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Three things to watch: Indiana Pacers vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

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As we dive into the playoffs, we at PBT are going to break down each first-round playoff series and give you three things to watch in each. The Cavaliers are the Eastern Conference favorites, but the last time these teams met it was one of the best games of the season, a double -OT thriller the Cavs won 125-130, where LeBron James and Paul George had a classic duel. Will we get more of that? Let’s break it down.

How focused with the Cavaliers be on defense? The malaise that enveloped the Cavaliers the second half of this season has become part of the narrative of the postseason — just how vulnerable are the Cavaliers? They had a defensive rating of 111.6 over their final 26 games, a number worse than the Lakers’ season average (and LA was dead last in the league in defense). Tyronn Lue said he has a fix for the team’s defense and when Kevin Love and other Cavs are asked about it they’ve said they can fix it. I’m not sold, they haven’t built good defensive habits, Plus they are going to miss Andrew Bogut in the paint on defense.

The other half of that equation is do the Pacers have the tools to exploit that defense? Expect Paul George to have some huge games because he’s that good, but the Pacers are going to need Myles Turner to put up big numbers (and pull Tristan Thompson out of the paint), plus have Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young have big games as well. The Cavaliers are going to score, can Indiana keep pace?

Who will LeBron James for the Pacers? And who is going to guard Paul George for the Cavaliers? Both teams in this series defensively will want to “cut off the head of the snake” and make someone other than the best player on opposition beat them. Which is a sound strategy — although the Cavaliers have legitimate other top scoring options — but leads to another problem: Who is going to guard these key guys? Who gets the LeBron assignment? Who gets the George assignment.

LeBron torched the Pacers this season, averaging 32.3 points per game on 60 percent shooting in the three meetings where he played (the one game Indiana beat Cleveland LeBron rested). LeBron was able to get into the restricted area and finish at a high rate this season, and the Pacers lack a rim protector who can make him think twice. George will certainly get some time on LeBron, but he shot 52 percent when PG13 was on him this season (stats via Sports VU and the NBA). Of course, there is the drama of Lance Stephenson, and he likely will get some time on LeBron, but Stephenson has lost a step and that’s a bad matchup for the Pacers.

Also, the Pacers do not have a good defender to match up on Kyrie Irving, who could have a big game or two in this series.

Who on the Cavaliers will draw the Paul George assignment? In crunch time that will be LeBron, we saw that at the end of the double-overtime game (remember LeBron and Tristan Thompson yelling at each other over a missed assignment in that stretch?). But it could be too taxing on LeBron to carry the offense and guard George for 40 minutes a game. Expect some Richard Jefferson, but if guys like J.R. Smith or Iman Shumpert draw the assignment for a while George is going to put up big numbers. And he has to for the Pacers to have a chance in this series.

Is this the last time we see Paul George in a Pacers’ uniform? George has been brilliant over the last month of the season and reminded everyone why the Pacers’ primary goal this summer is to keep him in Indiana. If George makes the third-team All-NBA — and that’s a coin flip, one that will not land until June 26 at the NBA awards ceremony — then the Pacers can offer him the designated player contract of five years and more than $200 million, and he will stay put.

However, if George doesn’t make that team, the Pacers have to consider trade options this summer. Larry Bird may not pull the trigger, but he can’t lose George for nothing to free agency in the summer of 2018, so there will be pressure this summer if a team steps up with a good offer (and Boston has the pieces to do that, among others). What George wants to do is win, and if the Pacers have a strong series against the Cavaliers and push this to six or seven games, Bird can say to George that this team is close and to trust him to build a contender around George. How this series goes will have some impact on the summer

Prediction: Cavaliers in five. The Pacers starters can hang with the Cavaliers starters, but once these teams start going to the bench the Cavaliers will pull away. The Pacers don’t have the shooters to hang in this series.

Report: Indiana to retain Bojan Bogdanovic, he could start again next season

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Bojan Bogdanovic is the kind of floor spacing shooter the Pacers need next to the attacking Victor Oladipo. He started 80 games for the team, scored 14.3 points per game and shot 40.2 percent from three.

Bogdanovic is due $10.5 million next season, but the Pacers can buy him out before next Friday (June 29) for $1.5 million.

They’re not going to do that, the Pacers are going to retain Bogdanovic, reports Ben Gibson at the Pacers site 8points9seconds.com.

The Indiana Pacers currently plan to retain Bojan Bogdanovic — whose contract is only partially guaranteed for next season — and would be comfortable going into next season with him as a starter, according to a source familiar with the Pacers offseason plans.

There’s no surprise here, it was expected. Bogdanovic provides genuine value to the team — they need him on the court as a shooter, he averaged the second most threes per game on the squad. And, as an expiring contract, he could be used in any potential trades for another star.

The Pacers also have a decision to make on Darren Collison, who is owed $10 million next season but has a $2 million buyout by July 1. They will probably keep him around.

Al Jefferson is owed $10 million next season but can be bought out for $4 million before next January 10. Expect the Pacers to exercise that option and buy him out well before that date.

Carmelo Anthony sends message to haters: ‘Take A Step Back… And Enjoy Life’

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When the expected became official and Carmelo Anthony opted to take the $27.8 million contractually owed him next season, there were groans from the Thunder faithful.

It was Anthony’s right — and everyone knew he was going to take the cash (we all would have done the same) — but his value on the court has shrunk and that’s what eats at the OKC faithful. Anthony’s response on Instagram was, essentially, “relax, it’s just basketball.”

