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Loaded with expiring contracts, Pacers still scraping and clawing together

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Thaddeus Young faced a tough decision last summer.

Coming off the best season of his career, he held a $13,764,045 player option with the Pacers. Opting in probably, though not definitely, maximized his salary this year. But opting out would have allowed him to sign a long-term deal with more total compensation.

Young opted in.

“Obviously, I had a few teams that wanted to pay me some money and stuff like that,” Young said. “But I figured that playing another season and going into it with these guys is better for me.

“We’re a family. We built something. We have some unfinished business.”

That decision, several others and Victor Oladipo‘s season-ending knee injury sent Indiana toward its identity – a tough, balanced team full of players incentivized to look out for themselves.

Several key Pacers – Young, Bojan Bogdanovic, Wesley Matthews, Darren Collison, Cory Joseph and Tyreke Evans – are on expiring contracts. But they don’t play like it. Indiana has remained cohesive amid obstacles, including the contract situations.

Don’t expect that to change with the Pacers trailing the Celtics 2-0 in their first round series entering Game 3 tonight.

Indiana proved its mettle last season. Largely written off after the Paul George trade, the Pacers became the NBA’s surprise team by winning 48 games. Victor Oladipo broke out as a star.

This season brought a new complication – players on the verge of getting compensated for their success. It could have happened more gradually, but circumstance created a rush.

Young opted in. Indiana exercised a $10.5 million team option on Bogdanovic and a $10 million team option on Collison, locking this in as the final year of their contracts. Matthews got bought out by the Knicks and signed for the rest of the season with a Pacers team that presented major opportunity with Oladipo sidelined. Evans, finding an underwhelming market in free agency last summer, prioritized a one-year deal. Joseph was the only one who was clearly entering the final season of his contract in Indiana.

The Pacers have given 68% of their minutes this postseason to players on expiring contracts. That’s a close second to the 76ers (only because I counted a few players with sure-to-be-declined player options – Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Kyrie Irving and Khris Middleton – as having expiring contracts).

Here’s the percentage of minutes given to players on expiring contracts this postseason:

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In the regular season, Indiana trailed only the Wizards.

Pacers coach Nate McMillan said he addressed the contract situation before the season. His message, as summarized by Joseph: “We’re better when we play together, and if we do, then everybody will get rewarded.”

Players clearly bought in. Indiana surged to a 32-15 start. But Oladipo’s injury tested the Pacers’ cohesiveness.

They clearly wouldn’t be as good without their star, and they went just 16-19 since his last game. It would have been a logical time for players to go their own ways and start playing for themselves in what looked like it’d be a lost season.

Instead, they tightened their bond. This team has been quite competitive without Oladipo. The schedule got tough in March, but the Pacers stuck together.

“We don’t have big names, big stars on our team,” Bogdanovic said. “But we are fighting every single night.”

The delicate balance of Indiana’s offense – especially considering contract-year motivations – is quite stunning.

The Pacers averaged 5.4 double-digit scorers per game this season – the most in nearly two decades. Not bad for a team that finished 22nd in the NBA in points per game. Though scoring is up this season, 69 other teams averaged more points per game since another team had so many double-digit scorers per game.

“There’s a lot of players on the other teams that play for their own stats,” Bogdanovic said. “…We have this season, eight or nine players with expiring contracts, and we are still playing the right way, sharing the ball. We don’t care who’s going to score. That’s why we are successful.”

Unconcerned about their scoring numbers, Indiana players exert their energy on other things – defending, rebounding, screening. The Pacers impose a hard-nosed style, just as they did last year.

Indiana’s professionalism and focus on winning is a tribute to its players and organizational culture. This is a veteran team with the right priorities.

As much as he believed in this group, as well as he has guided it, McMillan wasn’t quite certain how the contract situations would affect his squad.

“That can go either way,” McMillan said. “It can be good or bad. It’s been good for us. Our guys have committed to playing together.”

Pacers searching for offense in Game 2 vs. Celtics

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ASSOCIATED PRESS — Two teams looking to put together two strong halves meet again Wednesday night when the fifth-seeded Indiana Pacers visit the fourth-seeded Boston Celtics for Game 2 of their Eastern Conference first-round playoff series.

