Tuesday, May 27, 2014
"What's wrong with the Pacers?" That's been the question of the 2014 playoffs. They became an unexpected thorn in the sides of the Miami Heat during the 2012 playoffs. The Pacers showed the maturity of a veteran team and played with tremendous confidence and chemistry. There was no pressure two years ago because there were no expectations.
The Pacers were still the underdogs in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat. They pushed Miami to seven games and fell just short of the Finals. Once again, they were unencumbered with the pressure of expectation and played valiantly.
Jump cut to the 2013-14 season. The Pacers confidently declared they would earn the top seed and capture home court advantage for the 2014 playoffs. They were open about wanting the Heat's crown, and for most of the regular season, there were many who thought they would take it.
Is it Paul George's fault?
George spent the last two seasons as one of the rising stars in the NBA. His playoff production, especially against LeBron James and the Heat, had him in top five conversations. He was well-mannered, good looking and composed for his age. Praise was heaped, endorsements were signed and big things were expected.
Maybe it was youth or maybe it was the pressure, but George began making bad decisions off the court. It began with impregnating a stripper while dating the daughter of Doc Rivers. The incident was compounded by the stripper's claim that George offered her $1 million to get an abortion. Not long after, George had nude photos of himself leaked on the internet as the apparent "victim" of a catfish scheme.
George was/is the team leader as their best player. He built his reputation with poise in crunch time, but damaged it with impetuous acts off the court. George's production has been pretty good in the playoffs, more than most of his teammates can say, but his clean image was tarnished. As a team leader he is responsible for more than what he does on the stat sheet. If rumors are to be believed, he played a big part in teammate Roy Hibbert's production drop off.
The 7'2" gentle giant is a mismatch nightmare for the Heat. He always saves his best games for Miami and is the biggest weapon the Pacers had against the defending champs. The Pacers slide at the end of the season and struggles in the playoffs can be directly related to Hibbert's stat line. He has had six scoreless games in the playoffs and looked broken as a player. He is a seven foot all-star who wasn't scoring and worse yet, wasn't rebounding.
The only glimpse of what might have caused such a change in his play and demeanor came from an internet rumor that claimed George slept with one of Hibbert's side girls. Whether there's any truth to it or not, he certainly looked like someone who had their feelings hurt by a friend.
Hibbert's poor play picked up in their second round series against the Washington Wizards and carried into the Eastern Conference Finals. He had a very favorable +/- in the first three games against the Heat before tossing up a goose egg last night. Without a dominant Hibbert, the Pacers cannot win against the Heat.
It takes about one look to see the wildness in Stephenson's eyes and they do not deceive. He is the definition of volatile using raw emotion as his greatest blessing and curse. He can be the Pacers most productive player in one game and the reason they lose the next. His ascension as a player seems to have divided the locker room. His teammates get frustrated with his mouth, his antics and his selfish play.
His mouth has been his main detriment against the Heat. He began the series by stating he planned on running Dwayne Wade enough to make his knee "flare up." Stephenson is a good young player but targeting Wade is ill advised.
When some suggested he shouldn't give the Heat bulletin board material, he went a step further by saying he had exposed a weakness in James' game by baiting him into trash talking. Those comments were followed by James' best game of the playoffs and Stephenson's worst.
Stephenson actually did an interview where he described the difference between "Good Lance" and "Bad Lance." Last night, "Bad Lance" made an appearance both on and off the court.
Bird was responsible for shaping the ascent of the Pacers through keen drafting and savvy free agent signings. This season he made some trade deadline moves that seemed to change team chemistry. He parted ways with long time Pacer favorite Danny Granger in favor of volume shooter Evan Turner to bolster bench scoring. He also signed notoriously bad teammate Andrew Bynum who was cut at the beginning of the playoffs. Coincidence or not, team chemistry became miserable almost immediately after making these moves. Turner and Stephenson had a fist fight the day of their first playoff game (a loss).
There's other blame to go around. Some may point to Frank Vogel not being able to reach his players. I would say the resilience the Pacers showed with adversity in the first two rounds should be credited to Vogel, so it's hard for me to buy into that. Still, he is the coach and some of his substitutions have been baffling.
