Monday, June 2, 2014

Pacers need to feel pain of Heat loss

Pacers President Larry Bird asked fans to have patience when the team was in the midst of a rebuilding process a few years ago. And now, despite calls for a new coach, or to make trades to drastically change the roster, Bird needs to be the patient one now.
Frank Vogel will return as the Pacers coach.
He took a step in the right direction by announcing Monday that Coach Frank Vogel will be returning next year. Vogel took the team from mediocre to a legitimate playoff threat in the last four seasons. Has every decision Vogel made been perfect? No. And judging by his press conference Monday, he knows that. There needs to be more variety in the offense, more accountability at both ends of the floor at times, and a willingness to allow the bench to play a little more, too, even if they aren't playing well in a specific game, especially early in the season.
Overall, though, Vogel has grown as a coach, he's all about doing what he thinks needs to be done to win, and yet, he understands that there are a lot of egos involved in managing an NBA basketball team and keeping the players somewhat satisfied. That's something some coaches never get, let alone try to be good at. Vogel will continue to improve with the X's and O's. And hopefully he has a enough respect from his players that if one of them doesn't do what is asked on a particular play, he can take them out for a minute or two to get his point across.
One of the best parts of Vogel's press conference was him saying that everyone needs to improve, and he included himself in that statement. That was a good thing because if Vogel holds himself accountable, then that means the players and other coaches and other staff members in the organization must do so as well.
Hopefully that will lead to Vogel following through with some type of discipline when a player goes off on his own instead of running a play, or when a player doesn't get back on defense after a made free throw allowing the other team to get an easy shot, or when a player throws a sloppy behind the back pass that leads to a turnover when a regular overhead pass would do just fine.
There's no doubt that these things are part of the learning curve for what is largely a young team, when you consider Paul George and Lance Stephenson (who Bird says he really wants to keep) are on the younger side of 25.
It won't take a radical change to make the offense better, just some adjustments. One of the key things will be learning how to make better passes into the post. For as good as Paul George was for much of the year, even when he was at his best, he does not understand how to make a good pass into the post. It has a little bit to do with the angle of the pass and a little bit with learning to wait for the post player (usually either Roy Hibbert or David West) to establish themselves and get good balance. If the team as whole can make that adjustment, it would be a good start in helping Hibbert become an more effective post player on offense.
And the point in all of this is that there are ways for this team to get better without making drastic personnel changes. Remember, sometimes it takes a team a few years to get over that hump and into the finals. It happened with the Pistons backs in the late 1980s and early 1990s, then with the Bulls after that.
And as Vogel mentioned several times in his press conference, there is room for improvement for everyone.
The question that only the Pacers players can answer though is if losing to the Heat in the conference finals for two straight years hurts enough to motivate them to want to be better. Hopefully the sting will be there for another full season. Because if they aren't tired of losing to the Heat yet, then no amount of patience will get them to that elusive next level.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Pacers season ends with resounding dud

The visiting Pacers lost to the Miami Heat 117-92 Friday night in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference Final series. The Heat won the series 4-2 and now await the winner of the Western Conference Finals between San Antonio and Oklahoma City in a quest to win their third straight title.
Forethoughts
The Pacers and David West never found a way to slow down the Heat.
That resounding thud, or maybe I should say dud, was the Pacers season ending with a non-competitive loss in Miami. It wasn't the fact that the Pacers lost all three of their games in Miami in this series that was a big deal, but the fact that they really weren't competitive in the second half of any of those games. That was a big problem. I'm not going to get into finger pointing after this game, but the end result was the Pacers simply could not even match, let alone beat, the Heat in Miami. That dig-in-and-figure-out-how-to-win mentality just wasn't there on the road, and for many games in these playoffs. If someone said at the beginning of the season that the Pacers would lose again to the Heat in the Eastern Finals, it would be disappointing, but not a disaster. But the way they played in these games at Miami was a disaster. The Heat mostly did whatever they wanted, wherever they wanted to do it and whenever they wanted to do it. The homecourt advantage the Pacers talked about and coveted all season, didn't really mean a lot in this series. And there were signs before the playoffs started that it wouldn't. One was when Pacers President Larry Bird signed Andrew Bynum and traded Danny Granger for Evan Turner. It put a dent in the team's psyche and contradicted coach Frank Vogel's words of how much he liked the team he had. It turned out that Bynum got a $1 million for playing in two games and Turner was so inept defensively that he couldn't be trusted to get any kind of significant minutes in the playoffs. The other sign was though, maybe more significant. The Heat didn't really care if they had the homecourt advantage for this series or not. They rested key players in their final two regular season games instead of going all out to earn the top spot in the Eastern Conference. All that meant was that they believed with all confidence they could beat any team in the East, including the Pacers, in a key game on the road. That was a pretty big statement in itself and in the end, like or not, the Heat were right.
Big Plays
Let's just keep this real simple here. On the first play of the game when LeBron James got a layup off the opening tip, but missed and then got his own rebound and put it back in that was a bad sign as no other Pacers hustled back to get the rebound. One seemingly simple play with still over 47 minutes to go, but the Heat were first to the ball all night.
The Ups
Well, Paul George had probably the quietest 28-point second half in a playoff game that you'll ever see and finished with 29 points. The problem was he had only one point in the first half. But at least he didn't stop playing, even though the game was pretty much decided.
The Downs
1) The once defensive-oriented Pacers allowed the Heat to shoot 57 percent in this one. And it was the fourth time in the six games in this series that the Heat shot better than 50 percent. That's not winning defense during the regular season and it's certainly not going to beat many teams in the playoffs either. The Pacers lack of ability to adjust to what the Heat were doing on offense was a glaring theme in this series.
2) Hopefully the Pacers won't blame the referees for the series loss, or talk about how well they played after a defeat. One of the things we learned about some of the Pacers players is that they are pretty good at spreading blame, whether it be on the officials or on the coach. But it's pretty clear they need to take responsibility for what happened in this series. Too many possessions where they didn't hustle back on defense, too many lackadaisical passes that led to turnovers and too many quick shots on offense.
Next Up
The Pacers now will need to evaluate how they can get better to beat the Heat, and if Derrick Rose is healthy next year, the Bulls, too. They have some big questions to ask and answer during the season. Is coach Frank Vogel good enough to get this team to the NBA Finals? Is the bulk of this roster good enough to get to the NBA Finals, no matter who is coaching it? Is Lance Stephenson worth signing to a contract that will likely leave them no flexibility
against the salary cap? Do they need a more pure, traditional type of point guard to run the offense? Those are questions that will be answered in the coming days. All we know for now for sure, and it hurts to say it, but the Heat are still better than the Pacers  . . . without a doubt.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

