Paul George reminds us how bright the Pacers’ future can be

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LeBron James went around a Chris Bosh screen and threw a pass to Dwyane Wade. The Heat were using their three best players, a formula the Pacers have been unable to solve the last few years, dropping playoff series to Miami in 2012 and 2013 – and, maybe by the end of the week, 2014.

Suddenly, Paul George jumped the passing lane, stole the ball, surged toward the rim and separated himself from the Heat.

Erik Spoelstra stepped on the court and signaled timeout before George even dunked.

Miami, the back-to-back defending NBA champions, can keep stifling the Pacers. For now.

But George and crew won’t stop coming.

Indiana beat the Heat in Game 5 Wednesday, extending the Eastern Conference Finals at least to a Game 6 Friday and maybe a Game 7 Sunday. Even if the Pacers drop one of those, this is not over.

Lance Stephenson (23), George (24) and Roy Hibbert (27) are younger than Miami’s youngest starter – Mario Chalmers (28), and Chalmers is only 15 days younger than George Hill. The Pacers are too youthful, too hungry and too experienced to quit now.

Only Oklahoma City (in 2011 and 2012) has made back-to-back conference finals in the current 16-team playoff format with a lower average age than the Pacers, who have an average age of 26.4* in the last two postseasons.

*Weighted by minutes played in the playoffs, using a player’s age Feb. 1 of that season.

Of course, age alone doesn’t guarantee Indiana will eventually advance further. This team needs work – better chemistry, better ball-handling, better passing, better reserves and maybe better coaching.

But when George plays like he did tonight, it should be clear how high the ceiling and how wide the window are for Indiana.

At times, George looks like the NBA’s most athletic 3-and-D player. That role makes him extremely serviceable, good enough to help an otherwise talented Pacers team join the Eastern Conference elite. If his career unfolds as a 3-and-D+++ player who never taps his full potential, that would hardly be a tragedy.

Yet, there’s no reason George can’t become so much more.

With the Pacers’ season on the line, he scored 37 points, grabbed six rebounds and made six steals. He looked every bit a superstar, and if he hits that peak more often, he’ll be one rather than just imitate one from time to time.

Like George, the Pacers are still finding themselves. This is in no way a team on its last legs, even if its on its last legs in this series.

On the other hand, Indiana’s foil – Miami – is the third-oldest conference finalist in the last 15 years with an average age of 31.0. The Heat must either add youth to their supporting cast with little flexibility below the luxury-tax line, or they’ll eventually age out of contention.

There’s no guarantee Indiana will supplant them, but George has the potential to ensure it happens. He pulled the Pacers into a Game 6. He can pull them deeper into championship contention.

Game 5 was not a changing of the guard. The Heat still lead this series 3-2, and they’ll still likely win it.

But Paul George and the Pacers are making waves that could erode Miami’s beach soon. Maybe as soon as next season.

Nets hire Hawks’ Peterson as assistant general manager

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NEW YORK (AP) — The Brooklyn Nets have hired Jeff Peterson as their assistant general manager.

Peterson replaces Trajan Langdon, who was hired as the New Orleans Pelicans’ GM.

Peterson spent seven seasons in the front office of the Atlanta Hawks, the last three as assistant general manager. He worked there with Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson, who was an assistant to coach Mike Budenholzer.

Nets general manager Sean Marks says Saturday that Peterson is an “innovative basketball executive” whose “extensive scouting and front office experience” will be assets to a Nets team that lost in the first round of the playoffs.

Warriors open as big betting favorites to win NBA title over Raptors

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Kevin Durant is going to be out to start the series, with no exact timetable on his return.

The Toronto Raptors were very impressive — with Kawhi Leonard leading the way and a fantastic halfcourt defense — in eliminating the Milwaukee Bucks.

None of that changes the overall picture — the Golden State Warriors are heavy favorites to win the NBA Finals.

