ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Indiana Pacers

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Last season: The Pacers jetted to a 33-7 start, the NBA’s best record. They looked every bit a championship contender, and some went as far to label them favorite.

And then they collapsed.

What happened? You name it. Infighting, finger-pointing and the loss of a mental edge.

Indiana barely beat the eighth-seeded Hawks, a team with a losing record, in the first round. They did enough to get past the Wizards in the second round before succumbing to the Heat in the conference finals.

On paper, the Pacers’ season – an Eastern Conference-best 56 wins, two playoff series victories – met preseason expectations or came very close. But their late losses were so inept, the team frequently faced questions about its implosion.

Signature highlight from last season:

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How about Pacers president Larry Bird burying his face in his hands as Indiana struggled through the first round-round of the playoffs?

Or, if you want to back to a simpler time, it’s Paul George’s 360-degree dunk:

 

Key offseason moves:

Keys to the Pacers season:

Making do without Paul George and Lance Stephenson: George suffered a season-ending injury during a Team USA scrimmage, and Stephenson signed with the Hornets.

How will Indiana cope without its minutes leaders from a season ago? History, as well as common sense, suggests not well.

George is a bona fide NBA star, and Stephenson’s all-around game nearly made him an All-Star season. They were paramount to what the Pacers did on both ends of the floor, and their losses will be felt – hard.

The only question just how much Indiana will miss those two.

Finding scoring: In the last eight years, these last couple Pacers teams stand alone for their success despite their lackluster offense.

And that was with George and Stephenson.

David West can score inside and from mid-range, but he’s 34. George Hill is more of a complementary player than a true lead guard. And Roy Hibbert is prone to disappearing.

Indiana’s offense – already a weak spot – is really trying to dig itself out of a hole.

Roy Hibbert stepping up: If the Pacers are going to overcome their offensive issues, their defense must remain stout, and that starts with Hibbert in the middle. For much of last season, he was the NBA’s most-impactful player. Even when he slumped in the second half, his offense fell far more than his defense. The responsibility remains with Hibbert to anchor Indiana’s defense, this time with even less resistance in front of him.

Hibbert must juggle that task with re-gaining his footing offensively. When confident, Hibbert uses his size to score inside at a helpful clip. But in last year’s playoffs, Hibbert lost his way. The Pacers are no longer good enough to win when he plays like that.

Frank Vogel coaching better or differently: Indiana had one of the NBA’s strongest identities last season, always playing big lineups – even when offensive spacing suffered and the defense was too slow.

When the Pacers played well, that style looked forceful. When they didn’t, it looked stubborn.

It didn’t have to be that way, though. Chris Copeland was buried on the bench, and George could have played some small-ball four. But Vogel refused to shift his system.

This year, with a sudden talent disadvantage, Vogel will either have to coach his desired scheme more effectively or show more flexibility.

Why you should watch: The Pacers couldn’t handle success last season, falling apart in can’t-look-away fashion. How will they handle failure? Barring some surprising developments, we might soon know – and that could be even more dramatic than last season.

And if there are surprising developments – Hill showing a more expansive offensive game? Hibbert dominating inside? West defying aging? – that will be interesting, too.

Prediction: 33-49. This team just doesn’t have the talent to compete anymore. Maybe the Pacers, with the right breaks, could make the playoffs. But where is that going to get them?

Larry Bird was already testing the market for Hibbert. George’s injury could put him over the edge.

If the Pacers struggle early, don’t be surprised to see the Pacers president punt on this season in order to better equip the team – both through trade and tanking – for when George returns.

Watch Portland’s Jusuf Nurkic dunk all over Bol Bol

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Bol Bol had some impressive blocked shots during exhibition games at the NBA’s restart, but he hadn’t gotten one in his 16 limited minutes since the seeding games started. He wanted one.

So Bol tried to get in front of Jusuf Nurkic of Denver on Thursday and… that did not go well.

Bol did later get a blocked shot on Hassan Whiteside.

Nurkic, however, ended the night with 22 points, seven rebounds, and the Trail Blazers got a 125-115 win that has Portland comfortably as the ninth seed, just half-a-game back of eight-seed Memphis. Portland is setting itself up with a better-than-average chance make the playoffs

Kawhi Leonard’s 29 leads Clippers past Mavericks in potential first-round preview

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Kawhi Leonard scored 29 points to help the Los Angeles Clippers beat the Dallas Mavericks 126-111 on Thursday night in a possible playoff preview.

Paul George scored 24 points and Ivica Zubac added 21 points on 10-for-10 shooting and 15 rebounds for the Clippers, who strengthened their hold on the No. 2 spot in the Western Conference standings.

