Pacers become talk of the town with surprising first half

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indiana Pacers are playing harder, moving the ball faster and winning more games than most people anticipated.

Fans in this basketball-crazed state expect nothing less from their favorite teams. Around the league, though, the Pacers might be the biggest surprise of the first half of the season.

Just six months after trading four-time All-Star Paul George to Oklahoma City – setting up what many believed would be a long rebuilding process – new president of basketball operations Kevin Pritchard has transformed the Pacers virtually overnight.

A younger, more energetic roster has given Indiana a more entertaining style with no significant drop in wins.

“We knew coming in that we would be developing a lot of guys,” coach Nate McMillan said. “They were young, many of them were in new roles. For us, it’s about developing that culture and that identity and we’re still doing that. I think we’re only starting to scratch the surface.”

With eight new players and three new starters, McMillan knew it would take time for everyone to get on the same page. At times, they still aren’t.

But even amid the growing pains, Indiana hit the midway point of the season with a winning record (21-20), good enough for eighth in the Eastern Conference. They have wins over San Antonio, Minnesota, Toronto and two over Cleveland.

Indiana is the only team with multiple wins over the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs and can make it three in a row when the Cavs come to town Friday. Cleveland swept the Pacers in the first round of the playoffs last year even with George and former All-Star Jeff Teague.

What’s changed? Just about everything.

The Pacers have broken away from their stodgy, half-court offense and are playing at the tempo Larry Bird, Pritchard’s predecessor, envisioned. As a result, the Pacers are tied for No. 8 in scoring (107.3 points), are No. 5 in 3-point percentage (37.9) and are just one victory behind last year’s 41-win pace.

“We have so much fun. We show him (McMillan) how hard we work on the defensive end and he gives us a little rope on the offensive end. I love it,” said Lance Stephenson, the Pacers’ showman and one of six holdovers. “It’s been great because you all had us predicted to be at the bottom of the league. We’ve just got to keep playing hard and playing together.”

When George’s plan to opt out of his contract this coming summer and leave town in free agency leaked publicly, Pritchard had two options: Rebuild now or make one more title run and risk losing his star player with nothing in return. Rather than build around unproven rookies, he dealt George to the Thunder for Victor Oladipo, the No. 2 selection in the 2013 draft, and Domantas Sabonis, the No. 11 pick in 2016.

Critics contended the Pacers didn’t get full value for George, but Pritchard got exactly what he wanted.

“When I think about Vic, he came into this league as a hot talent and he got moved around a little bit,” backup center Al Jefferson said. “But I knew when our front office traded Paul, I knew they weren’t going to trade him for just anybody. He (Oladipo) has responded very well.”

Sabonis, an undersized center dubbed as not strong enough to hold up in the post, is averaging 12.5 points, shooting 54.3 percent from the field and is among the top 25 in rebounds (8.0).

Oladipo, the former Indiana University star, has been even more impressive.

He’s spent most of this season ranked among the league’s top 40 in scoring (24.6 points), steals (1.9), 3-point percentage (41.0) and blocks (0.9). He’s heard chants of “M-V-P” and coaches around the league regularly talk about him making his first All-Star game.

“Obviously, I’ve been in a bigger role here,” Oladipo said. “But I feel like everybody here believes in me, everybody in the state believes in me and I believe we can play at the highest level every night.”

Pritchard’s other moves have worked out well, too.

Point guard Darren Collison is among the league leaders in assists (5.5), forward Bojan Bogdanovic is averaging 13.8 points and shooting a career best 47.4 percent from the field and guard Cory Joseph has provided steady play off the bench. Their performances coupled with the improvement of 21-year-old center Myles Turner, the steady play of Thaddeus Young and Stephenson’s energy have given the Pacers a solid foundation.

All they have to do in the second half is live up to the talk.

“It has been a fun group to coach because they come in and they work every day,” McMillan said. “We don’t always get it right. But they give you the effort each and every night.”

 

Doncic’s 30, Mavericks’ 17-0 run lift them past Knicks at MSG

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NEW YORK (AP) — Luka Doncic had a game-high 30 points, Tim Hardaway Jr. chipped in 28 points against his former team, and the Dallas Mavericks beat the New York Knicks 121-100 on Saturday.

Spencer Dinwiddie scored 17 points for Dallas, which outscored New York 69-41 in the second half for just its second win seven games.

“I think it’s great that everyone’s in the locker room smiling,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said. “Everybody saw the ball go in, we shared the ball, we played the right way. … We’re a team that lives or dies by the 3, and today we made them.”

Forward Julius Randle led the Knicks with 24 points, and Immanuel Quickly chipped in 23. Leading scorer Jalen Brunson had 13 points playing against Dallas for the first time since he signed with the Knicks on July 12, but New York fell for the sixth time in its past eight games.

“To be honest, not fun,” Brunson said when asked what it was like playing against his former team. “They played great tonight. You got to give them credit. No matter who is on the floor, my approach stays the same. But to see them after the game and shake their hands, that was pretty cool.”

Hardaway exacted revenge against his former team, with whom he played 254 games over parts of four seasons. Hardaway had 17 points in the third quarter, including five 3-pointers, during a 27-6 run. He credited familiarity in New York – and Dallas’ previous game in Detroit – as keys to his third straight 20-plus point game.

“This road trip, when you have family and friends in both cities, it lightens you and brings some positive vibes and some positive energy,” Hardaway said. “To come here, to Detroit and to New York, both places where I used to play college and professionally, was a great atmosphere. I was comfortable, and my teammates (were) keeping me positive.”

Doncic, the NBA’s leading scorer, had just 11 points on 3 of 11 shooting in the first half. But he took over in the third, scoring 19 points on 8 of 10 shooting. Dallas outscored New York 41-15 in the third quarter, turning a tight game into a rout.

