Pacers believe pieces are in place to play faster style

Indiana Pacers
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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Indiana Pacers President Larry Bird spent most of his offseason trying to stitch together a championship contender.

He made two trades to create versatility. He added bulk by signing free agent Al Jefferson. He watched the Pacers’ biggest star, Paul George, return from the Olympics with a gold medal around his neck and a new perspective about making the Pacers a better team. And Bird hired a coach who shares his vision of what it takes to win in today’s NBA.

Now Indiana is about to find out if this bold, new look will produce better results than last year’s awkward attempt to use a smaller lineup with more 3-point shooters and putting some players, such as George, out of position.

George became a star at small forward but started the season playing power forward, an experiment that didn’t last long.

“Last year, we tried to play that spread-four and we tried to turn Paul and C.J. Miles into that spread four. Now he (Bird) has brought those guys in,” new coach Nate McMillan said Monday during the team’s annual media day. “Look, you’re going to have to be able to play half-court basketball because you can’t run for 48 minutes. I think the better teams will be able to slow you down, but I think we can play both ways now.”

How much and how quickly things change remains unclear.

Unlike last season, when it seemed Bird and George weren’t always on the same page and former coach Frank Vogel often wound up playing middle man between his best player and his boss, the second year of this transition already is off to a smoother start. George acknowledged Monday he’s willing to do whatever it takes to win this season – even if that requires playing some minutes as a stretch-four. McMillan even called the three-time All-Star and all-league defender a “versatile three.”

But the biggest difference will be George’s supporting cast.

Bird began the latest overhaul by acquiring All-Star point guard Jeff Teague in a three-team deal that sent George Hill to Utah. The trade left the 26-year-old George, now entering his seventh year with the team, as the longest-tenured Pacers’ player and the only remaining starter left from the 2013 and 2014 Eastern Conference runner-ups.

Then Bird sent Indiana’s first-round draft pick to Brooklyn for the nimble Thaddeus Young, who will play that stretch-four role, and plugged in second-year pro Myles Turner at center. He brought in the 60foot-10, 289-pound Jefferson to give the Pacers a bigger inside presence off the bench.

“It’s completely different. Last year, you had true bigs in the paint and scorers who would post up,” Young said. “Now you’ve got guys who can step out, make plays, make moves. We’re definitely going to try to push the tempo, push the pace.”

Everyone in this locker room seems to embrace the small-ball concept.

When Teague was asked about the prospect of teaming up with George and bringing the trendy new style to his hometown team, he responded with a beaming style. Turner and Young had similar reactions Monday, and George sounds as eager as anybody to see how everything will work.

“Hopefully, we’ll get a little faster,” George said. “I know that Jeff is a coast-to-coast guy, and I haven’t really played with a coast-to-coast guy before, so hopefully I can make it easier for him.”

Clearly, Bird believes he has the players to operate his preferred style, even if doesn’t look quite right when the Pacers open the season Oct. 26 against Dallas.

So McMillan will spend most of the next month trying to get all these new guys and the new lineups working together, in sync. And McMillan believes that if given time, the Pacers new style will be a good look.

“The game has changed,” McMillan said. “You’re seeing more pace teams that are trying to get between 90 and 100 possessions per game. How do you create that? You put together a roster that you can do that with, and I think the Pacers have done that. I think those (new) guys put us in position to pretty much paly any style we want to play.”

Note: George was asked whether he had any desire to re-do his contract, which can now be extended, and said: “Right now, it’s all about the season. I’m not even thinking about contract stuff. Everything is about going into the season.” Last week, Bird said he was willing to give George a new max contract whenever he’s ready. George’s current max deal runs through the 2018-19 season.

MVP showdown off: 76ers to sit Joel Embiid due to calf tightness

Philadelphia 76ers v Phoenix Suns
Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images
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Recently Joel Embiid said,” ‘If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.” Today’s news plays right into that narrative.

Embiid has been playing through calf tightness for a few games now — he only played a half against the Bulls last Wednesday — but still putting up numbers (46 points against the Warriors, 28 and 10 against the Suns). However, there had been some concern in the organization about not pushing things and making sure Embiid is healthy for the playoffs. Which is why they will rest him on Monday night, short-circuiting an MVP-race showdown against Nikola Jokić and the Nuggets. Adrian Wojnarowski and Ramona Shelburne of ESPN broke the news and John Clarke of NBC Sports Philadelphia has confirmed it.

Embiid did go through part of the 76ers’ shootaround this morning. The decision was made after that point.

