Kyle Lowry: Raptors won’t stop Paul George from scoring 25

Mark Blinch/The Canadian Press via AP
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — When the burning sensation in Paul George‘s shattered right leg finally subsided in August 2014, the Indiana Pacers young star made a commitment to himself and his fans.

He would return to the basketball court even better.

Twenty months after suffering the unforgettably gruesome injury in Las Vegas, George has written the next chapter in his comeback tale with an incredible start to the NBA playoffs.

In Game 1 against Toronto, George scored 27 of his 33 points in the second half, almost willing the Pacers to a 100-90 victory over the East’s No. 2 seed. He added 28 points in Monday’s loss, leaving George with two-game totals of 61 points, eight rebounds, seven assists, five steals and a field-goal percentage of 54.1 percent. He’s 6 of 8 on 3s and 15 of 17 from the free-throw line, playing the same way he did when he led the Pacers to back-to-back Eastern Conference finals against LeBron James and the Miami Heat.

“There’s no stopping PG. He’s playing phenomenal,” Raptors All-Star guard Kyle Lowry said after Toronto’s 98-87 victory in Game 2. “You’re not going to stop him from getting 25 or 30. He’s going to get that, that’s how talented he is.”

George’s amazing journey has been a series of steady steps.

Eight months after snapping his leg when he crashed into a basketball stanchion during a U.S. national team scrimmage and countless hours of grueling rehab, George returned to game action sooner than many thought possible. Seven months after that, the 6-foot-9 forward was named November’s Eastern Conference player of the month after averaging 27.2 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.4 assists.

In February, George made his third All-Star appearance, started for the second time, broke the All-Star Game record with nine 3-pointers and finished with 41 points, one short Wilt Chamberlain’s record from 1962. George finished the regular season ranked among the league’s top 10 in scoring (23.1 points), steals (1.9) and 3-pointers made (210) and produced the highest single-season point total (1,874) of his career.

On Thursday, George will have a chance to give the Pacers a 2-1 lead in this best-of-seven series when he makes his first home playoff appearance since May 28, 2014.

“I’m real excited to be back on the stage where I was able to make my name,” George said.

Yet George isn’t completely healthy.

Last week, coach Frank Vogel said this season was expected to be a “recovery year” for George and that there are times George feels soreness in his surgically-repaired right leg.

“I knew right away, in training camp, that I was going to be OK. I knew I was OK last summer,” George said. “But I’ve still not regained all of my strength and explosiveness. I’m hopeful I’ll get that explosion, that quick step back and be lighter on my feet. I do feel good with where I’m at right now.”

George spent this transition year learning how to play the four spot after spending his first five seasons playing almost exclusively at the three spot. He still thrived – and he doesn’t turn 26 until May 2.

Vogel figures George is only scratching the surface of what’s possible.

“It (the comeback) is remarkable. It’s just a testament to his work ethic and his competitiveness to get back to this level this fast,” Vogel said. “Injury aside, guys grow from year six to year 10, so we do still think there’s more there.”

First, though, George has big plans for the rest of this year.

He believes the Pacers, who have won seven of nine, are playing their best basketball at the right time and could make a surprising postseason run. And whenever the Pacers season ends, George has another goal – playing for Team USA at the Rio Olympics, another major step on the comeback trail.

“It’s a dream of mine,” he said. “I want to represent my country and do it alongside the best players in the country. We’ll see, after the season, how my body is feeling.”

So far, things look just fine.

George is playing well, his body is holding up and the Raptors have discovered how difficult the matchup can be.

“We’ve just got to make it a little bit more difficult (on George),” Lowry said. “He’s getting to his spots a little bit too easy.”

Watch Pacers’ Andrew Nembhard drain game-winning 3 to beat Lakers

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LeBron James and Anthony Davis were on the court together (and combined for 46 points and 20 rebounds). Russell Westbrook continued to thrive as a sixth man with 24 points.

But the biggest shot of the night belonged to Pacers’ rookie Andrew Nembhard — a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired.

It was a well-designed play and when Westbrook chased and doubled Bennedict Mathurin in the corner it left the screen setter, Myles Turner, wide open for a clean look at a 3 — but he hit the front of the rim. The long rebound caromed out, Tyrese Haliburton grabbed it and tried to create, but then he saw Nembhard wide open and kicked him the rock.

Ballgame.

The Pacers split their two games in Los Angeles at the start of a seven-game road trip through the West that will test the surprising Pacers.

For the Lakers… they have some hard decisions to make coming up.

Karl-Anthony Towns helped off court after non-contact calf injury

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Hopefully this is not as bad as it looks.

Timberwolves big man Karl-Anthony was trying to run back upcourt and went to the ground — without contact — grabbing his knee and calf. He had to be helped off the court.