It will be interesting to see if Anthony is back with the Thunder next season, or if he gets bought out. If he does return, how do they better fit him in the offense?

Anthony’s defense has long been a concern, but his offense used to be efficient enough, and his ability to create shots important enough, that teams lived with the defense. However, his efficiency has slid in recent years and, as we saw in the playoffs in April, it’s not enough anymore. The Thunder played better with other lineups. To which Anthony responded he has to get back to his old style of play more.

It’s going to be a wild summer in OKC. Whatever happens.

Suns to sign French point guard Elie Okobo to first-round style contract

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The Suns have an impressive young core four: Devin Booker at the two, Mikal Bridges at the three, Josh Jackson at the four, and Deandre Ayton at center.

The hole: Who will be the point guard?

The Suns like Elie Okobo of France a lot. They drafted him 31st overall, the top pick of the second round, but they will give him a first-round style contract with two guaranteed seasons and two team options after that, reports Shams Charania of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

The Suns hinted they were going to do this, and it’s a smart move at a fair price if they can develop Okobo (even as a backup).

Okobo has potential. Last season, at the highest level of the athletic French league he averaged 13.2 points on 57 percent shooting (38 percent from three) plus 4.4 assists per game. Okobo is an NBA level athlete who has all the tools to be a good NBA point guard — and he already knows how to score (he had 44 points in a playoff game this season). He’s going to have to round out his game and adapt to the NBA style, but the Suns think they have something.

And they are betting they have with a nice sized contract.

Dirk Nowitzki and Luka Doncic: Mavericks tap brakes on inevitable comparisons

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DALLAS (AP) — Luka Doncic didn’t get compared to Larry Bird when he was introduced a day after the Dallas Mavericks traded up to get the third overall pick in the NBA draft.

For president of basketball operations Donnie Nelson, that’s progress based on his last experience of getting a tender-aged European in hopes of lifting the Mavericks out of the doldrums.

Twenty years later, Dirk Nowitzki is the highest-scoring foreign-born player in league history. Back then, the big German wasn’t remotely comparable to Larry Legend – and his rough first two years proved it.

So ask Nelson about a player the Mavericks clearly coveted heading into the draft in Doncic, and he’ll choose his words carefully regarding the 19-year-old from Slovenia. Doncic won’t turn 20 until after the All-Star break of his rookie season, which is expected to be Nowitzki’s record 21st with one franchise.

“Dirk and I had a long talk coming in,” Nelson said about the player Dallas drafted days after his 20th birthday in 1998.

“We’re obviously very excited to have (Doncic) but he’s got a very tough road ahead of him. Dirk wasn’t done any favors in his first two years. We are going to steer away from any of those comparisons. Luka is his own guy. He’s got his own challenges.”

Coach Rick Carlisle dropped a few international names in trying to describe the versatility Dallas thinks is offered by the 6-foot-7 Doncic, who won Euroleague MVP and Final Four MVP honors while helping Real Madrid win the title just days before the draft.

After offering comparisons to the late Drazen Petrovic, three-time champion Toni Kukoc and longtime San Antonio star Manu Ginobili, Carlisle stopped.

“I really feel it’s important that we shouldn’t try to compare this guy to anybody,” Carlisle said Friday during an introductory news conference that included Doncic and second-round pick Jalen Brunson, who won two NCAA titles in three years at Villanova. “Let him be himself. Let his game takes its own form.”

Doncic figures to shape the future of the Mavericks in some form with Dallas coming off consecutive losing seasons for the first time since the second of Nowitzki’s two difficult years at the start of his career.

Those 1990s-era Mavericks had 10 straight losing seasons. Combine the drafting of Doncic with last year’s ninth overall pick in point guard Dennis Smith Jr. and a still-young leading scorer in Harrison Barnes, and Carlisle expects the losing to stop soon, if not this coming season.

“Last night was symbolic to me that it was kind of a defining moment in this rebuild,” said Carlisle, who had just one losing season as a coach before the current Dallas slide. “We’re going propel forward with the idea that we’ve got to start winning games.”

Just as he did last year with Smith, Carlisle is declaring Doncic a starter, which means the opening night lineup will have a teenager for the second straight year. Youth partly explains a two-year record of 57-107, including the 24-58 mark last season that landed Dallas the fifth pick before the draft-night trade with Atlanta on Thursday.

Another explanation was an unusually large number of undrafted players, including a young German in Maxi Kleber who grew up watching his countryman become the 2007 MVP and 2011 NBA Finals MVP.

The Mavericks haven’t won a playoff series since taking their only title in 2011, and have missed the postseason three of the past six seasons coming off a 12-year playoff streak. Doncic might only get one chance to get Dallas back on track with Nowitzki, the 13-time All-Star who has hinted that 40 is a nice round number as a retirement age.

If this is it for Nowitzki, Nelson sees a trio in Barnes, Smith and Doncic that reminds him of Michael Finley mentoring Nowitzki and point guard Steve Nash and helping the Mavericks end a 10-year playoff drought in 2001.

“Michael Finley was our Harrison Barnes back in the day,” Nelson said. “We feel like we’ve got that here in a different form. There’s just some really cool elements to this that take me back and remind me about what it was like 20 years ago when we were watching these young guys.”

Just don’t remind Nelson about the Nowitzki-Bird comparisons.