George rises and Pacers live another day

The Pacers defeated the visiting Miami Heat 93-90 in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals Wednesday night. The Heat lead the series 3-2 with Game 6 in Miami at 8:30 p.m. Friday.
Forethoughts
Paul George scored 21 of his 37 points
in the fourth quarter Wednesday night.
This was all about getting to the next game for the Pacers. They played the second half with a sense of urgency that was needed to keep their season alive against the Heat. The Pacers didn't always make the smartest plays, but they did play with a tremendous amount of heart and they were smart enough to just keep giving the ball to Paul George in the second half. Sure, the Heat didn't have LeBron James on the court for much of this game (only 24 minutes) due to foul trouble, so that's something that can't be counted on every game. But the Heat also can't count on Rashard Lewis making 6 of 9 3-pointers in every game either. So while that doesn't totally even things out, it does at least a little. And maybe some think that Lance Stephenson took the "find a way" mantra a little too far by blowing in James' ear, but even the Heat superstar got a little laugh out of that and if that broke James' concentration for just one possession, then well, OK.  And for the moment, the Pacers get to concentrate on one more game and given the situation they were in, that's all that could be asked of them for now.
The Big Plays
This was a more typical playoff game with big shots being made by both teams down the stretch. One of the big possessions late that went in the Pacers favor was when center Roy Hibbert grabbed an offensive rebound off a Paul George miss and passed the ball back to Paul George for a 3-pointer that gave the Pacers a 91-87 lead with 46.7 seconds left. It turned out to be the last big of several big plays made by George in this one.
The Ups
1) This could pretty much start and end with George. He had one of the better second halves and fourth quarters in Pacers playoff history, scoring 31 points on 12 of 19 shooting for the half and 21 points in the fourth quarter quarter while finishing the game with 37 points. The good thing, too, about this was that George also used his defense to feed his offense with six steals, including some key ones in the second half that led to baskets. It was simply the kind of superstar-like performance the Pacers needed from him, especially when they are struggling on offense and need someone to step up. It's not that they need 37 from him to win every game against the Heat, but George does need to recognize there will be nights in the playoffs and against the Heat where he has to step up  and be the man. And it was nice to see that happen in an elimination game.
2) The Heat had ruled the third quarter in winning three straight in this series, but the third is where the game turned for the Pacers in this one. They outscored the Heat 31-15 and erased an early 11-point deficit in the quarter to lead by seven at the end of the quarter. The Heat shot just 29 percent with six turnovers in the quarter. That's too much bad offense for the defense to not have something to do with it.
3) When the Heat had the ball and trailed by two with 13.6 seconds left, there was some speculation by the TV announcers that the Pacers should take Hibbert out of the game so they could protect the 3-point area better. But having remembered what happened in Game 1 of the series last year, when Hibbert was on the bench when James won the game with a drive to the basket, I was glad to see Pacers coach Frank Vogel leave Hibbert in because a similar play would put the game into overtime. So with Hibbert there to guard the rim this time, James kicked the ball into the corner to Chris Bosh who missed the 3-pointer. It wasn't a bad shot for the Heat to get, but it also wasn't James shooting it and that was a good thing.
The Downs
1) The fact that David West and George combined to miss three free throws late in the game was not good, especially when you are at home. On two occasions the Pacers could have been up by four in the final seconds and not have had to play defense, but in true character for this team, nothing seems to come easily. In all, the Pacers were 13 of 22 from the line, so a little better accuracy there would have the final couple of minutes a little less stressful.
2) The Pacers defense was slightly better in this one, holding the Heat to 45 percent, but the defense was by no means great. The Heat have the ability to draw the Pacers defense into the lane and then find the open shooter in the corner for a 3-pointer. In Game 3 it was Ray Allen and in Game 5 it was Rashard Lewis who hit six 3-pointers. Sure, Lewis draws a bigger player like David West outside the lane where West is not accustomed to playing defense, but also all Lewis can do on offense is shoot 3-pointers and that in itself shouldn't be that hard to guard.
Next Up
The Pacers face the unenviable task of trying to stay alive by winning in Miami. The one thing that might be on their side, in an odd sort of way here, is that the Heat will feel some pressure to win Game 6 because they won't want to come back to Indiana for a Game 7. The other side of the coin though is the Heat are the two-time defending champions and they've been in plenty of pressure situations over the past couple of years so you know they are not going to panic. With James having such an bad night in this one, it would be a surprise if he doesn't come out and assert himself early on in Game 6. The Pacers will have to survive that early push and find a way to dig in make this a game in the fourth quarter. It is true these Pacers seem to embrace the underdog role, so in another sort of odd way, that makes me think they just might have a chance down in Miami Friday night.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Pacers offer little resistance to Heat

