Two seasons ago, the Indiana Pacers looked to be the bullies of the Eastern Conference. They were a big team that wasn’t going looking to get caught up in the fast-paced style many teams were going to.
Things have changed in Indiana.
Three keys to that Indiana team that reached the 2014 Eastern Conference finals are gone. Lance Stephenson departed as a free agent that summer. Last summer, center Roy Hibbert was traded and power forward David West departed for San Antonio as a free agent in pursuit of a better chance of winning an NBA championship.
The two starters left are Paul George and George Hill, who are now part of an Indiana team that aims to get up the floor more and attack more freely.
The Pacers have looked good at times but entered this weekend on a three-game losing streak.
Coach Frank Vogel is giving his players freedom to figure it out on their own when the Pacers use a small lineup that features George as a power forward.
“I call plays when there’s five defenders back, when it’s a dead ball, free throw, situations like that,” Vogel said. “But when we get a rebound or a steal, it’s attack and go.”
The Pacers entered Saturday averaging 102.7 points, seventh in the NBA.
In spite of recent struggles, the new approach has George on pace for the best season of his career, averaging 25 points and 7.9 rebounds.
George has already been an All-Star but played in only six games last season after breaking his leg playing for Team USA in August 2014. He’s flourished even though he was open with his not liking the move to power forward before the season.
George has made headlines for his public criticism of officials and been fined by the NBA for it, and recently said some of his turnover issues were due to having to do too much in the offense.
But after the Pacers’ loss to the Kings, in which he missed a jumper at the buzzer that would have tied the score, George sounded confident all will work out for himself and the Pacers, who were 16-12 after the loss.
George is shooting 36.4 percent in December.
“Every shot looks good,” George said. “Every shot I’ve taken, it’s the same shots I was taking in November. They all feel good. I feel confident. I’m still doing the same routine. It’s just getting to that moment of the season. It happens. I’ll definitely get out of this.”
The sooner George finds his rhythm again, the more likely Indiana will find itself contending in the East, as it did two season ago.
It will just look much different.
There’s a team looking to show the Western Conference isn’t a two-team race between Golden State and San Antonio.
Oklahoma City has won eight of its last 10, even coming off a Christmas Day loss to Chicago, and is 20-10.
Golden State might have the best player in the NBA in Stephen Curry. San Antonio is a machine that contends every season. But neither team can boast having arguably two of the best five players in the NBA on the same roster in Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.
That duo, combined with a team that’s deeper on the bench than in previous seasons, will make the Thunder a team no one wants to play in the postseason.
Containing Durant and Westbrook for a seven-game series will not be easy, provided injuries don’t slow them, as they did the previous two seasons.
The Los Angeles Clippers were supposed to be a title contender, but this season has not been smooth. The latest problem is a partially torn quadriceps tendon for All-Star forward Blake Griffin.
The Clippers have struggled to beat the league’s best teams with an 0-4 record against Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City. They’ve also dropped games to Atlantic Division leading Toronto and Chicago.
“Steph Curry’s great. Steph Curry is the MVP. He’s a champion. Understand what I’m saying when I say this: To a degree, he’s hurt the game. And what I mean by that is that I go into these high school gyms, I watch these kids and the first thing they do is they run to the three-point line. You are not Steph Curry. Work on the other aspects of your game. People think that he’s just a knockdown shooter. That’s not why he’s the MVP. He’s a complete basketball player.”
Former Warriors coach and current ESPN/ABC analyst Mark Jackson on Curry’s impact on basketball. Jackson’s intent was to compliment his former player, but some took the word “hurt” and said Jackson was being critical of Curry.
Jackson took to Twitter to implore his critics to “Read the Quote!!! Stop Searching!!”