because it is a practical impossibility for Charlotte to sign Walker to an extension before he becomes a free agent in July of 2019 since the Hornets are so tight under the salary cap.

“I think everybody is aware of the situation, if you follow basketball a little bit, it is unique that he is on an extension that may make it a challenge going forward to figure out before he becomes a free agent,” Kupchak said.

At $12 million per year, Walker well underpaid when compared to the other top point guards in the league.

But that doesn’t mean Kupchak is giving up hope the team can keep Walker in Charlotte.

“I don’t think it is anybody’s goal to lose him in free agency,” Kupchak said. “But going forward, in the community, in the franchise, this is a player that we hope is with us – not only for the next couple of years, but ends his career here.”

The Hornets don’t have much experience behind Walker at point guard.

They have last year’s first-round draft pick Malik Monk and drafted Devonte Graham from Kansas in the second round on Thursday night.

Graham said he is excited to pick Walker’s brain when it comes to basketball.

“I have never met him, but I remember watching him play when he was at UConn though,” Graham said. “I’m just excited man to learn from someone like that and just be around someone like that who is winner, and knows how to win and compete. I am looking forward to being able to learn from him.”