Undoubtedly this will spark the load management discussion around the league again, and Embiid is going to take heat for this — but this is a situation where the team’s medical staff made the call, likely over Embiid’s objection.

From the 76ers perspective what matters is having Embiid healthy during the playoffs — they are going nowhere without him — and there is no reason to take undue risks with the team all but locked into the No. 3 seed in the East.

James Harden is still expected to make his return to action Monday from a three-game absence.

But it robs fans — including those who bought tickets in Denver — of one of the great showdowns in the league, and one of the more anticipated games of the season’s final weeks. The NBA has to find a way to balance player health with having their best players on the court for the biggest games. Keep telling fans the regular season doesn’t matter and they will start treating it like that.

Joel Embiid not stressing about MVP: ‘If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.’

Philadelphia 76ers v Phoenix Suns
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
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Joel Embiid is the MVP betting favorite — -160 at our partner PointsBet — heading into Monday’s showdown with the reigning two-time MVP Nikola Jokić (+180 at PointsBet).

Embiid campaigned for the MVP award the past couple of years but came up second to Jokić. This season, Embiid is not stressing about it. Or at least trying not to stress about it. Here is what Embiid told Shams Charania of The Athletic.

What matters — it’s just about winning, winning, winning. I’ve been focused on that. We’ve been doing that. Whatever happens, happens. If I win MVP, good. If I don’t, it’s fine with me.

Why hasn’t Embiid won the MVP? Outside of Jokić also being deserving and the complaints of Antetokounmpo and others that the criteria for the award are constantly changing (which suggests there are criteria for the award, but there are none officially), Embiid thinks it’s because he is not well-liked.

People always thought that I was crazy when I said this — I really believe that I’m not well-liked. And it’s cool with me, that’s fine. I’ll be the bad guy. I like being the a–hole anyway. I like being the underdog. So that’s fine with me. My thing is … when I leave the game, I want to make sure that they say: No one was stopping him offensively and defensively, and he was a monster.

There’s no doubt he will leave the game remembered as one of the great 76ers and a “monster” on both ends when healthy. However, resume matters with legacy and an MVP award helps with that. Just not as much as being the best player on a championship team, something more difficult to pull off because it requires a lot of help (it’s up for debate whether Embiid has the help he needs around him to win it all, and if they can stay healthy enough to make that run).

This season the MVP race is a tight three-way contest between Embiid, Jokić and Giannis Antetokounmpo (+450 at PointsBet). There are legitimate cases to be made for each member of this trio. However, with the Sixers surging (and the Nuggets stumbling a little), things may break his way this season.

Another dominant performance against Jokić with just a couple of weeks left in the season would stick in voters’ minds and help his cause.

Kyrie Irving has fan ejected during road loss to Hornets

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Sunday was not a good day for the Mavericks and Kyrie Irving.

In addition to losing their second-straight game to the Hornets (and fourth straight overall) to fall out of even the play-in out West, Irving had a Hornets fan ejected from the game Sunday. Irving pointed the situation out to the referee, and soon arena security was involved and the man was escorted out.

It is unclear what the fan said to Irving, but more players in recent years have taken this step with fans they feel had crossed the line of common decency. Irving addressed the situation in his postgame press conference.

Irving and the Mavericks heard boos from their fans at home last Friday during a loss to these same Hornets, and Irving’s response that night was more defiant in tone.

“So what? Just the way I feel about it. I’ve been in New York City so I know what that’s like. You obviously want to play well, but there’s only five people on the court who can play for the Dallas Mavericks. If the fans wanna change places, then hey, be my guest. Got years of work ahead to be great enough to be on this level. But our focus isn’t necessarily on the boos, it should be on the performance.”

That performance has been lacking — the Mavericks have lost four in a row, 7-of-9, and if the postseason started today they would be fishing in Cabo. Irving hasn’t been the problem (the Mavericks are 4.5 per 100 possessions better when he is on the court), but he hasn’t been the solution, either. Irving is a free agent after this season and said he and Luka Dončić are still getting used to playing with one another.

Three things to Know: Mavericks slumping way right out of playoffs

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LOS ANGELES — Three Things To Know is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) Mavericks slumping way right out of postseason

This is how bad things look for the Mavericks: If the postseason started today, not only would Dallas miss even the play-in, but their No.11 pick in the draft would go to the New York Knicks, the team that took Jalen Brunson from them last summer (the pick heads to NYC as part of the Kristaps Porzingins trade from four years ago, but it is top-10 protected).

Things are bleak in Dallas — the Mavericks dropped their second game in a row to the tanking Charlotte Hornets (without LaMelo Ball) on Sunday, making it four straight losses and 7-of-9 for a team that took a big swing at the trade deadline landing Kyrie Irving.