Despite their lowest scoring game of the season, the Celtics prevailed 84-74 in the best-of-7 opener by dominating the second half, limiting the Pacers to 29 points after the visitors had taken a 45-38 halftime lead.

Kyrie Irving had 20 points and helped limit Pacers point guard Darren Collison to six points on 3-for-11 shooting to lead the Celtics’ win.

Afterward, he wasn’t necessarily proud of the achievement, insisting what comes next in a series is always more important than what’s just happened.

“At this point, it’s just moving on to the next thing,” he said at his postgame press conference. “When you have that kind of mentality, you don’t need to be fixated on mistakes.”

Mistakes were aplenty in Game 1, especially when it came to shooting.

The Celtics shot just 32 percent in the first half, before improving to 41 percent in the second half.

On this night, that was good enough, being that the Pacers followed up a 44-percent first half by missing their first 11 shots of the third quarter.

Just like that, a seven-point halftime lead had turned into a 60-48 deficit.

Outscored 26-8 in the decisive third quarter, Indiana wound up making just eight field goals in the entire second half, going 8-for-38 (21.1 percent).

In the end, guard Wesley Matthews found a positive.

“We’ve got to shake this off and realize there was a lot of good in there,” he said at his postgame press conference. “I don’t think if we played with our eyes closed we could have an eight-point quarter again.”

The 74-point total was 15 points lower than any previous game this season for the Pacers. But it was the third time in their last four games that they were held under 100, a stretch that included a key 117-97 home loss to the Celtics in the final week of the regular season.

The Celtics’ defensive brilliance came despite the absence of Marcus Smart, who is expected to miss the entire series with a torn oblique.

Boston moved Jaylen Brown into his starting spot, yet still managed to play the Pacers almost evenly off the bench, getting outscored just 36-35.

Marcus Morris (20) and Gordon Hayward (10) combined for 30 of the Celtics’ 35 bench points. Boston could be without Al Horford (illness) in Game 2. He was officially listed as questionable Wednesday morning.

Meanwhile, the Indiana bench contributed to the team’s poor offensive effort, with the usually reliable Domantas Sabonis (3-for-9), Tyreke Evans (3-for-11) and Doug McDermott (1-for-7) combining to shoot just 7-for-27.

The Celtics are quite familiar with winning the opening game of a playoff series. In fact, they went up 2-0 against all three of their postseason opponents last season, going on to beat Milwaukee 4-3 and

Philadelphia 4-1 before falling to Cleveland 4-3 in the Eastern finals.

The Pacers, meanwhile, have rallied to win the series on two of the last three occasions when they lost Game 1. Interestingly, they’ve gone 0-3 in series over that same span after winning the opener.

 

Gordon Hayward delivers perfect finish as Celtics rout Pacers

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Gordon Hayward executed the game plan perfectly for Boston on Friday night.

He made all nine of his shots. He made all three of his free throws. And, he gave the Celtics the clear edge for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, too.

While Jason Tatum scored 22 points, Hayward became the first Celtics player since Kevin McHale in 1986 to make every shot and score at least 20 points as Boston pulled away from the Indiana Pacers 117-97 to break a tie for the No. 4 spot in the Eastern Conference standings.

The victory also gave Boston a 3-1 series edge to claim the first tiebreaker, essentially giving the Celtics a two-game lead with two remaining.

“I don’t know how you guys find all these stats. More important, we got the win,” said Hayward, who scored 21 points. “It was a great job by us, a big win.”

Admittedly, Hayward has done some of his best work in his hometown.

He won the 2008 high school state championship on the Pacers’ home court. Two years later, and just a few blocks away, he came within inches of making a half-court heave for Butler to beat Duke for a national title.

But Hayward’s last appearance in Indy didn’t end well. Victor Oladipo stole his inbound pass at the buzzer to seal a 102-101 victory on Nov. 3.

