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Close-knit Pacers’ bond gets tested with season on the line

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) The Indiana Pacers have been winning together, losing together and fighting together all season.

Now they need to demonstrate their resilience once more as they try to save their season by rebounding from an emotional loss to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“Nobody thought we’d be in this situation,” Victor Oladipo said, referring to the playoffs. “It’s important for us to stick together now because we’ve seen where it can go, where it can take us and it’s great.”

The immediate problem is recent history doesn’t bode well for the underdog Pacers, who trail 3-2 with Game 5 set for Friday in Indianapolis.

Cleveland swept Indiana in the first round last year, winning four games by a record low 16 total points. James has won 10 straight close-out games and has never lost a first-round series. Indiana, meanwhile, is trying to reach the conference semifinals for the first time since 2014.

But the Pacers don’t care about stats, projections or conventional wisdom – as they’ve proven repeatedly this season.

Following last summer’s Paul George trade, Indiana seemed bound for the draft lottery. Instead, general manager Kevin Pritchard cobbled together a rare combination of proven, often overlooked veterans, emerging stars, good shooters and willing defenders.

It turned out to be a perfect fit.

Indiana won 48 games, six more than it did with George last season, and is a win away from forcing the three-time defending Eastern Conference champs into a decisive seventh game.

Cleveland has learned one lesson the hard way: The fifth-seeded Pacers won’t go away. They won 12 times after facing double-digit deficits and eight times after trailing by 15 or more during the regular season.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise Indiana has erased double-digit deficits in four straight game and wound up taking the lead or having a chance to win late in all four in this series.

“That team does not quit,” James said, moments after his buzzer-beating 3-pointer gave Cleveland a 98-95 win to salvage a win Wednesday after Pacers wiped out a 12-point second half to deficit to tie the score in the final minute.

Playing hard until the final buzzer has become the norm for these Pacers.

And they’re savoring every precious second, too.

Nate McMillan recently called this one of the most enjoyable seasons he’s had as a head coach because he knows what he’ll get every day – energy from Oladipo and Lance Stephenson, steadiness from Darren Collison and Corey Joseph, leadership from Thaddeus Young and Bojan Bogdanovic and an eagerness to develop from Myles Turner and other young players.

With each player embracing their role, the Pacers have formed a cohesive bond.

Six players actually approached Pritchard before the trade deadline and pleaded with the GM not to make any moves because they wanted to close out this season together. Pritchard said it a first for him, and kept the team intact.

“It kind of is like a college team bond,” said Young, one of the six players who approached Pritchard. “Typically you have a lot of NBA teams that don’t bond as well as you do in college when you’re living with each other and you’re around each other all the time. You know in the NBA, you spend time with your family, things like that.

“This team we all hang out together, we go to dinner together on the road. We do everything together.”

The difference has shown.

After enduring an early and sometimes uneven learning curve early this season, the Pacers finally got in sync in early January and played better than anyone, perhaps even McMillan or Pritchard could have anticipated.

From Jan. 6 through the end of the regular season, they went 29-15 and allowed 101.3 points per game and didn’t lose more than two in a row.

They moved up three spots in the Eastern Conference postseason pecking order and headed into their latest round against James having won three of the four regular-season matchups. The Pacers even routed the Cavs on their home court in Game 1.

Since then, though, the series has been all-out slugfest and James has gotten the knockout blow in three times.

Now, with their season on the line, the Pacers need to provide a unified front one more time Friday night just to keep this season alive.

They’re ready.

“Sure, we’ve still got something to prove. No one believes we can beat Cleveland,” Bogdanovic said. “It’s about trust in what we’ve got in each other.”

More AP NBA coverage: https://apnews.com/tag/NBAbasketball

Joel Embiid misses out on about $29 million by making just All-NBA second team

AP Photo/Matt Slocum
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DeMarcus Cousins‘ injury could cost him in free agency.

It might have already cost Joel Embiid.

The 76ers center made just the All-NBA second team, landing behind the Pelicans’ Anthony Davis. Davis surged after Cousins went down, earning overall credit from All-NBA voters, who were also increasingly likely to view him as a center rather than just a forward.

As a result, Davis made the All-NBA first team at center – costing Embiid about $29 million over the next five years.

Embiid’s contract extension, which kicks in next season, calls for his starting salary to be 25% of the salary cap (the typical max for a player with his experience level). If he made the All-NBA first team, his starting salary would have been 30% of the salary cap .

Though the exact cap won’t be determined until July, here’s what Embiid is projected to earn on his standard max and what he could’ve earned on the super max (with 8% raises in both cases):

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Obviously Embiid will still earn a lot of money, and he and Philadelphia have a bright future.