Irving has not been the problem — the Mavericks have a +4.8 net rating when Irving is on the court (and +4.6 when he and Dončić are both on), and the reports out of Dallas are he has been a model citizen in the locker room. And Dončić is not the problem, he dropped 40 on Sunday (he started 0-of-6 shooting but found his groove).

The problem is the Mavericks were a too-small, 24th-ranked defensive team before they sent their best defenders to Brooklyn to land Irving. Now they can’t stop anybody, particularly inside — even lowly Charlotte scored 22 more points in the paint than Dallas, and the Hornets had 20 more rebounds, including 11 more offensive rebounds.

The Mavericks started Dwight Powell (he only played four minutes) and Josh Green at the 4/5 and they combined for five points.

Now Dallas faces Myles Turner and Indiana on a back-to-back, and will do it without Dončić, who picked up his 16th technical on the season — triggering an automatic suspension — when he complained a little too much after not getting a call on a leaning baseline jumper.

At 36-39, the Mavericks are a full game back of the Thunder and Lakers, who currently are tied for the 9/10 seeds in the West, and Dallas has the hardest remaining schedule of those three. No wonder Dončić is frustrated.

They will not choose this path, but should the Mavericks pack it in and tank to get into the top 10 of the NBA Draft and try to keep their pick for this season? That seems the smarter franchise-building move as opposed to trying to salvage this season by making the bottom of the play-in and trying to win a couple of games to be the No.8 seed. It’s also not something Dallas would do with Dončić and Irving on the roster.

In which case, the Mavs had better find a way to get a few more stops and improve their play in the paint, because it’s more that than their stars keeping them out of the postseason.

2) LeBron returns from foot injury, scores 19 off bench, Lakers still lose

LeBron James said the first two doctors he spoke with suggested he get surgery after his foot injury last month. However, he went and saw the preeminent foot doctor in Los Angeles and he said not to go under the knife and came up with a treatment plan. A month later, LeBron James was back on the court Sunday, scoring 19 points for the Lakers off the bench in his return.

It was not enough Sunday.

Even with LeBron, the Lakers remain a team with no margin for error and Zach LaVine carved Los Angeles up for 32 points on 13-of-19 shooting, while DeMar DeRozan added 17 points and 10 assists back home in L.A., and the Bulls picked up the 118-108 win.

Patrick Beverley even too-smalled LeBron.

And the Bulls won despite Nikola Vucevic getting a quick-trigger ejection, although he didn’t fight it so he must have said some magical words.

The Bulls have quietly gone 10-5 since the All-Star break and have the second-best defense in the NBA over that stretch. They have climbed up to the No.10 seed in the East and are tied in the loss column with the 8th-seeded Hawks — the Bulls making it out of the play-in to the playoffs is not a crazy idea.

The Lakers may only be one-game back of the Warriors in the loss column for the No.6 seed in the West, and now they have LeBron back in the lineup, but this is still a below .500 team whose margin for error is too small. The Lakers look like a play-in team. For more than 70 games the Lakers have struggled to string together consistent play, do we really think they will start doing it now?

Play-in or not, with LeBron and Anthony Davis, you know that Denver and Memphis — the likely top two seeds in the West — are looking down at the play-in and thinking they want no part of the Lakers in the first round.

3) Anthony Edward returns, KAT is clutch and Minnesota beats Golden State

Could the Timberwolves pass the Warriors and move into the top-six in the West, sending the defending champs to the play-in?

That looked much more realistic Sunday when the Warriors got sloppy when it mattered — they turned the ball over 11 times in the second half — and Karl-Anthony Towns knocked down two critical 3-pointers down the stretch, and the Timberwolves beat the Warriors 99-96. This play pretty much sums up the key moments of the second half.

The Timberwolves deserve credit — they played tough, opportunistic defense when it mattered. Jaden McDaniels doesn’t score much but he has become critical for them. Naz Reid led Minnesota in scoring with 23 off the bench. Edwards, in his return from a sprained ankle, looked rusty early but found a groove late and was a team-best +12 on the night.

Minnesota is the No.7 seed in the West, half a game back of the Warriors but tied in the loss column. Their schedules are pretty even down the stretch.

It’s hard not to pick the defending champs to hold on to the top-six seed, but after a frustrating season where they have not consistently stood out on either end of the court, it’s hard to picture them flipping the switch for the final six games as well. Maybe this is not their year… which we might have guessed back in training camp when Draymond Green punched Joran Poole.