This time, with the Celtics trying to build momentum for the postseason, Boston had a 23-point advantage when Hayward was on the floor. Boston has won three straight and five of six.

“Hayward is playing really well,” coach Brad Stevens said. “He’s attacking with great physicality. That’s what he does. He’s still not forcing anything that’s not there. It’s good that he’s playing this way.”

If the Pacers don’t get their defense righted quickly, it could lead to an early exit – especially if they draw the Celtics in a best-of-seven series starting next weekend.

Myles Turner had 15 points and seven rebounds to lead Indiana. Domantas Sabonis and Tyreke Evans each scored 12 points for the Pacers, whose two-game winning streak ended.

But the bigger problem was matching up with Hayward & Co. Despite allowing a league-low 104.1 points, Boston repeatedly shredded the Pacers defense.

“We kind of let them do what they wanted to do when we were on the defensive side of the basketball and just kind of let them run their offense and get into a flow,” Pacers forward Thaddeus Young said after scoring 10 points. “One of the guys that killed us was Gordon Hayward. He was 9 for 9 tonight.”

And it was that way right from the start.

After breaking to a 10-3 lead, Hayward helped fuel a 7-0 run to start the second quarter that gave Boston a 31-27 lead. They never trailed again.

Boston scored the final four points of the first half to take a 58-47 lead and only allowed the Pacers to get as close as eight – on a 3-pointer from Wesley Matthews to open the second half. The Celtics sealed the win with a 12-3 third-quarter run that made it 86-68.

 

Kevin Durant helps lead Warriors past Pacers after death of Cliff Dixon

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OAKLAND, Calif. — Kevin Durant established Golden State’s defensive energy by swatting away shots early. Eventually, the Warriors got going on the other end as they almost always do.

Durant had 15 points, six assists and three blocks after losing a close friend earlier in the day, and the Warriors ran away from the Indiana Pacers 112-89 on Thursday night.

Durant led a balanced Warriors attack, playing the same day childhood friend Cliff Dixon was shot to death in Atlanta. Warriors guard Quinn Cook also was close with Dixon as they’re all from the Washington D.C./Maryland area.

Stephen Curry scored 12 of his 15 points with four 3-pointers during the Warriors’ 35-point third quarter in which they limited Indiana to 19.

“Tonight I thought our spirit and our energy were fantastic,” coach Steve Kerr said, crediting his group for being “engaged.”

Tyreke Evans scored 20 points off the bench and Thaddeus Young added 18 for the Pacers, who were without coach Nate McMillan for family reasons.

Indiana ended its four-game swing out West by losing an eighth straight road game and missing another chance to clinch a playoff berth following a 115-109 defeat at the Clippers on Tuesday night.

The Warriors, whose defense has become a greater focus with the playoffs approaching, have allowed their fewest points in two of the past four games. Oklahoma City scored 88 points Saturday before the two-time defending champions held down Indiana.

Klay Thompson began 0 for 7, missing his first five 3-pointers, and wound up with 18 points on 7-for-18 shooting. He scored his first field goal of the night, which he followed with another basket the next possession, at the 7:46 mark of the second quarter and his first 3 came in the final minute of the first half as Golden State built a 53-43 lead at the break.

“Well I finally decided to make a shot, so that felt good,” Thompson cracked.

Golden State returned from an impressive 3-1 road trip – with wins at Houston, Oklahoma City and Minnesota and a loss at San Antonio – to play its first game at Oracle Arena since a 115-111 flop against lowly Phoenix on March 10.

DeMarcus Cousins returned after missing two games with a sore right ankle and had 19 points and 11 rebounds, while Andrew Bogut received a warm welcome for his home debut after re-joining the Warriors on the road. The 7-foot big man played on Golden State’s 2015 championship team and the 73-win team the following season that lost in Game 7 of the NBA Finals to LeBron James and the Cavaliers, and he got hurt in Game 5 of the finals and missed the rest of the series.

“In my old age you get a bit sentimental,” Bogut said. “It’s funny how life works, right?”

Both teams had slow starts: The game was tied at 19 after the first quarter, when the Warriors were 1 of 10 on 3s.