But, this series isn't about substitutions. This series is about, "what's wrong with the Pacers?" Now down 3-1, the Pacers season appears to be over. They're not going to beat the Heat in three straight games unless they wake up in 2013. The 2013 Pacers were hungry, unflinching and made no excuses when they lost (other than not having home court). Here's what the 2014 Pacers say after a loss:
George flat out blamed the refs.
In a game where the Heat led by 23 in the fourth quarter, George, the Pacers star and leader, blamed the refs. There is no lamer excuse in sports. None. Instead of a focused message of regrouping, the standard line of we are focused on the next game, we'll take it one game at a time, or we believe we can win, George went with the "home cooking" excuse.
After being asked if he regretted giving the Heat bulletin board material, Stephenson had no remorse. He simply doesn't get it and the Pacers will probably let another team inherit Bad Lance.
Hibbert blamed the coach.
With a twist on George's approach, Hibbert blamed Vogel when asked about his lack of production. His reason for not scoring in 21 minutes of play was because of the coach's "game plan." He chose not to take responsibility. He chose to point the finger.
The Pacers are broken. The last two series against the Heat were tense. Miami fans hated the Pacers because they appeared to be a legitimate threat. Most frightening was their composure. Every time the Heat gained momentum, the Pacers had an answer.
Pressure does a funny thing to athletes. Some thrive, some flail and others learn. The Pacers have collapsed. They aren't the team they were for the majority of the season. They aren't the team they were last season. A once likable group of young men on the rise, the Pacers have become a disgraceful bunch of peevish drek.
Thursday, May 22, 2014
I was set to publish before the Oklahoma City Thunder were decimated in the first two games of their series against the San Antonio Spurs. I'm certainly not ready to back off my previous post in which I postulated the Thunder would win the series even without Serge Ibaka, but it's not looking good at the moment.
Two years ago the Thunder were in the same position they find themselves now. After losing the first two games against the Spurs, the Thunder rallied to win four straight games and the Western Conference. Just like this year, the Spurs looked invincible the first two games in San Antonio. So it's not time to panic in OKC, but it's close...
There weren't many positives to take from game two, but one I saw was a competent interior defense when Steven Adams and Kendrick Perkins were on the floor together.
So how will the Thunder get back in this series?
- Enjoy being at home. They will need all the energy they can glean from the sixth man in game three. It probably feels like a month since the Thunder have been in OKC. The familiar confines can help struggling players get back into rhythm.
- Stars have to play like stars. Durant has to be more aggressive and Westbrook has to play smarter. The team will go as they do (as they should) but they have to play with a better mindset. Even if their shots aren't falling, they have to make positive contributions. Durant has to play like the MVP for the rest of the series for the Thunder to have any chance.
- Someone else has to step up. Thabo Sefolosha, Nick Collison, Caron Butler, Derrick Fisher (who played well game one), or someone unexpected has to make a contribution. After the first quarter it didn't look like a single player had confidence in their jump shot. Reggie Jackson has played decent but he needs to be a difference maker off the bench the rest of the series.
- Play team defense. To this point, Ibaka's absence has been felt greatly. Instead of moping, the Thunder need to rally around each other. Defense is 90 percent effort and it simply hasn't been there. The whole teams needs a gut check about the type of consistent effort they are prepared to give on the defensive end.
- Scott Brooks has to coach better. It is way too late to create a new offense, but when OKC's stars aren't making amazing individual plays, the whole offense falls flat. As a coach, Brooks has to counter with some set plays when he sees the offense breaking down to take some pressure off of Westbrook and Durant. He also needs to set the tone for their defensive effort. He can't give minutes to players that are unwilling or unable to give defensive effort. I think Collison should resume his standard role off the bench replaced with Adams. Collison hasn't looked like himself as a starter and Adams size disrupted several possessions, especially against Tim Duncan. Whatever Brooks decides to change or whatever message he tries to sell, it is his job to find the answers. Luckily, he gets three days to get his guys ready.
- Relax. Take it one game at a time. The Thunder have come from behind in this series against this opponent recently. A Thunder win in OKC will restore balance in the series. Two wins would put the pressure back on the Spurs. Even though things look bleak, a win in game three can erase that. They know they're good. It's time to relax, set the tone and play Thunder basketball.
Before any of that can happen, both stars have an emotional series to win. No one outside of Indiana and San Antonio wants to see a Spurs/Pacers Finals. I hope the two best players in the game can save us from that torment and help write a much more interesting NBA future.
Monday, May 19, 2014
Okay, you get the point. The San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder face off in the Western Conference Finals in what has become a classic rivalry between talent and experience. The veteran, multi-champion Spurs have shared Western Conference dominance with the Los Angeles Lakers for the last 17 years. Now that the Lakers are rebuilding (don't tell Kobe), the Thunder have taken their place. A rematch of the 2012 Western Conference Finals begins tonight.
The Spurs don't get the credit they deserve, but everyone acknowledges they don't get the credit they deserve. Isn't that credit enough? I think so. I have compared them to basketball's version of vegetables. We know they are good for us, but they aren't much fun to consume. Fundamental basketball? Come on. We want dunks and flashy passes and 30 foot three pointers. You know who does that? The Oklahoma City Thunder. You know who doesn't care? The Spurs.
The future is now for the Thunder. Two years ago they beat the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals but fell short to the Heat for a championship. Last season they lost Russell Westbrook to injury in the playoffs. This season many fans felt the Thunder would fulfill their championship destiny. They won all four games against the Spurs this season, survived the rival Memphis Grizzlies (with a little help from Steven Adams iron chin), were galvanized by Kevin Durant's MVP speech and used a miracle comeback against the hated Los Angeles Clippers in game five to advance to the Western Conference Finals.
The future is now for the Thunder, but their run of good luck ended with an injury to Serge Ibaka that will sideline him for the rest of the playoffs (assuming the Thunder trainers are being truthful about the severity).
Ibaka has been a critical piece to the success of the Thunder. As a knock down jump shooter, he provides spacing for Durant and Westbrook to attack the paint, but his critical contributions come defensively. He is one of the best shot blockers in the NBA and is versatile enough to cover a variety of players. The Thunder aren't a defensive team, so losing arguably their best defender will be tough to overcome. Fortunately, Nick Collison is playing great basketball and Adams has emerged as a real post presence. The Thunder have the firepower to cover up Ibaka's scoring and the depth to pull together as a defensive unit.
If the series came down to coaching, you can book the Spurs in the NBA Finals. While coaching is more important in the playoffs, the NBA is still a players league and the best two players wear blue. Westbrook has dominated his matchups against Tony Parker and he is one of the few players that can limit Parker's penetration. Ball security and shot selection will be paramount (as it always is) for the Thunder. They can't turn the ball over and expect the Spurs to return the favor. Nor can they leave wide open three point shooters.
The Spurs have a variety of role players that can drain threes including Patty Mills who has added a very dangerous element to San Antonio's offense. Tim Duncan needs to exploit Ibaka's absence and have a big series for the Spurs. It will be up to Kawhi Leonard to slow Durant and up to Popovich to slow Westbrook since the Spurs have no individual matchup that is favorable against him.
We know what to expect from the Spurs. We don't know what to expect from the Thunder. Should each team play their absolute best, the Thunder's best is better than the Spurs. I got the Thunder in seven. Whatever the case, it's sure to be a thrilling chapter to what is becoming one of the best rivalries in the NBA.
Coming soon: Why a Lebron/Durant Finals rematch is the best case scenario for the future of the NBA.
Sunday, May 18, 2014
The second round of the NBA playoffs did not offer the intrigue that the first round provided. It passed in a blur leaving few memorable moments with the exception of the Thunder/Clippers series. And now that the second round is history, who do we have left? The four teams everyone expected before the season began. I don't think it's bad to have the top seeds advance to the conference finals, but it does feel anticlimactic after the all the near shake ups in the first round. Still, both matchups are tasty.
Since LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined the Heat, the Pacers have been part of their story. It has been an unlikely pairing as the Heat's main threat and rival was originally the Boston Celtics. A team with their own Big Three and a championship.
James and the Heat defeated the Celtics en route to the NBA Finals their fist season together but lost in the finals to the Dallas Mavericks. After the loss, the scrutiny of James and the Heat was relentless. They had to win a championship in 2012.
The 2013 conference finals was the coming out party for the Pacers. They battled the Heat to the brink of elimination and appeared to be the better team for most of the series. The Heat won in seven games and went on to win another championship. The 2014 Eastern Conference Finals gives the Pacers their third act in the Miami Heat's journey for history.
After the loss in last year's conference finals, the Pacers vocalized their desire for a rematch. They believed they would have won the series if game seven was played in Indiana. They began this season with the goal to win home court advantage and set up another showdown with the Heat. Their quest to secure home court advantage was almost derailed by erratic play the last six weeks of the regular season. Poor chemistry and locker room issues nearly cost them in the opening round series against the Atlanta Hawks. After being lauded the majority of the season, the Pacers received their first real dose of scrutiny and it nearly tore them apart.
It doesn't matter now. The Pacers achieved every goal they set to this point in the season. They wanted the conference finals rematch with the Heat, they wanted home court advantage, they got both.
The Pacers distaste for the Heat is well chronicled and I expect to see their best basketball of the playoffs. Their earlier struggles reveal some vulnerability that the Heat will try to exploit. It will be important for both teams in this series to seize momentum immediately.
The Heat do not match up well with the Pacers, but James creates his own matchup problems. The Paul George/James matchup will be fun to watch as George is one of the few players athletic and long enough to disrupt James' offense. The Heat are the much more cohesive unit offensively and for once are probably dealing with less distractions than their opponent. I believe the Pacers will play better than most think they will, but I don't think it will be enough.
The Heat could win the Eastern Conference for a fourth straight season. The last team to do that was the Celtics in the mid 1980s. They are also two series away from a third straight NBA championship. When James came to Miami he talked about making history with the Heat and was mocked for it (not three...). A three-peat would justify many of the inflammatory declarations so many were quick to ridicule. The importance of the moment will not be lost on anyone in the Heat locker room, especially not James.
I do expect home court to help the Pacers and the Heat will have to play better basketball to win the series. Game one will be especially important to set a tone. If Miami goes into Indiana and has success, the Pacers could get buried. However, if the Pacers take care of business and establish the paint, their confidence will be fully restored after a rough couple months. When it's all said and done, the best player in the series plays for the Heat. That's why the Heat will win.
Monday, May 5, 2014
The result of five dramatic game sevens was zero upsets. The favorites won every series and as thrilling as the first round was, there was really nothing thrilling about who advanced.
I was happy to see the Clippers and Thunder advance providing a titillating second round matchup. Kevin Durant and Blake Griffin. Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul. Serge Ibaka and Deandre Jordan. Both teams are high scoring, star studded, and despise each other. What's not to like? Durant should collect his MVP trophy during the series which could add even more fuel to the fire.
As for the rest of the drama, there was none.
Indiana looked most likely to get upset in the first round. They have played awful for over a month. An eight seed with a losing record forced them into two elimination games. Some hypothesized locker room turmoil is to blame for Indiana's baffling descent. Whatever the case, they found a way to pull it together and move on.
San Antonio didn't play their best basketball until game seven against the Dallas Mavericks. As incredible as the Greg Popovich era has been, first round struggles in the playoffs aren't uncommon. They were victims of a miracle shot by Vince Carter to lose game three, but it never felt like the series was out of their control.
So after all the excitement, all of the heavy favorites move on. Will the second round be as good as the first? I believe it will be.
Indiana Pacers vs. Washington Wizards
Anyone who watched the Pacers the last month can't feel great about their chances. The Wizards backcourt is youthful but budding and they have a veteran presence in the paint with Marcin Gortat and Nene. Roy Hibbert struggled terribly against Atlanta and now faces Nene who just destroyed Joakim Noah (while Noah was accepting his Defensive Player of the Year award).