The Clippers entered the night a just half game ahead of Denver, but they shot 54% against the Mavericks to improve to 2-2 in the restart.

Kristaps Porzingis scored 30 points and Luka Doncic added 29 for Dallas, which fell to 1-3 in the restart.

Dallas likely will finish as the No. 7 seed, making a first-round matchup with the Clippers a strong possibility.

“That’s obviously going to be a tough matchup,” Porzingis said. “They’re one of the favorites to win it all. They have multiple guys that have been there already. But we’re looking forward to the challenge and getting experience in that.”

Doncic was coming off a monster game — 34 points, 20 rebounds and 12 assists against the Sacramento Kings on Tuesday. He made 10 of 21 shots against the Clippers, including 6 of 13 3-pointers.

“Luka’s just a handful,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “It takes a whole team to guard him. I thought our guys did a pretty good job overall. We lost him a couple times, which you can never do. So there’s a lot of room for improvement.”

The Clippers led Dallas by 12 in the third quarter before the Mavericks rallied and tied the game at 101 midway through the fourth. Los Angeles responded with a 9-0 run to regain control. The Clippers shot 62% in the fourth quarter to pull away.

“I just liked how we played overall,” Rivers said. “We played like a team tonight, on both ends.”

Though the Mavericks fell to 1-3 in the restart, Doncic remained confident.

“We’re a great team,” he said. “We’ve always got chances, no matter what. I think some people count us out, but we’re not out. We’ll give our max.”

Devin Booker says after latest Suns’ win ‘Kobe’s with me every day’

Devin Booker Kobe
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Devin Booker grew up a huge Kobe Bryant fan. When Booker made the league in 2016 he got to play against his idol and threw up 28 points on the night. Kobe was impressed. The two talked after the game and Kobe gave him an autographed pair of shoes with an inspirational message:

“Be Legendary.”

Booker took that to heart. He got the phrase as a tattoo. He’s been writing “Be Legendary” on his Nike’s before every game in the bubble. And after he scored 20 against the Pacers Thursday, helping the Suns remain undefeated for the restart, he said Kobe is still inspiring him every day.

“Kobe’s with me every day. You guys see what I put on my shoes with the ‘Be Legendary.’ It’s a reminder.”

Whatever he’s doing, it is working. Booker hit a Kobe-like turnaround game-winner to beat the Clippers. He’s averaging 28 points and 6.5 assists a game for the restart, and shooting 40% from three. Defenses are keying on him, but with a healthy Deandre Ayton and other players stepping up — Cameron Johnson has been a surprise standout in Orlando — the Suns look sharp and keep on winning.

Kobe would be proud.

Giannis Antetokounmpo drops 33 on Heat, Bucks secure No. 1 seed

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton scored 33 points each, and the Milwaukee Bucks overcame a huge early deficit to get a 130-116 win over the Miami Heat on Thursday to clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference.

The Heat led by as many as 23 points in a first half where the team piled up 73 points despite playing without Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic. Miami cooled off after the break and the Bucks took the lead in the third quarter but were down by 6 to start the fourth.

Antetokounmpo, the favorite to win his second MVP award, sat out about five minutes of the fourth quarter after collecting his fifth foul with 11 minutes to go. Milwaukee trailed by 1 with about five minutes remaining before using a 20-0 run, with three dunks from Antetokounmpo, to make it 130-111 with less than a minute to go and cruise to the victory.

Antetokounmpo and Middleton played 30 and 34 minutes respectively after the stars both sat out the entire second half of their last game on Tuesday.

Duncan Robinson had 21 points for the Heat, who lost to Milwaukee for the first time this season after winning the first two meetings.

The Heat led by 6 with about 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter when Antetokounmpo picked up his fifth foul on a charge and headed to the bench. Andre Iguodala made a 3 for Miami before the Bucks scored the next 13 points, capped by a 3 from Bledsoe, to take a 107-103 lead with about seven minutes remaining.

Robinson made a 3-pointer to end a scoring drought of almost four minutes for Miami with about 6 ½ minutes to go and Antetokounmpo re-entered the game soon after that.

The Heat led by 12 with about 10 minutes left in third quarter before Milwaukee used a 16-3 run to take an 82-81 lead with five minutes left in the quarter. Antetokounmpo and Wesley Matthews each had five points each in that span to help close the gap.

The Bucks cut the lead to 3 with a dunk by Antetokounmpo late in the third. But the Heat wrapped up the quarter with a 5-2 spurt to take a 98-92 lead into the fourth.