But it’s hard not to think, if Cousins didn’t get hurt, Embiid would be even richer.

At least the 76ers have more cap space to pursue their big goals.

Rockets to wear patches to honor Santa Fe shooting victims

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HOUSTON (AP)–  The Houston Rockets will wear patches on their jerseys to honor the victims of the school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas, on Thursday night in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors.

The patches will read: “Santa Fe HS.” It’s one of several tributes the team plans following Friday’s shooting. Eight students and two teachers died at the school, located 30 miles from downtown Houston.

The school’s high school choir will perform the national anthem. There will be a moment of silence and a video tribute before tipoff.

Santa Fe’s senior class and administrators have been invited to attend the game as guests of owner Tilman Fertitta. The Rockets also will honor first responders on the court.

Proceeds from Thursday night’s charity raffle will go to the Santa Fe Strong Memorial Fund.

Rockets went all-in for Game 4. How much do they have left in tank for Game 5?

AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez
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Despite trailing 2-1 as the top seed in the Western Conference finals in a season his star deemed “the year,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni claimed all the pressure was on Warriors in Game 4.

Of course, nobody believed D’Antoni.

D’Antoni didn’t even believe himself.

He played P.J. Tucker 44 minutes, James Harden 43 minutes, Chris Paul 42 minutes and Trevor Ariza 41 minutes in Houston’s win. That was the first time four teammates played 40 minutes in regulation of a non-elimination playoff game in a half decade.*

*The Pacers gave 40 minutes to Paul George, George Hill, Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson in Game 6 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals. After that win, Indiana lost to the Heat in Game 7. Since, only the Warriors – who used Andre Iguodala, Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry and Draymond Green in Game 7 of the 2016 Western Conference finals against the Thunder – have played just seven players in a playoff game.

D’Antoni’s rotation revealed his desperation to win Game 4. And who could blame him? A 3-1 deficit to this mighty Golden State squad would have been nearly insurmountable.

Not only did D’Antoni lean heavily on his top players, he didn’t even spread around the remaining minutes. Just seven Rockets played in Game 4 – Tucker, Harden, Paul, Ariza, Eric Gordon, Clint Capela and Gerald Green.

How fatigued will those players be in Game 5 tonight?

In the last 20 years, teams have used just seven players in a playoff game 28 times. In their following game, those teams went 10-15. (Two were eliminated.)

Here are the full results:

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Teams have used so few players just twice in the previous decade, but the super-shortened rotation was once a D’Antoni specialty. The practice only waned while he was mostly missing the playoffs with the Knicks and Lakers. In fact, 14 of the last 18 times a team used just seven players in a playoff game, D’Antoni did it.

The most recent previous example came in Game 5 of last year’s Rockets-Spurs second-round series. Houston lost by 39 and got eliminated in the next game – which became known for Harden running out of gas.

Will the result be different this time?

The Warriors have their own physical-readiness issues. Klay Thompson and Andre Iguodala are banged up. Golden State coach Steve Kerr should probably tighten his rotation, especially removing Nick Young. It’s not as if the Warriors gave up on Game 4, either. Draymond Green played 45 minutes, Kevin Durant 43, Klay Thompson 39 and Curry 39.

These conference finals are shaping up to be a great battle. It might be one of attrition.

Carmelo Anthony responds four times to Instagram post calling Kyle Korver better: ‘FOH’

AP Photo/David Goldman
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Carmelo Anthony was the No. 3 pick in the 2003 NBA draft. He had just led Syracuse to the national title as a freshman, and some fans and media advocating taking him No. 1 overall ahead of LeBron James (and Darko Milicic).

Korver was the No. 51 pick in the same draft. He looked like this:

Fifteen years later, Anthony and Korver are still in the league. Korver is helping the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals, and Anthony and the Thunder already got eliminated. That sparked an Instagram post that clearly irked Anthony:

Anthony has had a better career than Korver. But who’s better right now? It depends on the terms of the debate.

Anthony is still a more-skilled all-around offensive player. (Neither gains credit for their defense.) Anthony can create in ways Korver just can’t.

But any team running its offense through Anthony now is asking for a bad time. Even if that’s that the best style for maximizing him individually, he’s no longer good enough to justify having the ball that much.

Korver is a far superior complementary player. He’s an elite 3-point shooter who moves well off the ball. Anthony struggles in that role.

In a hypothetical game between Anthony plus four average players and Korver plus four average players, I’d lean toward Anthony’s squad. But an actual NBA team capable of winning needs players better than both, and at that point, I’d rather have Korver.