The visiting Pacers lost to the Miami Heat 102-90 Monday night in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Heat lead the series 3-1 with Game 5 set for 8:30 Wednesday night in Indiana.
Forethoughts
Yes, it's true if you look at the box score and see that the Pacers were only down five at halftime, but really there was never a time in this game where it looked like the Pacers really had a chance to win. These were two disappointing games in Miami, not simply because the Pacers lost, but because really they didn't put up the kind of consistent challenge that a mature playoff team should in these situations. There have been little mistakes, especially in these last two games, that the defending champions took full advantage of. Whether it was miscommunication on defending the pick and roll, not getting back on defense after a made free throw, not getting the rebound after a good defensive stand, or not doing what works on offense consistently, the Paces simply have not consistently done what they needed to compete at a high level. Sure, the Heat do have LeBron James, and there's no question that he is the best player in the NBA, but the Pacers have allowed too many of his teammates to look better than they really are. The Pacers passion simply did not go with them to Miami. Hopefully it will be with them in Indianapolis.
The Big Plays
The Pacers had no answer for LeBron James
 and the Heat in Monday night's defeat.
There were a lot of them for the Heat in this game, but when they came out and started the second half with an 8-1 run and the Pacers didn't respond, that was pretty much it for this one. Maybe the Heat's dominance was earmarked by James hitting a 3-pointer with the shot clock expiring and David West all over him.
The Ups
1) The two Pacers who did play well in this one were George Hill and Luis Scola. They combined to hit 11 of 18 shots for 27 points. It was the second straight game where Scola provided the Pacers with some much-needed offense off the bench. Maybe we will see some more combinations of Scola on the floor with most of the starters in Game 5.
2) Roy Hibbert didn't do a lot right in this game, but when he kept Ray Allen from continuing on to the basket well after the whistle had blown, it was one of the best things I've seen in these two games in Miami. That kind of attitude from the Pacers is something that should have been happening the whole series.
The Downs
1) If you tried to convince someone that the Pacers are a team built on defense, and they had watched just this series, you would have a losing argument. The Heat shot 46 percent. their worst shooting game of the series and that's not a good thing for the Pacers. Coming in to the series, the Pacers should have hoped that 46 percent would be the Heat's best shooting game of the series.
2) Lance Stephenson is a young and talented player and the Pacers need to find a way re-sign him for next year. However, when it comes to talking about the Heat, whether it's Dwayne Wade and his supposedly bad knees, or getting into LeBron James' head, Stephenson needs to quiet it down.
3) And speaking of Stephenson, he and Roy Hibbert had combined for one point in much of this game, before Stephenson got some late baskets to finish with nine points. The Pacers though, are going to have  hard time winning when both Hibbert and Stephenson give them almost nothing on offense. The Heat are good enough on defense when everyone is contributing, but if two of the starters can't be considered serious threats, then that just makes the job that much easier for the Heat defense.
4) To be clear, the responsibility for the Pacers loss falls squarely on their shoulders. However, there were some calls against the Pacers that were mystifying. It was good that Pacers coach Frank Vogel got a technical to try and get a message across, but I wouldn't have minded him getting thrown out of this one, partly to send a message to the officials, but maybe also light a fire against a team that needs a little jolt right now.
Next Up
The Pacers are now win or stay home mode going into Wednesday. I would hope that they come out with some pride and play their best game of the playoffs because that is likely what they will need to win the game. The problem here is that this isn't coming against a flawed Atlanta team, where the Pacers won two straight to reach the second round. The Heat have shown the ability to withstand significant runs and momentum to stay in games and there's no reason to think they won't play that way again, even though they have the security of going home to play a Game 6 if necessary. Right now, that's all the Pacers can hope for.


