The Pacers are surely crushed by the way their season ended Monday night — in a flood of unwatchable first-half turnovers, and with an unsettling feeling that Game 7 represented the way the league’s hierarchy is supposed to look when the world’s best player gets help from his supporting stars.
But at least the blowout loss reinforces what the front office already knew about this team’s shaky offense and forces the team to ask, again, the deepest philosophical question it faces: Can this core eventually beat a healthy, dialed-in Miami team four times in seven games?
The signs are encouraging. The Heat have been together for three seasons now, and though they’ve strung together a rather dominant run — 10-1 in playoff series — they’ve been on the precipice in each of those three seasons. Dwyane Wade always seems to be dealing with a nagging injury in June, and this aging, taxed-out team doesn’t have the roster depth to deal with that sort of thing in a seamless way. The Pacers played the Heat to the edge of elimination, and, even after a catastrophic Game 7, it doesn’t feel like a fluke. Every regular season, the Heat look as if they’re going to cruise through the playoffs. And every postseason, they somehow find themselves amid some crisis-level melodrama. They can be had.
A survey of the players and teams making moves in last night's NBA action.
1. The Kawhi Leonard–for–George Hill Trade
Danny Chau: It was a good night for the 2011 trade that sent George Hill to the Pacers and the draft rights to Kawhi Leonard to the Spurs. At the time, it was a shrewd attempt from both franchises to patch up their more glaring weaknesses. The Pacers needed a versatile, two-way player to fill in the gaps left in the Pacers’ backcourt, and the Spurs needed an infusion of youth, a lottery-type talent that they hadn’t been able to acquire since Tim Duncan (really fitting that Leonard fell one spot outside the lottery). Now, less than two years later, the trade is one of the reasons why each team is only one win away from their respective conference finals.
Hill and Leonard were incredible last night. Hill was the only bright spot in the Pacers offense, which shot 35.4 percent without him (his 9-for-14 outing single-handedly raised that figure to 40.8 percent), while Leonard, who was nearly perfect from the field, shooting 7-for-8, was the model of efficiency for a Spurs team that couldn’t miss.
Hill has been exactly what the Pacers needed to make this kind of playoff push. Like Mike Conley Jr., who is rightfully getting a lot of buzz right now, Hill will likely never be an All-Star, but his role as a game manager and a sneaky offensive threat sets a standard for the Pacers offense. He’s provided a steadying influence for the once-wild Lance Stephenson and allayed Paul George’s growing pains in his ascent to stardom.
Leonard, like Hill in his days as a Spur, plays a significant role as a fourth option, never hijacking the attention for too long. It was frustrating to watch Hill at times, knowing he was capable of more, but there was always going to be a ceiling to his contributions playing behind Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. There is no such limit for Leonard, but he often plays like there is. His youthful reticence and by-the-book abidance to the system is partly the cause, but we also might be asking too much of him too soon in the first place.
Fortunately, there’s still time, because it seems likely both teams will advance. Last night was a good example of what these players are capable of when let loose. It wasn’t a trade that heavily tipped the scales at the time, but both teams have come away as big winners since.
2. The Basketball Koans of Metta World Peace
Knicks are trying to find themselves on the go. Kinda like take out food or a drive thru. They can't find the ketchup. >>>>>
netw3rk: In his inimitable, fractured, non sequitur way, Metta World Peace perfectly summed up the Knicks', and Mike Woodson’s, strategic efforts against the Pacers last night in Game 4. And listen, regardless of what lineups Woodson puts on the floor at whatever junction of the game, the Pacers are the best defensive team in the league. They have excellent rim protection, the athleticism to guard Melo, and they are the best in the league at defending the 3-pointer. They are the better team. OK, fine, but in what universe is playing Pablo Prigioni — who you could easily argue is New York's best point guard — 3 minutes and 26 seconds TOTAL, while giving Jason Kidd, who at this point is ambulating around the court sheerly by rigor mortis, almost 16 minutes?
This concludes our look at the sets and actions integral to each NBA playoff team's success. Read about the Knicks, Celtics, Heat, and Bucks here; read about the Nuggets, Clippers, Grizzlies, Warriors here.
Brooklyn Nets: Deron Williams and the UCLA cut
Brook Lopez has emerged as a force to be reckoned with on the block this season, but it’s still Williams who makes this team go. Thanks to improved health, the Nets star guard has been on a tear lately and has transformed the Nets from first-round fodder to an intriguing wild card in the Eastern Conference playoffs. To slow Williams down in the coming weeks, opponents will have to defend an action dating all the way back to the days of John Wooden — the UCLA cut.
The UCLA cut is a simple, straightforward movement that involves the ball handler throwing an entry pass to the wing before making a vertical cut off a big man waiting at the elbow. Though it seems relatively simple, this can be incredibly tough to defend on the NBA level because of the sheer talent of a player like Williams. The Brooklyn guard is adept at taking advantage of any defender who doesn’t display solid technique while navigating the screen.
It has been a weird six weeks for the Pacers. They’re a middling 11-9 in their last 20 games, and their vaunted defense, the stingiest in the league, has slipped a bit in the last three weeks, partly because George Hill is battling hip and groin issues. They swept a four-game road trip that included strong wins in Dallas, Houston, and in L.A. against the Clippers, but they’ve also had some concerning losses — at home to the Lakers and Thunder, the latter in convincing fashion; a tough roadie in Chicago, and then puzzling road losses in Philadelphia and Washington. Toss in a close home loss to the scorching Nets and a miracle home comeback against the pathetic Cavs, and it has been hard to read Indiana of late.
It was a good moment, in other words, to chat at length with Frank Vogel about the state of his team. Vogel spent time with Grantland after Indiana’s loss in New York on Sunday, and it’s clear he is very confident about the Pacers. What follows is an edited transcript of our chat.
You guys ranked 29th in points per possession in mid-January, which is not all that long ago. But you’ve been something like 10th or 11th since the All-Star break. What happened? Is it as simple as Roy Hibbert finding his game again?
Part of it is that Roy has gotten right. But Paul George has fallen off now in the last few weeks, so we’ve gotta make sure everyone is clicking at the same time. But we’ve got a lot of offensive weapons. Lance growing into his role, Paul growing into his role, and just getting more familiar with our bench — that has all factored us into being pretty good offensively.
George Hill dropped his second game-winner of the season Tuesday in Los Angeles, sparing the viewing audience five additional minutes of ugly basketball and dropping the Lakers to 7-8. The sub-.500 record has predictably inspired panic around the Lakers, even though they are one of just four teams ranked in the top 10 in both points scored per possession (no. 9) and allowed per possession (no. 4). The other three members of this ever-changing crew — Memphis, San Antonio, and Oklahoma City, the last playing surprisingly good defense that will merit some in-depth attention if the Thunder maintain it as their schedule gets tougher. The Clippers, at no. 11 in defensive efficiency, are basically in the club, and the Knicks, still tied with Miami at no. 1 in offensive efficiency, were heading it up until their defense started slumping a week ago.