“The first half I wasn’t really participating,” Doncic said. “It was a challenge to come out of the locker room with more energy.”

The Knicks shot 55% in the first half, including 63% from the field in the first quarter. Randle had 14 of his 21 first-half points in the first quarter, including seven on a 9-0 run that gave New York an early 14-5 advantage.

The Knicks led by as many as 15 in the second quarter, but Dallas turned up the defensive intensity and cut New York’s lead to seven, 59-52, at halftime.

“The start of the game, I thought we were pretty good,” Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau said. “We built the 15-point lead, then we sort of lost traction mid-second quarter.”

Ja Morant fined $35,000 for using ‘ inappropriate language’ toward referee

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A frustrated Dillon Brooks and Ja Morant must have used some special language near the end of the Grizzlies’ loss to the Timberwolves, because both were ejected within a matter of minutes near the end of the game Wednesday night.

The league fined Morant $35,000 for “confronting and directing inappropriate language toward a game official and failing to leave the court in a timely manner following his ejection.”

Morant was not demonstrative at the time and was clearly surprised by the ejection. Before leaving the court he dapped up Anthony Edwards (who was shooting free throws) and a couple of other players before heading back to the locker room. Afterward Morant took to social media.

If the official said that to Morant, he should also be punished. The league can’t come down on players for not showing the referees respect if it’s not a two-way street.

It was an ugly loss for the Grizzlies, who fell to a Timberwolves team without Karl-Anthony Towns.

Teams reportedly watching to see if Bulls make stars available; Lakers had internal discussions on it

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It was a talking point going into the season: What teams we thought would be good will struggle, and then pivot to chase Victor Wembanyama in the lottery.

What about the 9-13 Chicago Bulls? They barely look like a playoff team, they miss Lonzo Ball, and even at their best where do they fall in the East? Would they blow it up? With DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic and Zach LaVine, they have players that would interest other teams and could bring quality picks (or young players) back to Chicago. Other teams are watching, reports Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

One of those teams: The Los Angeles Lakers.

That is according to ESPN’s Zach Lowe on the Lowe Post Podcast. He was discussing a potential trade floated by The Ringer’s Bill Simmons where the Lakers send Russell Westbrook and two future first-round picks (2027 and 2029) to the Bulls for DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic.

“The trade I saw on Twitter was Russ and both picks, one with light protections I think for DeRozan and Vucevic. I can tell you 100% for sure that the Lakers have had internal discussions about that very possibility, if it would ever come up. Not that they would do that. Let me be clear.”

None of this matters if the Bulls don’t decide to pivot, and they are not there yet. They may never get to that point. But the Lakers and other teams are surveying what teams might make game-changers available at the deadline, and the way the Bulls are stumbling has other teams keeping an eye on them. Expect the rumors to keep coming.

But for now, that’s all they are, rumors and speculation.

On the bright side for Bucks, Khris Middleton looks good in return

Los Angeles Lakers v Milwaukee Bucks
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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Milwaukee Bucks forward Khris Middleton initially said that making his 2022-23 debut in his return from offseason wrist surgery felt great.

Then he quickly corrected himself.

“I should actually say good,” Middleton said Friday night after the Bucks’ 133-129 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers. “If we got the win, I think I would have been (feeling) great. It felt really good to be back out there with the guys competing and playing,”

Middleton, 31, had 17 points and seven assists while playing 26 1/2 minutes in his first game since spraining the medial collateral ligament in his left knee April 20 in Game 2 of the Bucks’ first-round playoff series with the Chicago Bulls. That injury caused him to miss the entirety of the Bucks’ Eastern Conference semifinal with the Boston Celtics, a series Milwaukee lost in seven games.

The 6-foot-7 forward then had surgery on his left wrist in the summer, having played through the injury late last season.

“Pretty impressive how kind of seamlessly he got back into the game on both ends of the court,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

Middleton said Friday at a post-shootaround availability that he might need some time to readjust, but the three-time All-Star didn’t show any signs of rust in his first game back. He shot 6 of 11 and went 3 of 4 from 3-point range.

“Just relying on my experience,” Middleton said. “Just (trying) not to rush and let the game come to me. Don’t try to do too much the first game back and try to fit in and play off my teammates.”

The most important thing is that Middleton felt just fine physically.

“Hopefully tomorrow when I wake up, I feel the same also and I won’t feel too sore or whatever,” he said.

The Bucks had gone 15-5 in Middleton’s absence. Milwaukee is second in the Eastern Conference, behind only the Boston Celtics.

Middleton’s teammates believe his return should make them even better.

“It takes us to a whole different level,” Bucks forward and two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “We scored 129 points and we had a bad first half. That says a lot.”

Lakers coach Darvin Ham knows how much Middleton means to the Bucks’ title hopes. Ham was an assistant coach on Budenholzer’s Bucks staff from 2018-22, including their 2021 championship season.

“Giannis is the heart and soul and the engine, and Khris is like the steering wheel,” Ham said before Friday’s game. “He’s the GPS in terms of understanding what to do. Giannis is the focal point but Khris is the master of putting guys where they need to be. He’s like that quarterback.”

The Bucks aren’t going to overexert Middleton as he returns to the floor for the first time in about 7 1/2 months. Budenholzer said Middleton probably won’t play Saturday at Charlotte.

“We’ll talk about it on the plane, but my guess is he will not play a back-to-back,” Budenholzer said.

Middleton’s just happy he’s back on the floor at all.

“Just a range of emotions,” Middleton said. “(I’ve) been through a lot these last couple months. Happy, sad, anxious, nervous. To finally get out there and play and get a lot of those nerves past me felt pretty good.