Saturday, May 24, 2014

Pacers defense disappears in this loss to Heat

The visiting Pacers lost to the Miami Heat 99-87 Saturday night in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals. The Heat lead the series 2-1 with Game 4 set for 8:30 Monday night in Miami.
Forethoughts
It was a frustrating night for David West and the Pacers Saturday.
The Pacers couldn't keep this one ugly enough. When the announcers are talking about how bad both teams are playing, how there are too many turnovers and nobody can make shots, then well, it seems the Pacers are usually ahead and that's what was going on in the first quarter here when the Pacers pretty much dominated. However, the third quarter, which has been the Pacers best for much of this season, was pretty much the opposite. The Pacers allowed the Heat too many uncontested baskets as Miami hit 11 of 15 shots in the quarter. You simply can't beat anybody when that happens. The biggest shame of all about this game for the Pacers is that early on this was a game that appeared very winnable. The Heat came out flat, scoring just 14 points in the first quarter and the Pacers had the lead up to 15 midway through second.  But the Heat closed the second quarter strong and kept it going into the third and the flatness they had disappeared. Now the Pacers are in a must win situation in Game 4 and face the unenviable task of having to win two straight at some point to win this series, something they could not do last year.
The Big Plays
As always there are a lot of big plays in these games, but when the Heat cut into the Pacers lead by going on an 8-0 run near the end of the first half, and trailed just 42-38 at the half, then they knew they were in the game.
The Ups
1) The Pacers did get good efforts off the bench from Luis Scola and Rasual Butler. They combined for 14 points and were a big reason the Pacers were able to build that 15-point lead in the second quarter.
2) That first quarter, that's the way the Pacers need to play the whole game. They were going to Roy Hibbert and David West inside and the Heat could do nothing to stop them. The Heat shot just 37 percent and had seven turnovers while West and Hibbert combined for 17 points in the quarter and then had just 12 for the rest of the game. That's where the Pacers have the advantage and they need to exploit that throughout the game, not just in the beginning.
The Downs
1) Where is the defense? For the third straight game, the Pacers allowed the Heat to shoot better than 50 percent and in this one, the Heat scored 61 points in the second half. It's one thing to lose to the Heat in a grind-it-out down to the wire type of game where both teams have trouble making baskets. But to lose to them by offering so little resistance, that's the most disappointing thing of all. If I have watch to Dwayne Wade dribble across the lane, then stop and take that little uncontested eight-foot jumper again, I may just throw up. At least force him to make the extra pass or take a difficult shot. It was just way too easy for him and the Heat in general.
2) The Pacers still don't understand that every possession importance. There were sloppy passes at times (see Paul George and Lance Stephenson as Exhibit A) and there was trying to dribble through three defenders at times (see Evan Turner as Exhibit B). They have to understand these behind the back passes just don't fly in the playoffs, and they really don't fly against the Heat. Just good solid regular passes will do fine. It's a hard lesson to learn, but until they do, they are going to have a hard time beating the Heat.
3) This is not calling for coach Frank Vogel's job or anything like that, but it is disappointing to see the Heat do the same thing over and over again on offense and be successful. And it was really disappointing that there wasn't a better game plan to defend Ray Allen in this one, who put the game away for the Heat in the fourth quarter by scoring 13 points by hitting 4 of 4 from 3-point land. Shooting 3-pointers is all Allen can really do these days and there has to be a better plan to cover him when he's in the game.
Next Up
The Pacers have their backs to the wall now and if they don't respond with a better defensive effort they will be in that next to impossible hole to climb out of. I'd be happy if the Pacers put Wade on his behind a couple of times when he comes in the lane just to give him something to think about. Let them be called bullies or thugs or whatever, but if the Pacers don't offer some type of resistance, they are simply not going to win this series. Right now, the Heat have the Pacers defense figured out. It's up to the Pacers to do something at least a little different to confuse them because right now the status quo isn't working.


Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Pacers succumb to Heat in final minutes