“I thought our defensive intensity was good in the first half, and what happens in this league is when you’re not scoring points the flood gates can open,” Pacers assistant Dan Burke said.

BOGUT’S RETURN

Kerr still expects Bogut to make an impact even with Cousins healthy again and despite “an insurance-policy role.”

Bogut had seven rebounds and four points – shooting 1 for 8 – in nine minutes.

And Bogut was greeted exactly how Kerr figured – with “a raucous reception.”

The big man waved and smiled as fans cheered when video highlights were shown on the big screen with “Welcome back Andrew Bogut.”

“I think our fans recognize that, in many ways, Andrew represented the shift in the Warriors organization and its emphasis on defense,” Kerr said. “I think that trade was really kind of the first domino to fall in terms of – well Steph’s drafting was the first one, let’s not forget that one – but shortly thereafter Andrew came over in the trade and there was an organizational shift toward a defensive mindset which I think Mark Jackson implemented and the players started to reflect that philosophy.”

TIP-INS

Pacers: G Darren Collison sat out a second straight game with a bruised right quadriceps muscle. When he missed Tuesday it snapped his streak of 71 straight starts this season. … Indiana is 4-9 on the road vs. the Western Conference, having lost the last five.

Warriors: All five Warriors starters scored in double figures for the fourth time, with Golden State winning each of those. … The Warriors won 132-100 at Indiana on Jan. 28, getting 39 assists and shooting 54.1 percent and going 13 of 31 on 3s. … Golden State is 27-4 when notching 30 or more assists (32 on Thursday). … Bogut is three regular-season games shy of 700 in 14 seasons.

UP NEXT

Pacers: Host Nuggets on Sunday.

Warriors: Host Mavericks on Saturday night having won 12 straight at home in the series.

Wesley Matthews has game-winning tip as Pacers rally to beat Thunder (VIDEO)

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Wesley Matthews tipped in a basket with 1.8 seconds left and the Indiana Pacers rallied from an 18-point deficit to beat the Oklahoma City Thunder 108-106 on Thursday night.

Domantas Sabonis scored 26 points against his former team, and the Pacers won their second straight by erasing the Thunder’s lead in the final 15 minutes. Indiana’s magic number for clinching a playoff spot is one.

Paul George led the Thunder with 36 points in his second trip back to Indianapolis since a blockbuster trade in July 2017. Russell Westbrook added 19 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists but missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer.

George and the Thunder were in control most of the game.

Indiana crept back into the contest by closing the third quarter on a 16-5 run that included a 46-foot, buzzer-beating heave from Cory Joseph. They made it 88-83 when Sabonis hit the opening basket in the fourth.

After Oklahoma City appeared to steady itself with an 8-2 spurt, the Pacers charged back. They tied it on two free throws from Sabonis and took their first lead since the opening minutes when Myles Turner‘s dunk made it 102-101 with 2:50 to go.

After Bojan Bogdanovic made it 104-101, George tied it with his sixth 3-pointer and broke the tie with two free throws.

Sabonis tied it back up with another layup with 57 seconds left. George turned the ball over twice and slipped while on defense during Indiana’s final possession, leaving Matthews the space to get free for the winning putback.

Matthews had 16 points and seven rebounds.

TIP-INS

Thunder: Westbrook has 27 triple-doubles this season and 131 in his career. … Steven Adams had 17 points and eight rebounds. … Oklahoma City went 3-3 during a stretch in which they played five road games. … The Thunder fell to 6-5 on the second night of back-to-backs this season.

Pacers: Darren Collison had 17 points, six rebounds and seven assists. … The Pacers committed 16 turnovers. … Bogdanovic scored 23 points and extended his streak of consecutive games in double figures to 24 and his career best single-season total of 20-point games to 28. … Tyreke Evans missed his second straight game for personal reasons. Coach Nate McMillan said he expects Evans to travel with the team later this week.

UP NEXT

Thunder: Hosts the Western Conference-leading Warriors on Saturday.

Pacers: Begin a crucial four-game road trip at Denver on Saturday.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports