Hot Indiana Pacers now chasing No. 6 Playoff Seed

indiana-pacers-chasing-playoffsThe Indiana Pacers continued their rapid climb up the Eastern Conference standings after beating the Milwaukee Bucks by a score of 109-103 in overtime. And this was a huge win for the Pacers because they’re currently chasing Milwaukee for the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference.

It certainty wasn’t an easy victory, though, given that this contest included 60 fouls, 35 turnovers and an overtime period. Furthermore, Indiana’s six-game streak of holding opponents to under 90 points was finally snapped. Nevertheless, the Pacers (30-34) will definitely take the victory, which gives them a seven-game winning streak and moves them to within three and a half games back of Milwaukee (34-31).

“That’s what most teams want, you don’t want to be playing your best basketball in the beginning,” said Solomon Hill when discussing how Indiana was 15 games under .500 a month ago. “You want to be playing your best basketball at the end.”

So what’s the driving force behind the Pacers’ incredible turnaround? Well, the most-obvious factor is the balance that Indiana has, with five players averaging double figures in points and a bench that’s deeper than the ocean. Given as well as everybody’s playing on this team from top to bottom, Indiana certainly won’t run out of players down the stretch.

indiana-pacers-chasing-playoffs-1But one factor that can’t be seen by the stats alone is how Indiana has exhibited a never-quit attitude all season long – even when they were mired in 12th place in the East with a 15-30 record.

“I still think morale was high even when we were losing,” said point guard Donald Sloan. “Guys’ heads were still up and maintaining and getting through it. It’s just a good group. I don’t think if you had different combinations or different guys in here it would be the same.”

Another aspect to consider here is how scrappy Indiana has been on the defensive end of the floor. The team almost changed to a zone midway through the season, amid struggles, but head coach Frank Vogel decided to stick with what the Pacers do best. And power forward David West is certainly a fan of this decision as he said:

“At times we were trying to maybe change sort of our defensive schemes that have worked for us over the last two to three years. Ultimately, we said, ‘Nah, we’re just going to stick with what we do. We got better at that and our defense started to pick up which has helped us win games. The message is always the same: Just stay steady, believe in one another and remain confident and see what happens.”

Riding the high of a seven-game win streak, it won’t be hard for Indiana to remain confident and stay steady moving forward. They have 18 games left in the regular season to catch Milwaukee, which would currently put them in a first-round matchup with the injury-riddled Chicago Bulls. However, if they can’t catch the Bucks, Indiana would have a less-favorable matchup with the Cleveland Cavaliers, a team that’s been red-hot over the past 25 games.

In any case, just the fact that the Pacers have a strong shot at making the postseason seems like a miracle when considering their horrid start. So if you’re into Indiana Pacers betting, certainly keep their stellar play in mind when placing your wagers.

What will the Pacers do with Lance Stephenson?

lance-stephenson-lebron-ear-blowGoing into the 2014 NBA Playoffs, Lance Stephenson was already getting questionable looks from Indiana Pacers management. After all, he did get into a fist fight with teammate Evan Turner. Now, after Stephenson’s antics in the Miami Heat series, Indiana is likely to wonder even more if they should think about bringing the pending free agent back for another season.

Anybody who paid minimal attention to the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals matchup saw headlines about Stephenson blowing in LeBron James’ ear during a play like they were long-lost lovers. He also touched LeBron’s face during an inbounds play and “inadvertently” smacked Norris Cole in the face. Referees didn’t see the latter as an accident, though, and called Stephenson for a flagrant foul.

Of course, the idea behind all of this – at least in the 23-year-old’s mind – was to get in James’ head. But all of these antics just served as the extra motivation that Miami needed to finish Indiana off in six games, with the final contest being a 117-92 blowout. And as for Stephenson’s effect, well, King James responded by scoring 25 points on 8-of-12 shooting in Game 6 – most of which came against his antagonist in just 31 minutes.

Following his aggravating maneuvers, Team President Larry Bird didn’t exactly approve of the ear-blowing. And Indiana’s leading scorer, Paul George, was less than enthusiastic about Stephenson’s future with the team. “I mean, I don’t know,” George said. “That’s for Larry (Bird), (GM) Kevin (Pritchard), for them to decide. You know, it’d be great. We came in this league together. It’d be great for us to continue our journey together.”

lance-stephenson-lebron-1One more thing worth mentioning here is that popular speculation and rumors pointed to Stephenson as a player who hurt the team’s chemistry during their terrible spring regular-season run. For instance, Roy Hibbert said “there’s some selfish dudes” in the locker room, with “dudes” thought to mean Stephenson.

From all of this talk, you’d think that there was no chance he’d be back in a Pacers uniform next year. But that might not necessarily be the case because there’s some definite upside to the four-year veteran.

Welcome Back

While Stephenson’s antics may be getting all of the attention right now, he’s certainly a very talented player. The 6’5″ shooting guard posted regular-season averages of 13.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG and 4.6 APG. He also led the NBA with six triple-doubles, something that many NBA fans may not realize.

Even with the intense pressure of the NBA Playoffs, Stephenson held steady by averaging 13.8 PPG, 7.1 RPG and 4.4 APG. So you can see why both Bird and coach Frank Vogel recently said that they’d like to have Stephenson back if they can afford the guard. Here’s a look at what AP writer Michael Marot wrote about the matter:

 lance-stephenson-lebron-2Larry Bird wants Lance Stephenson back with the Indiana Pacers at the right price. After spending the last week hearing Stephenson roundly criticized for his over-the-top antics with LeBron James in the Eastern Conference finals, Bird said Monday he hopes Stephenson stays with the team, headaches and all.

“I think his ceiling is what he wants it to be,” said Bird, the Pacers’ president of basketball operations. “I always want him back. You just don’t let talent like that walk away if you can help it.”

[cont’d later] “Clearly, he’s a free agent, and I’m certainly hoping that he’s back,” Vogel said, later acknowledging he played the role of team psychologist more this year than any previous year.

Up in the Air

Despite Stephenson wearing thin on teammates and top brass at times, it appears that he’s wanted back. However, the murkiest part of this situation is how much Stephenson will command in the free agent market.

On the right team, Stephenson has the talent to average upwards of 20 PPG. He’s also an exceptional rebounder for his size and position – even if teammates sometimes see him as a rebound-stealer. With the Pacers expected to be $8 million to $12 million under the luxury tax threshold, it’s unclear how much money they can offer the former Cincinnati product. Assuming he commands a much larger contract from another team, it’s hard to see him coming back to Indiana.

But based on the way this season’s playoffs went, the Pacers won’t give up hope if they can’t bring Stephenson back.

Tim Duncan wanted the Miami Heat Again, now he has Them

tim-duncan-nba-finalsIt’s another year in the NBA, but not much has changed at the top. For the second straight year, the Miami Heat dispatched the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference Finals, taking the series in six games. The San Antonio Spurs also needed just six games to beat the more-youthful Oklahoma City Thunder. So now, for the second straight year, Miami and San Antonio will meet in the NBA Finals.

Last year’s series was a seesaw affair, with the Heat finally pulling away 95-88 on their home floor in Game 7. The Spurs had their adversaries on the ropes at one point in Game 6. However, LeBron James and Ray Allen sparked a heroic comeback that saw the series shift back to Miami for the deciding final contest.

Duncan can’t wait to play Miami

Given how close the series was, it’s little surprise that Tim Duncan relishes the opportunity to play the Heat again for the NBA title. “We’re happy that it’s the Heat,” said Duncan. “We’ll be ready for them. We’ve got some experience, obviously, from last year against them. And we’ll go back and look at some film. And we’ve got that bad taste in our mouths still. Hopefully, we’ll be ready to take it this time.”

Duncan has won four titles with the Spurs, taking the Larry O’Brien Trophy in 1999, 2003, ’05 and ’07. He and the Spurs came agonizingly close to another one in 2013 as they led Game 6 by a score of 94-89 with just 28 seconds left. However, an Allen 3-pointer turned the tide of the game and, as mentioned before, Miami won the final two contests. “We were ready last year and we just couldn’t get over the hump,” Duncan said.

Renewed Fire

tim-duncan-nba-finals-1Losing the Finals really seems to have motivated the aging Spurs this season as they topped the NBA with a 62-20 record, despite playing in the all-around-tougher Western Conference. The Heat, meanwhile, cruised to the second seed in the East after finishing 54-28. That said, San Antonio will have home court advantage in this year’s 2-2-1-1-1 format.

Aside from having home court advantage in the 2014 NBA Finals – a change from last season – San Antonio also comes into the series with more experience. Sure, you can’t get more experienced than the Spurs’ “Big Three,” Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. However, important role players like Danny Green, Kawhi Leonard, Patty Mills, Tiago Splitter and Corey Joseph were all making their first trip to the Finals a year ago. Plus, there’s new help in Boris Diaw, who scored 26 points against the Thunder in Game 6, and sharpshooter Marco Belinelli.

“Last year was many guys’ first time to the Finals,” Green explained. “We’re lucky enough to go back. There is still a lot of work to be done, and we won’t be satisfied until we accomplish our goal. And that’s to be the last team standing.”

Stepping up

It seems that the San Antonio role players could have a much bigger impact this time around. This is especially the case with regard to Joseph, who started the entire second half of San Antonio’s 112-107 (OT) Game 6 victory over Oklahoma City. Parker sat out after his ankle began bothering him and he couldn’t cut on it very well. So head coach Greg Popovich chose to rest his star guard, rather than risk further injury. Parker, who averaged 14 PPG and 5.5 APG on the season, had just eight points, two rebounds and no assists in his limited Game 6 outing.

The one thing that Parker and older Spurs players have on their side is five days rest. The 2014 NBA Finals doesn’t start until 8pm ET on Thursday. This also favors those who are interested in 2014 NBA Finals betting because they still have plenty of time to research the matchups and make an informed decision. Furthermore, there’ll also be a number of NBA Finals prop bets and live wagering opportunities for bettors to enjoy.

Indiana gets past Atlanta – Now What?

indiana-paul-georgeDown 3-2 in their first-round series, Indiana stormed back to win their final two games against the Atlanta Hawks and avoid an upset of catastrophic proportions.

Looking at the statistics, you could say that the Hawks beat themselves more than the Pacers did anything to stop them. Relying on a heavy long-range attack to beat the East’s top seed, this strategy worked well for Atlanta in the first five games. However, it also became their undoing as they shot just 20-of-79 from the three-point line (25.3%) over the final two games.

Indiana’s 92-80 Game 7 victory was especially crazy since the Hawks hoisted a playoff record-breaking 44 three-pointers – hitting just 11 of those attempts. Basically, the Pacers dodged a bullet when a team that won only 38 regular season games shot terribly from the field over a two-game stretch.

So what did coach Frank Vogel have to say in the aftermath of this narrow series win? “It’s not easy,” he said, “guarding a team that takes 44 three’s, especially when 18 of those three’s came from their big guys.” Okay, fair enough, the Hawks did spread Indiana out and seek to minimize the Pacers’ inside defensive presence. But again, this was a team that finished six games under .500. So the question becomes, can we expect Indiana to get past the more talented and rising Washington Wizards in the conference semifinals?

The answer to this question will heavily depend on Roy Hibbert, who just hasn’t been himself over the past two months. He especially looked out of place against Atlanta’s jump-shooting barrage. However, he also earned some redemption in Game 7 by scoring 13 points, grabbing seven rebounds and blocking five shots.

indiana-roy-hibbertEverything points to Hibbert having a better overall series against Washington, which sports more traditional frontcourt size and offensive sets. We highly doubt that the Wizards will be attempting 40-plus three’s in the next round, so Hibbert should be a strong defensive presence. But then again, it’s been hard to predict when the 7’2″ big man will show up based on the latter half of the season. So we won’t truly know Hibbert’s impact until the Washington series is over with.

Team chemistry will be another issue. This is especially the case since Lance Stephenson and Evan Turner got into a fistfight before Game 1 of the Hawks series. Luckily, there was no word on any more incidents that were this dramatic. But it wasn’t long ago when Hibbert was publicly questioning the team’s offensive philosophy and complaining about not getting the ball enough. Championship teams don’t whine about who gets the ball, so this can’t resurface against the Wizards, and definitely not against Miami, should these two teams meet in the conference finals.

David West and Stephenson will also be question marks going into the Washington series. The latter is especially iffy from game to game and sometimes takes terrible shots. But the 6’5″ Stephenson did show up big on the glass in Game 7, grabbing 14 rebounds, including five on the offensive end. As for West, he brings a nice veteran presence to Indiana’s lineup, but he was off and on against Atlanta. Thankfully for the Pacers, he finished on a high note, scoring 13 points and blocking an incredible six shots.

About the lone guy that Indiana doesn’t need to worry about is Paul George. The star swingman put up 30 points and 11 rebounds in the winning Game 7 effort. “I got a chance to go to my mid-range,” George said after the victory. “It opened the game up. I felt confident coming off of screens and shooting the ball tonight.” For the entire series, he averaged 23.8 points and 10.7 rebounds, which are star numbers for sure.

This team boasts a championship-caliber roster. But they need to overcome inconsistent play and locker room problems if they are to reach their full potential.

Are the Pacers headed for a First-Round Loss?

atlanta-indiana-game-2One of the big NBA storylines over the past few weeks has been the continued struggles of the Indiana Pacers. After rushing out to a sizable lead in the Eastern Conference, Indiana dropped behind Miami at one point, before finally rallying to re-take the number-one seed.

However, even with the way that Indiana limped down the stretch, not many people seriously expected the Atlanta Hawks to challenge them in the first round. This is, after all, the same Hawks team that lost their star center, Al Horford, to a torn pectoral muscle early in the season, and barely held off the disastrous Knicks for the East’s eighth seed.

But you can throw out everything that’s happened up to this point because a 38-win Atlanta squad holds a 1-0 lead in this series. So the question now becomes, are the Pacers headed for a downfall of epic proportions in the first round?

The obvious takeaway from Game 1 is that the Hawks’ big players, Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap, really showed up when it counted. Teague scored 28 points and dished out five assists while Millsap provided 25 points and eight rebounds. Aside from their stars playing well, the Hawks shot pretty well from the outside, hitting 11 out of a franchise-record 30 three-point attempts (36.7%). And this is exactly where Atlanta’s advantage lies in the series – outside shooting.

Indiana knew well in advance that their opponent is a perimeter-oriented team. David West said as much before Game 1 when he called the Hawks a “jump shooting team.” But the Pacers didn’t do a great job of forcing Atlanta out of their comfort zone. This isn’t a team that’s going to take many shots over Roy Hibbert and West in the paint. They’re going to put the ball in Teague’s hands in isolation sets and let him create opportunities with his quickness.

atlanta-indiana-game-1Closing out on Atlanta’s shooters wasn’t Indiana’s only problem. Their go-to swingman, Paul George, scored 24 points, but hit just 6-of-18 shots. West wasn’t much better as he made 4-of-10 attempts in a quiet, 8-point effort. Hibbert’s 4-of-9 shooting didn’t look so bad, until you consider that he made two garbage-time layups near the end. Then there was Louis Scola, who was the opposite of firepower off the bench with his 0-for-6 shooting effort. Coupled with the loss, it’s no wonder why Scola was later seen staring at the locker room floor.

Finally, there was the third quarter, where Atlanta went on a game-defining 14-0 run that put them ahead by a score of 74-58. From here, it was all about protecting their lead for Atlanta, which they did fairly well en route to a 101-93 victory.

Indiana is of course trying to remain optimistic about their outlook. “It’s frustrating. It’s frustrating, but it’s a long series,” George said following the disappointing loss. “It’s just one game and that’s the way we have to look at it.”

However, this one game was on the home floor of the NBA’s best home team. Now they face the prospect of having to win four out of six games, with three of these contests being in Atlanta. It’s not an impossible task for a talented team that looked so good to open the season. But the Pacers have to find a way to keep the Hawks from continually spreading the floor and getting open looks from beyond the arc.

Stephen Curry vs. Mark Jackson Three-Point Contest features Big Surprise

mark-jackson-stephen-curry-three-point-contestA clip recently surfaced of the Golden State Warriors having fun at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. And the highlight of this fun: a three-point contest between All-Star Stephen Curry and his coach, Mark Jackson.

Actually, this doesn’t sound like much of a contest at all because Curry is one of the deadliest sharpshooters in the NBA, boasting a career 43.9% shooting average from behind the arc. His shooting form is just as pretty as his numbers suggest.

Jackson, on the other hand, has a few things working against him. For starters, it’s been a decade since he last played an NBA game. And although he wasn’t totally inept from the three-point line when he did play, Jackson was a mediocre 33.2% shooter from downtown. And as for his shooting form, well, the former Pacers guard’s ugly push shot leaves a lot to be desired.

So, with the background now set, would you believe that Jackson actually dominated his young padawan in this three-point contest? As can be seen in this clip, Curry shot a very disappointing 6-for-15 from three different spots on the court. Meanwhile, Jackson showed that he can be very proficient when given all day to shoot as he went 9-for-10 during the challenge – sweeping all three spots in the process.

Jackson did have a small advantage in that he got two years of practice at the Bankers Life Fieldhouse court (then-Conseco Fieldhouse practice court) in the late 90s. However, it’s still an impressive showing from the old veteran. Curry took the beating in stride, joking afterward about how this was like a regular season college game, and he would turn things on if there was an NCAA Tournament-style three-point contest among the Warriors.

He’s no doubt got more competitive things to worry about with Golden State battling for playoff positioning in the tough Western Conference. The 36-24 Warriors are currently the sixth seed in the West, four-and-a-half games behind the fifth-seeded Rockets (40-19) and fourth-seeded Clippers (41-20). However, they’re only half a game ahead of seventh-seeded Phoenix Suns and eighth-seeded Dallas Mavericks.