The Warriors are -320 to win the NBA title, the Raptors +260 at the Ceasars Palace sportsbook. What that means for non-gamblers is you have to bet $320 to win $100 on the Warriors, while a $100 bet on the Raptors wins $260.

The Warriors are also 1.5 point favorites to win Game 1 on the road without Durant and coming off a nine-day layoff where rust is to be expected.

Toronto won both regular season meetings between these teams, but both games also were before Christmas.

These lines are the respect the Warriors have earned with two straight titles, three in four years, and a sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers. The Warriors are a dynasty led by Stephen Curry, the Raptors in their first finals, these betting lines were to be expected, and they will follow general public sentiment.

Charles Barkley, on the other hand, picks the Raptors in an upset. Do with that information what you will.

Giannis Antetokounmpo walks out of postgame press conference

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Giannis Antetokounmpo wants to win, wants to make the NBA Finals. Badly. As in he could walk if the Bucks don’t do that in the next couple of years.

Antetokounmpo already showed he was willing to walk — he did so right out of his postgame press conference Saturday night after the Bucks were eliminated from the playoffs by the Raptors.

Khris Middleton‘s “you just leaving me here” face is the best part of this video.

Chalk that up to frustration, on a couple of levels. The question is legitimate — how much this experience helps the Bucks grow and fuels their offseason will say a lot about where they are as a team in a year — but it’s also understandable that in the moment the Greek Freak doesn’t want to talk about it. Or, really, in that spot have the perspective to do the question justice. Middleton went on to say, “hopefully, we learn from this.”

The other part of this is that the reporter, Malika Andrews, wrote a story at ESPN about how Antetokounmpo making the Finals would play a big role in if he stays or not in Milwaukee past this contract. That is not the narrative Antetokounmpo wants out there about him, and sometimes this is how players deal with reporters who write things they don’t like.

Antetokounmpo is one of the league’s good guys, don’t expect this to become a trend.

Report: Making 2020 NBA Finals could swing whether Giannis Antetokounmpo signs super-max extension with Bucks

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The honeymoon between Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks is over.

Milwaukee’s superb season ended tonight with a Game 6 loss to the Raptors in the Eastern Conference finals. Already, attention is turning to the 2020 offseason, when Antetokounmpo can sign a five-year super-max extension that projects to be worth $250 million. If he doesn’t, the pressure will turn way up as he approaches unrestricted free agency in 2021.

Antetokounmpo is already applying some.

Malika Andrews of ESPN:

a source close to Antetokounmpo said that getting to the NBA Finals is not just an ambition, it could tip the scales as he weighs his contractual future.

And if they can reach the NBA Finals next season, the Bucks can improve their chances of signing Antetokounmpo to the supermax in the summer of 2020.

Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Malcolm Brogdon will be free agents this summer. It’s unclear how much luxury tax Milwaukee is willing to pay.

This leak could be Antetokounmpo trying to convince the Bucks to pay to keep this team intact.

Would he actually leave Milwaukee? At every turn, he has praised the city and organization. But the Bucks have also been on an upward trajectory for years. As they get closer to the top, it becomes more difficult to maintain that positive momentum. They’re now entering a crucial season with the clear goal of a conference title. That doesn’t leave much room for error.

The Lakers are rumored to be plotting to get Antetokounmpo. If there are signs he’ll actually become available, many other teams will line up just for a chance to sign him. Antetokounmpo is a special player, a superstar at age 24.

He also needed this loss. Having never advanced past the first round before this year, he didn’t fully grasp the high level of play and intensity this deep into playoffs. He hadn’t felt the heartache of coming so close and falling short, a highly effective motivator. Raptors like Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol had already faced these tests, and that had a lot to do with Toronto winning.

I have no doubt this experience will make Antetokounmpo even better.

Antetokounmpo wants to ensure the Bucks match his desire to win. If they do, he and Milwaukee will remain committed to each other. The honeymoon isn’t the end.

But this is when it gets real.