The Pacers lost to the visiting Miami Heat 87-83 Tuesday night in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference final series. The series is tied at 1-1 with Game 3 scheduled for 8:30 p.m. Saturday night in Miami.
Forethoughts
This is why Miami is a championship team. No matter how frustrating it was to watch, this one couldn't be blamed on Joey Crawford or any of the other referees. The bottom line is the Pacers offense in the final minutes was not efficient and what look like a possible victory for much of the night turned into a frustrating defeat. The passes were impatient and easy for the defense to read in those final minutes. If the Pacers passers, mainly Paul George a couple of times, had taken their time to read the defense, then they at least could have gotten some decent shots going down the stretch. It was no secret that the Heat were going to come out with more energy on defense and make some adjustments on defending the Pacers in the pick-and-roll. Now, it will be the Pacers turn to make the adjustment. They've got three days to figure out what to do. There are no real secrets between these teams when it comes to strengths and weaknesses of individuals players. Whatever the Pacers to do adjust, it will have be done as a team.
The Big Plays
Lance Stephenson's 25 points weren't enough to lift the Pacers Tuesday.
Well, maybe it wasn't so much one or two plays as much as what happened in the entire fourth quarter. The Heat's LeBron James and Dwyane Wade combined to score 25 points in the final quarter, including spurring a 10-0 run that gave them a seven-point lead with 2:20 to go.
The Ups
1) The biggest shame about this loss is that a great effort by Lance Stephenson did not lead to a win. Stephenson played with confidence and flare and put on the kind of performance a team needs in these type of games. He finished with 25 points on 10 of 17 shooting, with seven assists and six rebounds. He spurred a big third quarter for the Pacers by scoring 10 in the quarter and making the kind of plays that had the crowd completely into the game. Stephenson gave the Pacers more than what they needed to win this one.
2) Sure, many of us were down on Roy Hibbert in some of these Pacers playoff losses, but don't put this one on him. He had 13 rebounds to go with his 12 points on 5 of 9 shooting. And while he had just one blocked shot, it was apparent that when he was in the game, the Heat had trouble getting inside in their set offense.
The Downs
1) The Pacers need more from Paul George in these kind of games. No, he doesn't have to score 39 points, or anything like that, but he does need to know where to pass the ball when he gets double teamed. True, he shot poorly, hitting just 4 of 16 shots from the floor, but what the Pacers really can't live with from him late in games are key turnovers. And he was one of the turnover culprits the helped the Heat to that 10-0 run. The Heat are good enough defensively to make good players have bad shooting nights. But that's no excuse to make bad passes, too. George finished with three turnovers, which is not a lot, but the timing of them was the issue here.
2) This kind of goes hand in hand with the turnover issue as the Heat got some easy baskets off turnovers, but shot better than 50 percent from the field for the second straight game. And typically, if you allow a team to shoot 50 percent, you're not going to win. The Pacers have billed themselves as a defensive team all season. They better make some type of adjustment to get back to that. Also, they must do more to make Wade take more difficult shots if they want to win a game in Miami.
3) The worst thing of all is that now we've got to watch and listen to three-plus straight days of LeBronCenter.
Next Up
The Pacers will try to continue their five-game playoff road winning streak. While they played to get the home court advantage all season, their ability to win on the road is the reason they got this far. It seems they excel most when it's an "us against the world" type of situation. And they'll certainly be in that situation Saturday night with the Heat wanting to establish their home court advantage quickly. One piece of hope the Pacers have is that the Heat were fortunate to beat the Nets in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals in a 96-94 game, so that was not a fear-inspiring performance by the Heat at home either. But nonetheless, the home court is big in the NBA and if the Pacers want to continue that road winning streak, they'll have to have full intensity for the full 48 minutes . . . or more if needed.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Pacers get the upper hand against Heat

The Pacers defeated the visiting Miami Heat 107-96 in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference Finals Series Sunday afternoon. Game 2 will be at 8:30 Tuesday at Banker's Life Fieldhouse.
Forethoughts
Pacers center Roy Hibbert and his teammates had plenty
of reaason to smile after winning Game 1 against the Heat.
I have to admit, this looked almost too easy for the Pacers. They were confident from the outset and the offense looked as good as it has in the last two months. The Pacers last scored more than 107 in a non-overtime was back on Feb. 25 when they hit 118 against the lowly Lakers. The best part about this game is the Pacers played like they knew they were going to win, rather than playing like they were hoping they could win. There are all kinds of reasons why winning Game 1 of a playoff series is important. The Pacers have learned that the hard way in these playoffs. But for this first time this season, the Pacers will not have to win two straight games to win a series. That could be a difficult task in this series and remember neither the Heat nor the Pacers won two straight in this series last year, but the Heat having won the first game last year had the upper hand. And that's just what winning Game 1 means. It guarantees nothing for Game 2 or even for the rest of the series. But does give the Pacers the upper hand, something they've not experienced a lot in these playoffs. The next test now will be to see if they can keep that upper hand Tuesday night. It's important. probably more so against the Heat than any other team they've faced so far, to keep the gas pedal mashed to floorboard. If there's a hint of letting off of it, the Heat certainly know how to take advantage of it.
The Big Plays
There were a couple that stood out in this game.  In the third quarter the Heat made to cut the Pacers gap to nine, but David West hit a jumper to start an 11-2 run that got the lead to 18 points. Then at the end of the first half, the Heat had made an8-0 run to cut the deficit to 11, but the Pacers had the final shot of the quarter and Paul George drove the lane and made a nice pull up jumper to get the cushion back to 13.
The Ups
1) For once, we have to talk about the offense. The mark of a really good team is that it can beat you in more ways than one. The Pacers have made themselves one of the better defensive teams in the league the past couple of years, but have struggled a bit offensively at times. But things were all good on the offensive end for most of this game. The Pacers shot 51 percent and also got to the line 37 times, hitting 29 free throws. The free throw numbers say a lot about how the Pacers were the more aggressive team, taking the ball to the basket and making the Heat react in ways they didn't want.
2) It's true ABC tried to make a bit of an issue about Lance Stephenson saying how he was going to play against the Heat's Dwyane Wade. But I liked what Stephenson said because that shows he has confidence to go out and deliver and that's a big part of winning that battle. Stephenson responded with 17 points, eight assists and four rebounds. Sure, Wade made his presence felt with 27 points, too, on 12 of 18 shooting. So, my guess is his knees are just fine. Expect this to be a key matchup throughout the series.
3) One of the points that Pacers coach Frank Vogel made in a huddle was for the team to play like it was behind by 15. I've often wondered why more coaches don't preach that philosophy to keep a team's intensity level high. The one coach who did this with regularity back in the day was the Philadelphia 76ers' Billy Cunningham, who often implored his team to play like they were down 10 during the 1982-83 playoffs. The Sixers bought into that mantra and won the title. Hopefully the Pacers can buy into that type of attitude as well.
The Downs
1) While the offense was good, the defense left some room for improvement. The Heat shot 51 percent as well. It's rare to see two teams shoot 50 percent or better in the same game, and probably even more rare in the playoffs. When an NBA team shoots better than 50 percent, it almost never loses, so the Pacers were a bit fortunate in that way. The defense will have to be better throughout this series.
2) In case you are wondering just which team ESPN thought would win, we might have seen a hint in the early Sportscenter after the game. ESPN showed a graphic of what the Pacers have done after a loss in recent playoff games, causing the anchor to wonder out loud why that graphic was on the screen. So, you know, it was good to confuse them a bit by winning this one.
Next Up
You can be sure the Heat will come out with a different and more defensive mindset Tuesday night. And, yes, you can bet the Pacers will too. I'd be surprised if either team shoots close to 50 percent in this one. Expect the Heat to try and do more to frustrate Pacers center Roy Hibbert and West. They are both difficult matchups for the Heat and it will be important for the Pacers outside shooters to be confident and accurate again because they are likely going to get plenty more chances in this series.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Pacers turn to West to advance in East