Paul George is the best player in the series and the Pacers enjoy a much deeper bench, but the Wizards are definitely playing better as a unit. It will take an enormous individual effort by George to advance the Pacers to the Eastern Conference Finals, a place nearly everyone assumed they would be when the season started.
Wizards in 6
The Heat have rested over a week awaiting the Nets. The Nets have one day to rest before game 1. Advantage Miami. Some teams lose rhythm after a long lay off between series but that shouldn't be a problem for the veteran Heat.
As for the veteran Nets, I would expect their first round series to take its toll. Adrenalin will help in the first game, but expect Miami to be much more energetic the remainder of the series. The Heat need Dwyane Wade to emerge this series and be a serious contributor to win another championship.
The Nets won all four games against the Heat during the regular season but Miami plays at a different speed in the playoffs. Without Brook Lopez, the Nets will have to play out of their mind to get the upset.
Heat in 6
San Antonio Spurs vs. Portland Trailblazers
San Antonio was the popular pick to win the NBA championship entering the playoffs. They finished with the best regular season record and looked to be firing on all cylinders. Portland was probably overlooked as a true contender because their defensive efficiency ranks at the bottom of the NBA.
Neither team followed script for their first round matchup. San Antonio looked sluggish against Dallas and were forced to play way more minutes than they would have liked. Portland played a thrilling series against Houston and looked unstoppable offensively.
The Blazers are younger and more rested. Damian Lillard and Lemarcus Aldridge will make life miserable for San Antonio defenders in what should be another high scoring series for Portland. Young legs are good, but there's no substitute for experience. The Spurs are a better team with a better coach.
Spurs in 7
Oklahoma City Thunder vs. Los Angeles Clippers
There's no relief for either team after an emotional first round series. Both teams were pushed to the brink of elimination and are stronger for overcoming adversity. They both boast multiple stars and potent offenses. This might be the most even matchup in the second round. I wonder who will get ejected? My guess is there will be at least two.
As far as analysis, the Thunder have home court and Kevin Durant. The Clippers do not. I could break down the Clippers superior bench and interior presence. I could talk about the Thunder's unreliable defense, but all things being equal, Durant is far and away the best player in the series.
Thunder in 7
Friday, May 2, 2014
Kevin Durant has not played well based on his own MVP expectations. The Thunder have struggled in late game situations and Durant has been frustrated by Tony Allen and the Grizzlies defense. They have lost three of four overtime games this series including game 5 in which Durant missed a critical free throw and went 0-8 behind the three point line.
I don't want to break down the series or what Durant has or hasn't done. What happened next is what really interests me. The Oklahoman ran the headline Mr. Unreliable in reference to Durant's play in the series. It caused an obvious uproar and the Oklahoman actually ran an apology to the headline that "missed its mark."
As a journalist, I'm supposed to be outraged at the apology. New York and Los Angeles criticize their stars on a daily basis. Why should Oklahoma or Durant be any different? Even if the backlash wasn't intended, you absolutely can't print an apology. It is the job of beat writers to print objective criticism not be fan boys waving pom poms.
As a journalist, I'm supposed to support the headline and hate the apology, but I don't.
My initial reaction was one of a fan. At least, what I thought a fan reaction would be. It was a quick text exchange with a die hard Thunder fan that really left me stunned and inspired me to write this post. I was shocked that Durant was not untouchable by local media and surprisingly, my friend didn't feel that he should be. He reminded me that Oklahoma City is one of the kindest media outlets to their local teams in the country. If Durant were to leave and play for the Knicks he would face similar criticism regularly. So criticism is fair when it's...fair.
I disagree. I believe Durant should be given unconditional support by everyone in Oklahoma City including the media. Let me be very clear with my feelings:
Oklahoma City does not deserve Kevin Durant.
I don't mean the fans don't deserve him. I'm not saying the city hasn't been good to him. I'm saying it's Oklahoma City.
1. Kevin Durant is a transcendent talent.
2. Kevin Durant will be the MVP.
3. Kevin Durant is a model citizen.
4. Kevin Durant has left tons of money on the table by playing in OKC.
5. The Thunder will never be as good as they are now if Kevin Durant leaves.
If Durant gets criticized in Los Angeles or New York he would still be in Los Angeles or New York. I'm not saying OKC is a bad place to live but as a young millionaire on top of the world, would you stay? Thunder fans are mistaken if they think Durant doesn't have grander aspirations than being a big fish in a small pond. He didn't sign with Jay Z to blend in.
