Larry Bird: Frank Vogel’s job safe, don’t expect changes to core of team

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When the Indiana Pacers take the court next October, they are going to look a lot like the Indiana Pacers that were the second best team in the East this season — a team that seemed to take a lateral step this season, even a backwards one the second half of the year.

Larry Bird is counting on growth from his core — maturity that comes from painful lessons learned this season combined with consistency. Things are not getting blown up.

Bird, the Pacers team president and the guy making the calls in Indiana, was unequivocal in his end-of-season press conference Monday (streamed on the Pacers’ Web site). Like when asked about coach Frank Vogel’s job being safe despite rumors he was coaching for his job these playoffs.

“There was never any doubt. When the media 800 miles away or 1,000 miles away just writes a story and everybody gets all excited about it, it doesn’t make no sense to me. If you had come and asked me I would have told you, I did tell you, his job was safe….

“His job was never in jeopardy.”

If no changes are coming to the coaching staff, what about to the core of a roster that has struggled to score enough offensively even when things are going well?

“I don’t think so. I like the attitude of our guys, they’re great people, great to be around. As far as the bench, Frank and I will sit down and Kevin (Pritchard, team GM) and talk about it. Last year we went out and changed our bench again, they were up and down.”

Even changing the bench in a big way will be easier said than done — even without re-signing Lance Stephenson the Pacers are over the salary cap. They are not going to be able to spend big on free agents, and it’s going to be hard to move any contracts — they don’t want to move Paul George, Roy Hibbert is owed $30.4 million over the next two years (and can opt out after next season, making it scary for any team that trades for him) and George Hill has three years, $24 million left on his deal.

If you want to know where the Pacers trade assets went, remember that they traded Gerald Green, Miles Plumlee and their 2014 first round pick for Luis Scola. That move did not work out like planned. At all.

Is Lance Stephenson going to be back in Indiana next fall?

“Well you don’t know, he’s a free agent and can do whatever he wants. But obviously we will talk about it the next week or two, of our game plan… He’s a free agent, he can talk to any team he wants, and when it comes down to it, it comes down to whether he wants to be here or not.”

Does Bird want him back?

“I always want him back. You just don’t let talent like that walk away if you can help it.”

Indiana is following the model that other teams — notably the Memphis Grizzlies, not to mention San Antonio — have tried to use, which is that keeping a core team together for an extended period and let them grow together.

There is something to that, so long as that core does not have an obvious and exploitable flaw. The Pacers inability to create shots the second half of this season could be that. But Bird thinks by adding some more depth, with some tweaks and growth they can overcome it.

Report: CJ McCollum has been playing through fractured lower back

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CJ McCollum hit two critical free throws late Tuesday to put Portland up three late on Dallas and secure the win.

But he had a rough night overall, shooting 2-of-14 overall. His shooting numbers are down across the board through this restart, not terrible but down from the level the world has seen from one of the games most feared scorers.

Now we know why: A fractured lower back. Dwight Jaynes of NBC Sports Northwest broke the news.

Sources told NBC Sports Northwest prior to the game that McCollum has been playing with a L3 vertebral transverse process fracture (non-displaced) since last Thursday. In layman’s terms, he has a fracture in his lower back. He has played three games since the injury.

While this injury is not as bad as “a fractured back” sounds, it has slowed other players who had it, including Utah’s Mike Conley.

Portland has had success despite a slowed McCollum, in part because Gary Trent Jr. has stepped up and taken on a larger role on both ends of the court (including drawing a charge on Kristaps Porzingis that sealed the Blazers win over the Mavericks).

That win put Portland in as the eighth seed in the West, a spot they can hold with a win against Brooklyn on Thursday. That would put them in a play-in series — where if they won the reward would be LeBron James and the Lakers. To reach that point and threaten Los Angeles, Portland is going to need a lot out of McCollum. The question is how much does he have to give with this injury?

 

Giannis Antetokounmpo ejected after headbutting Moe Wagner

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The Milwaukee Bucks are lucky they have another seeding game remaining because there is a good chance Giannis Antetokounmpo gets suspended a game for this.

The reigning (and soon-to-be two time) MVP let Washington’s Moe Wagner get under his skin. After Wagner took a charge from Antetokounmpo the two had to be separated. They kept jawing, and when they came together again, Antetokounmpo headbutted Wagner.

Wagner may have sold that a little, but that is unquestionably a headbutt. Antetokounmpo deserved the Flagrant II and ejection that came with it.

The one-game suspension that is coming will not cost the Bucks anything, they have the No. 1 seed in the East locked up. However, that one game is aginst the Grizzlies and if Memphis wins it gets the nine seed in the West at worst (eighth of Portland were to lose Thursday).

Wagner has a gift for getting under an opponent’s skin. Antetokounmpo has to do better keeping his emotions in check, because come the playoffs they will get tested like never before.

 

Damian Lillard scores 61 points, win vaults Portland to eight seed

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The Portland Trail Blazers control their own postseason destiny — and they can thank Damian Lillard for that.

Lillard got all the respect he wanted when he tied his career-high of 61 points Tuesday, and the Portland Trail Blazers needed every one of them to beat the Dallas Mavericks 134-131.

Lillard was 9-of-17 from three, plus got to the line 18 times and hit every free throw.

Portland’s win combined with Memphis’ loss to Boston puts the Trail Blazers into the eighth seed in the West — win on Thursday against Brooklyn and Portland is the eighth seed. That is a massive advantage heading into the two-game play-in series, the eighth seed just needs to win one of those two games to advance to the playoffs (and a first-round date with LeBron James). The ninth-seeded team needs to sweep the two games to advance.

Memphis can maintain the nine seed with a win Thursday. Should the Grizzlies lose again (to the Bucks, who have nothing to play for) it opens the door for the Suns or the Spurs to get the nine seed. Or maybe higher.

Portland is not safe just because of the win Tuesday: If it loses to Brooklyn on Thursday and two of Memphis, Phoenix, and San Antonio win, the Trail Blazers will be watching the first round of the playoffs on television like the rest of us. The race in the West is that tight.

It’s hard to imagine Portland losing a critical game, however, with the way Lillard is playing. He said he wants some respect on his f ****** name – and he’s more than earned it.

Watch Devin Booker score 35, keep Phoenix perfect 7-0 and in play-in hunt

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — Devin Booker scored 35 points and the Phoenix Suns protected their playoff hopes by beating the Philadelphia 76ers 130-117 on Tuesday to remain undefeated in the NBA restart.

Booker became the Suns’ career leader with his 91st 30-point game, breaking a tie with Walter Davis.

Mikal Bridges added 24 points and Ricky Rubio had 16 points with 10 assists for the Suns, who began the day only one game behind eighth-place Memphis in the Western Conference playoff race.

Phoenix is 7-0 as the only undefeated team in the restart and an unlikely factor in the tight race for a spot in this weekend’s play-in for the final playoff spot.

Phoenix pulled away late after leading only 105-102 following back-to-back baskets by Alec Burks, who led the 76ers with 23 points.

A dunk by Cameron Johnson capped a 10-3 run that stretched the lead to 115-105.

The Suns continued their high-scoring play in the bubble after averaging 120 points in the first six games.

Philadelphia, No. 6 in the East and already assured of a playoff spot, is attempting to prepare for the postseason after losing Ben Simmons to a knee injury.

Shake Milton was Philadelphia’s only healthy starter against the Suns. The 76ers also were without Joel Embiid (left ankle), Tobias Harris (sore right ankle) and Al Horford (sore left knee). Josh Richardson was rested.