The visiting Pacers defeated the Washington Wizards 93-80 to clinch their Eastern Conference semifinal series 4-2 Thursday night. The Pacers move on to face the Miami Heat in a rematch of last year's Eastern Conference finals, with Game 1 set for 3:30 p.m. Sunday and then Game 2 at 8:30 Tuesday night, both at Banker's Life Fieldhouse.
Forethoughts
This was one of those series that you couldn't really figure out at. The Pacers won just one home game out of three, yet won the series without needing a Game 7. There were certainly times when there was reason to have some doubt about how the Pacers would do in the playoffs. With the exception of winning their final two regular season games against Oklahoma City and Orlando, there wasn't a lot of positive developments that inspired confidence going into the playoffs. And really, even needing seven games to dispatch Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs didn't inspire a lot of confidence either, even though they did win the last two games of the series. The one thing the excellent first half of the season did for the Pacers though was establish a level of play for them to achieve. And they certainly took steps in that direction against the Wizards. OK, Game 5 was completely bizarre with their lack of effort in a clinching game at home, but the Pacers showed some maturity by just forgetting about that one with the way the played Thursday night. In this game it was clear from the beginning that the Pacers were playing with purpose on both the offensive and defensive ends as they won their fifth straight road playoff game, something they have never done before. Now they get another chance to do what they couldn't last year, knock off the defending champion Heat to reach the NBA Finals. And now the Pacers will have the home court advantage they've talked about wanting all season. Let's just hope they use it wisely.
The Big Plays
David West had 29 points in the Pacers
clinching win in Washington Thursday.
The Wizards, after trailing for much of the game, made their run to take a 74-73 lead at the 6:31 mark of the fourth quarter and it looked like we might have a nail biter here. But the Pacers went on a 12-2 run and took all of the drama out of this one. David West hit back to back jumpers to get it going, then Lance Stpehenson, Paul George and George Hill each made key baskets in the run that ultimately clinched this series.
The Ups
1) It's obvious that you have to start with David West here. The numbers were all there with 29 points, six rebounds and four assists. And West made several key shots in the second half when he scored 18 of his points that kept the Wizards from going on key runs. As I've said before, he's there best clutch player and really it was no surprise to see him deliver in key situations in this one. But West's best move of the night didn't involve a shot, or a rebound, or an assist. It was in the third quarter after Paul George made one of his sloppy behind the back passes that led to a turnover and a Wizards fast break. After the ensuing foul, West went to George and in no uncertain terms told him to stop throwing that kind of pass and to just throw a normal pass that would work just as well. Yes, leadership is about making big shots, but it's also reminding teammates to play the right way for the good of the team.
2) Sure the Pacers have prided themselves on defense for much of the season, but let's talk about the offense in this one. The Pacers shot 51 percent and they've lost only once this year when shooting 50 percent or better. It is especially important to shoot for a decent percentage against the Wizards though because if you make a shot they can't get their fast break going. And one other thing about the offense in this series, with Roy Hibbert's 28 points in Game 2, Paul George's 39 in Game 4 and West's 29 Thursday, that's three different players that came up with big games in wins. Maybe that's as good of a sign as any that this team is at least close to its early season form.
3) No, there wasn't a triple-double watch on for Stephenson in this one, but he did finish with 17 points, eight assists and five rebounds. And he also had his share of key baskets in the third and fourth quarters that added to the Pacers lead. Maybe the best number in Stephenson's box score line came under the turnover category where he had just one.
The Downs
1) I'm still never comfortable when the Pacers have Evan Turner in the game. Forget the defensive issues for a moment, he still doesn't understand the value of every possession in a playoff game. In the first half he tried to throw an alley-oop pass to George when George would have had to make a remarkable play just to get the ball as a defender was on him. You want to try that in a regular season game when your up 10 in the first half, OKm but it's not a great play then either. But in the playoffs, when one possession can make all the difference in a series or season, that's a problem.
 2) On the Wizards side for a second, they have some legitimate hope for the future with their guards John Wall and Bradley Beal. They could make a nice tandem for years to come. But they still have to learn not to panic and start shooting 3-pointers when they get down by six or eight points with four or five minutes left in a game. They will likely learn someday, but that's something they'll have to adjust later in their careers.
3) Before Game 3 in this series, ESPN's Bill Simmons said the Wizards were the better team and would win three straight. So, now let's just hope he picks the Heat to win the the conference finals.
Next Up
Here we go again. The Heat got an extra day of rest as they dispatched the Nets 4-1 in their second round series. At this point, that's not really a big deal. Just what the Pacers do with this home court advantage will be a big deal. Having lost two of three at home to the Wizards, the one thing the Pacers need to do against Miami is establish that home court edge they had most of the season. To be frank, after watching what the Wizards did to the Pacers in Game 5, the Heat really have no reason to be fearful of playing in Indiana. It will be the Pacers job to change that. As we all know, the Heat have the best one-man fast break in the game with LeBron James. The question will be how to defend LeBron and Miami? Do you let, in sort of an odd way, LeBron go score all he wants and try to hold down Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh, or do you try to keep LeBron under some type of control and make one those other guys beat you? There's no real tried and true answer here. It's game-by-game and even a possession-by-possession thing. I'm not sure how this will play out in terms of who will win more home games, but I'm saying this one will go seven games, with the Pacers taking advantage of something they wanted all season and going to the NBA Finals.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Yes, it was that bad for the Pacers