If Durant played in New York his endorsement income would double. I understand money isn't everything. At some point rich is rich, but can you really just ignore millions of dollars? Athletes have a responsibility to earn everything they can. They live a life where their earning potential ends well before standard retirement age. OKC is not New York, not Los Angeles, not Dallas, not Washington D.C. Durant stayed in OKC because he was young and comfortable with his surroundings. He's older now, he's an MVP and he's tasted the Finals. He's growing up and he will outgrow OKC.
If the Thunder don't produce a championship before Durant becomes a free agent OKC can kiss him goodbye. Trying to keep him would be akin to asking the future #1 draft pick to stay in college. It doesn't make sense. That's why I think the media and everyone else should kiss his ass every step he takes. When he plays great, tell him he's the greatest. When he struggles, help pick him up off the mat. Never say a disparaging word, much less call him Mr. Unreliable. Shower Durant with love to hopefully make the decision to leave a little more difficult. Leave the criticism to the national media. ESPN and others will make sure to point out when Durant isn't getting it done. OKC should provide a safe haven. His happiness in Oklahoma is bigger than this season.
Some might argue that he responded to the headline by playing his best game of the series, and therefore the criticism was effective. An elimination game was all the motivation Durant and the Thunder needed, not a stupid headline.
The bottom line: OKC needs to understand what and who they are. I would be scared to death of any headline, interview or fan comment that might upset Durant. Like it or not, he is sensitive. Like it or not, that headline bothered him and his mom. Like it or not, OKC is held hostage to his talent. Durant is the ultra hot girlfriend and OKC is the nerd that doesn't deserve her. Sorry. It's true. How should that nerd respond? Worship the ground she walks on and do anything that makes her happy because he knows he will never do better. Just be glad she likes you and don't screw that up.
Here's what happens if the Thunder lose tomorrow:
1. Scott Brooks get fired. It's not necessarily Sam Presti's style to give up on Brooks. He likes to stay the course and has shown he is capable of surprises (ask James Harden), but the pressure to keep Durant will force his hand. Brooks will appear as a modern day Doug Collins who took Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls as far as he could, but it took Phil Jackson to take them to the promised land. On top of that pressure, plenty if not most of the blame should fall on Brooks for failing in the first round. Four overtime games in a row and the Thunder only pulled out one. Not good. They have no direction late in games and forgo set plays for individual plays. In many instances they couldn't get the ball in Durant's hands. Durant described himself as a "decoy" and said he needs to get a rebound to get a touch late. That's not a vote of confidence for Brooks.
2. Russell Westbrook comes under attack. Westbrook faces the lions share of criticism in OKC. In many instances it is deserved. His athleticism is unquestioned but his judgment isn't always stellar. His belief in his game is his greatest strength and weakness. The chemistry between Westbrook and Durant will be over analyzed and will lead to more grumbling, more pressure and the eventual dissolution of the dynamic duo. Another reason why a coaching change will be imperative. The Thunder need a leader that can teach the two to play more seamlessly together.
3. The Durant narrative changes. No longer the up-and-comer, championship expectations are here now. The pressure starts to boil over. Durant will start to face LeBron type scrutiny. Nothing he does in the regular season will matter. The national conversation will switch to "can he win the big one." The good news is that was the motivation and realization both Jordan and LeBron needed to become a champion.
Admittedly, that is the doomsday scenario. These words are mostly wasted if the Thunder win tomorrow and move on. The headline will most likely be forgotten and if the Thunder win a championship they will enjoy a long and happy life with Durant, Brooks and Westbrook. That's what's fun about superstars and the NBA playoffs. It's do or die. Game 6 was the most important game in Thunder history and they responded with their best game of the playoffs. Now, game 7 is the most important game in Thunder history.
Side note: Keep playing Steven Adams and hope Mike Conley is slowed by his hamstring.