The Timberwolves officially ruled Towns out for the rest of the night with a calf strain.

A right calf strain would be the best possible outcome, but an MRI will provide more details in the next 24 hours. This had the markings of something much worse, but ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reports optimism that Towns avoided something serious.

Towns is averaging 214 points and 8.5 rebounds a game, and while his numbers are off this season — just 32.8% on 3-pointers, down from 39.3% for his career — as he tries to adjust to playing next to Rudy Gobert, he’s still one of the game’s elite big men.

The Wizards went on to beat the Timberwolves 142-127 behind 41 from Kristaps Porzingis.

Suns promote GM James Jones to to President of Basketball Operations

Phoenix Suns Open Practice
Barry Gossage / NBAE via Getty Images
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James Jones put together the roster that took the Suns to the Finals two seasons ago and had the best record in the NBA last season (64 wins). At 13-6, the Suns sit atop the Western Conference this season.

The Suns have rewarded Jones, giving him the title of President of Basketball Operations on top of GM.

“In the nearly 15 years I have known James, he has excelled in every role he performed, from player to NBPA Treasurer to his roles in our front office, most recently as general manager,” Suns interim Governor Sam Garvin said. “James has the unique ability to create and lead high-performing teams in basketball operations and his commitment to collaborating with our business side, including at the C-level with partners like PayPal and Verizon, is second to none. We are fortunate for his contributions across the organization and this promotion recognizes his commitment to excellence.”

Jones moved into the Suns’ front office in 2017 at the end of a 14-year playing career, then became GM in 2019. The move gives Jones a little more stability during the sale of the franchise. Not that the new owner would come in and fire a successful GM.

“I am grateful for the privilege to work with and support the players, staff and employees of the Phoenix Suns and Phoenix Mercury,” Jones said in a statement. “The collective efforts of our business and basketball operations have allowed us to provide an amazing atmosphere and best-in-class experience for our fans and community. I remain excited about and dedicated to driving success for our Teams on and off the court.”

Jones has made several moves that set the culture in Phoenix, including hiring Monty Williams as coach then, after an undefeated run in the bubble (that left Phoenix just out of the playoffs), he brought in Chris Paul to take charge at the point.

Report: Leaders in Lakers’ locker room think team ‘only a couple of players away’ from contending

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There’s a sense of optimism around the Lakers: They have won 5-of-6 and are expected to have both Anthony Davis and LeBron James healthy Monday night, plus Russell Westbrook has found a role and comfort level off the bench and other players are settling into roles. They may be 7-11, but it’s early enough there is a sense this could be turned around.

That is echoed by “locker room leaders” who think the team is just a couple of players away from being a contender in the West (where no team has pulled away), reports Dave McMenamin at ESPN.

There is belief shared by leaders in the Lakers’ locker room, sources said, that the team is only a couple of players away from turning this group into a legitimate contender. But acquiring the right players could take multiple trades.

Let’s unpack all of this.

• “Leaders in the Lakers’ locker room” means LeBron and Davis (both repped by Rich Paul). Let’s not pretend it’s anything else.

• If the Lakers don’t make a move to significantly upgrade the roster, how unhappy will those leaders become? How disruptive would that be?

• It is no coincidence that McMenamin’s report comes the day the Lakers face the Pacers, a team they went deep into conversations with this summer on a Myles Turner/Buddy Hield trade, but Los Angeles GM Rob Pelinka ultimately would not put both available Lakers’ first-round picks (2027 and 2029) in the deal and it fell apart. Turner said the Lakers should “take a hard look” at trading for him. The thing is, the Pacers are now 11-8, not tanking for Victor Wembanyama but instead thinking playoffs, so are they going to trade their elite rim protector and sharpshooter away? Not likely. At least not without an overwhelming offer, and the Lakers’ two picks may not get there anymore.

• While Westbrook has found a comfort level coming off the bench (and not sharing the court as much with LeBron), he is still a $47.1 million contract that no team is trading for without sweeteners. To use NBA parlance, he is still a negative value contract, even if it feels less negative than a month ago.

• Are the Lakers really a couple of players away from contending? While they have won 5-of-6, three of those five wins came against the tanking Spurs, the others were against the so-injured-they-might-as-well-be-tanking Pistons, and the Nets before Kyrie Irving returned. The Lakers did what they needed to do and thrived in a soft part of the schedule, but that schedule is about to turn and give the Lakers a reality check on where they really stand. After the Pacers, it’s the Trail Blazers (likely still without Damian Lillard), then an East Coast road trip that includes the Bucks, Cavaliers, Raptors and 76ers. The next couple of weeks will be a better marker for where the Lakers stand, and if they can build off of the past couple of weeks.