The Pacers lost to the visiting Washington Wizards 102-79 Tuesday night in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. The Pacers still lead the series 3-2 with Game 6 scheduled for 8 p.m. Thursday night in Washington.
Forethoughts
Tuesday's game was tough to watch for anyone affiliated with the Pacers.
When watching the game last night, it was hard to believe the Pacers were even a playoff team, let alone a team that had won a first-round series and won three of the previous four games against the Wizards. It was that bad. The Wizards were better in every facet of the game . . . by a lot. It was kind of like that Kevin Durant movie "Thunderstruck" where a young non-athletic boy and Kevin Durant accidentally get their basketball skills transferred to each other . . . only this time it happened collectively as a group. The Pacers will likely go on and win this series, though I say with some trepidation now. But the long-term message that it sends to the Heat, and not that they need any type of confidence boost, is that there is no reason to have any fear about playing in Indiana. The Pacers talked often about their goal of gaining the No. 1 seed in the East this year just so they could have home advantage in the playoffs and specifically against the Heat. But when you see efforts, or a collective lack of effort, like there was Tuesday night, it doesn't matter which court a team plays on, it's not going to beat anybody. Pacers fans can only hope their team rediscovers their game sometime before Thursday night.
Big Plays
It all started going to downhill in the second quarter and bled over deep into the third. The Pacers were down 36-35 at the 3:47 mark of the second. Then in the next 13:01, the Wizards outscored the Pacers 30 to 12, leading 66-47 at the 2:46 mark of the third.
The Ups
1) Luckily, this counts just a one loss in the NBA playoff system and large margins of victory or defeat mean nothing going into the next game.
The Downs
1) There are a lot of different ways to go here, but we'll start with defense, or the lack of it. The Wizards shot 50 percent from the field, but they also had 18 offensive rebounds while killing the Pacers on the boards 62-23. Those are video-game type of numbers, you know when you can stack one team with good players so you can roll over a much weaker opponent. The defense and rebounding go hand-in-hand here, and the lack of both of those was a primary reason why this game wasn't close.
2) I get that Wizards center Marcin Gortat didn't play in the fourth quarter of Game 4, so maybe the Pacers just forget he was on the opposing team. At least it appeared that way as Gortat had his way with the Pacers, going what I call vintage Bill Walton on them, hitting 13 of 15 shots from the floor for 31 points and grabbing 16 rebounds alone, just seven less than the Pacers had as a team. And it didn't matter if Pacers center Roy Hibbert, power forward David West or reserve center Ian Mahinmi were on Gortat. They could do nothing to slow him down.
3) True, when Pacers coach Frank Vogel gave the team Monday off, it didn't seem like a bad idea at the time. No one was really first-guessing that move. But in this world of second-guessing, I'm sure Vogel and his players wish they would have had some kind of light practice. I mean, it couldn't hurt that much could it?
Next Up
The Pacers will now be faced with the task of trying to win one of the next two games. The fact that they have won four straight road playoff games, including their last two in Washington, offers some hope. And the fact that they are such a Jekyll and Hyde team, means there is at least some reason to believe that they can bounce back and play well again in Washington. Again though, the Wizards will come out loose and have a nothing-to-lose attitude. If the Pacers just let them do as they wish, offering only a little resistance, then you can rest assured there will be a Game 7. But if there's one thing we can learn from this series, you can never be sure of anything.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Pacers relish road warrior role

