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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.”

 

Jayson Tatum’s NBA 2K19 rating is pretty eye-popping

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Boston Celtics rookie Jayson Tatum had an excellent first season in the NBA. Here at PBT, we talked about how if the Celtics wanted to challenge in the East early on — especially without Gordon Hayward — they would need their young wing rotation to step up in a big way. They did, and Tatum was a big part of the reason the Celtics made the Eastern Conference Finals this year.

Now it appears that he is being rewarded by the folks over at 2K Games.

The people over at 2K Games release some of their ratings today, and Tatum came in at a whopping 87. If you aren’t familiar with the structure of the game, or what that means, the total score is out of a possible 99, making Tatum an excellent player.

Via Twitter:

Of course players like Los Angeles Lakers forward LeBron James scored a 98, so Tatum still has some room above him. As a general observation very good players rate somewhere between 79-85 during their rookie seasons.

Now the wait is on to see how fellow Rookie of the Year candidates Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons score when 2K Games releases their ratings.

Dallas’ Liz Cambage sets WNBA single-game scoring record with 53-point game (VIDEO)

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When you score more than half your team’s points, you’ve owned the game.

Dallas Wings’ center Liz Cambage scored a WNBA single-game record 53 points — on just 22 shots — in the Wings’ 104-87 win over the Liberty Tuesday. The previous record had been Riquna Williams with 51 points in 2013. Cambage hit 17–of–22 from the field including 4–of–5 from three (she was 5-of-23 from three in her NBA career before today), and knocked down 15-of-16 from the free throw line. She also had 10 rebounds and blocked five shots.

It was a monster performance. How big:

Cambage, an Australian native, had two interesting seasons with Tulsa in the WNBA back in 2011 and 2013 — she was an All-Star in 2011 but did not return to the NBA after the 2012 Olympics. She had a strong 2013 season, but then walked away from the WNBA (she had said when drafted she didn’t want to be in Tulsa).

She sat out of the WNBA for five years, until returning this season and is putting up big numbers in Dallas — 19.9 points per game on 57 percent shooting plus pulling down 9.1 rebounds per game. She’s a 6’8″ physical force in the league that few if any teams have an answer for.

But nobody saw this huge breakout game coming.

What a great showcase for the WNBA, especially leading up to the league’s All-Star Game July 28.

Lakers’ Josh Hart wins Summer League MVP

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The Lakers wanted to test Josh Hart this summer: What would happen if they gave him a more substantial role? He was solid as a backup point guard last season (a good showing for a rookie), averaging 7.9 points per game and shooting 39.6 percent from three, but with Lonzo Ball and Rajon Rondo in the fold point guard minutes will be hard to come by next season.

What happened if they put the ball in Hart’s hands and made him the leader of a team on and off the court?

Hart responded by winning the NBA Las Vega Summer League MVP, averaging 24.2 points a game and leading the Lakers to the championship game. He dropped 37 on the Cavaliers and Collin Sexton in the semi-finals.

The award was announced Tuesday, in advance of the title contest between Hart and his Lakers vs. the Portland Trail Blazers.

Hart is the second Laker in a row to win the award, last year Lonzo Ball won it in leading the Lakers to a Summer League crown.

It’s an honor, but don’t assume Summer League MVP means NBA success. Sure, Damian Lillard won the award, but he was co-MVP with Josh Shelby. Glen Rice III won the award. The MVP list includes Kyle Anderson and Tyus Jones and other good but not All-Star players.

Hart also made the All-NBA Summer League first team. (Both the MVP award and All-NBA Summer League teams were voted on by a select media pannel.)

Here are the Las Vegas All Summer League teams:

All-NBA Summer League First Team

Wendell Carter Jr. (Chicago)
Josh Hart (Los Angeles Lakers)
Kevin Knox (New York)
Collin Sexton (Cleveland)
Christian Wood (Milwaukee)

MGM Resorts All-NBA Summer League Second Team

Deandre Ayton (Phoenix)
Wade Baldwin IV (Portland)
Jaren Jackson Jr. (Memphis)
Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (Los Angeles Lakers)
Trae Young (Atlanta)

Report: Jahlil Okafor, still trying to land contract, works out for four teams in Vegas

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Jahlil Okafor was never going to find a new home early in free agency. Once the big names — and second tier, and third tier— names shook out, then some team was expected to step forward with a minimum contract and see if the former No. 3 pick could find a role on their team. Something he could not do with the Nets last year.

He’s still waiting.

Okafor did work out for teams in Las Vegas, to show that he is healthy and can contribute, reports Sean Deveny of The Sporting News.

According to sources, Okafor, the No. 3 pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, worked out for four teams last Wednesday in Las Vegas, and remains hopeful of signing with a team ahead of training camp next fall.

Okafor averaged 17.5 points per game as a rookie in Philadelphia in 2015-16. He has spent the last few months working out in Miami with trainers David Alexander and Idan Ravin, fueling speculation that he could land with the Heat, especially if Miami finds a trading partner for Hassan Whiteside.

First things first, it’s unlikely the Heat will find someone to take on Whiteside right now, and any team that does is going to want a treasure chest of sweeteners the Heat may not want to surrender.

In addition to the Heat, the Bulls and Pacers have been rumored to have some interest, although both of those should be taken with a serious grain of salt.

How much is any team interested? Enough to even offer a fully guaranteed contract for next season?

Maybe not. Okafor — with his old-school, below the rim, back-to-the-basket offensive game, not to mention a serious lack of defense — does not fit the direction the NBA is trending with bigs. He may need to accept a non-guaranteed invite to training camp somewhere and prove he deserves a roster spot. Humbling, to be sure, but reality.

At some point, some team will give him a shot. Probably. But Okafor has a lot of work to do to find a role in the modern NBA.