The visiting Pacers defeated the Washington Wizards 95-92 Sunday night to take a 3-1 lead in their Eastern Conference semifinal playoff series. Game 5 will be at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Forethoughts
Paul George had 39 points, including 28
in the second half, in Sunday's win at Washington.
The Pacers took complete control of this series by doing what they did for much of the first half of the season . . . completely controlling the third quarter of this game. There will always be those NBA naysayers who will point to the last two minutes of  a game being all that matters in the league, but if they missed the third quarter in this game then they missed some key moments as the Pacers won the quarter 33-17. Also, no matter how many post-game and pre-game commentators debate on whether the Pacers are back or not, they've done something in these playoffs that no other team has done this year: That's win four straight road playoff games. And it doesn't matter what seed you are playing against, or what the situation is, that's not something easily done in the NBA, where playing at home is a bigger advantage than in the NFL, Major League Baseball or the NHL. There are thousands of voices there rooting for the home team and when a team has that kind of vocal backing it often believes it can accomplish anything. The road team has only itself to reinforce each other in moments of doubt. What the Pacers have done in these last two games in Washington shows that this Pacers team has plenty of belief in itself. And sure, we were all worried on some level after the Pacers late-season struggles and the difficult time they had beating Atlanta in the first round of the playoffs. Now the main worry is just to eliminate Washington in Game 5 Tuesday night, and that's a pretty good concern to have.
The Big Plays
There were two key stretches in this game. First, the Pacers, being down 68-51 with six minutes left in the third quarter, used a 17-2 run to get back into this one and were down 72-71 to end the third. Then they were down 85-76 with 7:09 to go and then used a 16-6 run to take the lead for good at 92-91 on two Paul George free throws with 1:47 to go.
The Ups
1) And speaking of Paul George, this was certainly a reminder of what he did in the first half season at times, taking over a game when his team really needed him. He finished with 39 points, including 28 points in the second half on 7 of 10 shooting, including 6 of 8 from 3-point land. It's hard to get much better than that. The way he played in this one reminded me of that 43-point game at Portland earlier in the season, but this one was better because the Pacers lost that game in Portland, but they won this one and this is the playoffs. Let's not forget too that George continued his strong rebounding in the playoffs (he's averaging 9.7 rebounds in the postseason) with 12 in this one.
2) The second-half defense was what we saw for the whole game on Friday, but we'll take this anyway. The Pacers were lulled into a bit of an offensive game early on Sunday night, as both teams shot well early. That free-flowing running-up-and-down style works for Washington, but generally not for a full game for the Pacers. After Washington shot 54 percent in the first half, helped by 18 fast break points, they shot just 35 percent in the second half with zero fast break points. The Pacers also outrebounded the Wizards 24-14 overall in the second half and allowed the Wizards just two offensive rebounds in the second half.
3) Pacers center Roy Hibbert, too, was a big part of that defensive and rebounding effort. He finished with 17 points and nine rebounds and was active on the defensive with two blocked shots while also changing several shots just with his presence. The fact that the opponents' defense now has to respect Hibbert after three straight strong games also probably coincides with the fact that George is getting at least a few more open looks a game. With Hibbert being a legimate threat now, it makes the Pacers a hard team to beat.
4) Andrew Bynum's official exit from the team has coincided with three straight wins and three straight strong games from Hibbert. Coincidence or not, it's hard to ignore that fact.
The Downs
1) The final minute was actually much more interesting than it should have been in this game. First, Pacers point guard George Hill had an open look and decided to make one more pass just after Lance Stephenson had vacated the corner, leading to a turnover. Then, Stephenson secured the rebound with a three-point lead in the final seconds, only to panic and throw the ball toward George, only to have it stolen by Beal, who was fouled by George. Beal missed one of the two free throws as the Pacers led 94-92. Then Hill was fouled with 6.8 seconds left, but hit just one of two free throws, giving the Wizards some hope. If the Pacers make the right play in any one of those situations, we wouldn't have needed the last second drama.
2) On the Wizards side of this for a second, the Pacers had the ball out of bounds with 1.7 seconds left and once they got it in, the Wizards, down three, didn't foul. And yes, it's true the Wizards were out of timeouts and it would have taken a miracle to get some kind of decent shot off in the event of two missed free throws, don't they at least have to try?
3) Part of the pregame in-depth analysis by ESPN's Bill Simmons on what the Wizards needed to do to win was to play better and make their open shots. Yes, genius stuff.
Next Up
The Pacers will look to clinch this series at home Tuesday night. And for all of the talk on whether the Pacers are really back or not, Charles Barkley made a valid point on the TNT post-game show. He said if the Pacers want to really prove they are back to their mid-season form, they must close out the series in Game 5. The Wizards certainly looked deflated in those final seconds Sunday night and losing two straight at home in the playoffs will do that to a team. But I expect they will come out with a nothing-to-lose attitude Tuesday, ready to push the pace again and fire away. The Pacers are a team that some (I'm talking mostly ESPN and TNT talking heads) are not sure they can believe in yet. A convincing win in Game 5 would take away all doubt.