The Grizzlies were yet another team that had a tale of two halves and they stormed back to beat the Jazz in Utah last night. Zach Randolph went for 22 and 13, Marc Gasol brushed off minor injury concerns with 18 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals, and Mike Conley did the same with regard to his ankle and had 19 points, six assists, a steal and a three while hitting half of his shots. Behind this Big Three, there are no reliable fantasy assets and it’s that simple right now for Memphis, who kept a half-game lead over No. 8 and 9 seeds Phoenix and Dallas.
The Jazz have also tidied themselves up from a fantasy perspective now that Alec Burks (ankle) is getting around in a walking boot. It was probably the big Memphis frontline that augmented these minutes, but Enes Kanter’s 11 points, 15 rebounds and one steal in 40 minutes and Derrick Favors’ 22 points, 10 rebounds, two steals and two blocks in 36 minutes shouldn’t be written off as a 100 percent fluke. Utah has a few weeks to see if they can actually pair these two players next to each other next season, and that gives Kanter in particular a little bit of breathing room for 12-team lineups. Unfortunately the Jazz finish up the year with a pair of three-game weeks, and Kanter will need to keep up this pace to be a safe play under those conditions.
Richard Jefferson hit three treys and finished with 15 points, four rebounds and four assists in his 30 minutes, and he’s worth a look as a 3-point specialist with low-end value in 12-14 team leagues while Burks is out. Trey Burke did not hit a three or have any defensive stats, but he did rack up 10 assists to go with an inefficient 11 points on 5-of-14 shooting. He’s going to be a risky play in 12-14 team formats for the rest of the year, but it wouldn’t be surprising to see the Jazz force the action with him a little bit to end things on a high note. Then again, it’s unclear what level of cooperation there is right now between the team and Ty Corbin, whose future as coach is uncertain.
THE MAIN EVENT
The big game was, in fact, a big game. There were flagrant fouls (R.I.P. Hard Fouls 1891 – November 19, 2004), trash talk to spare, technicals and a curious ejection of Lance Stephenson administered by way of lobbyist Dwyane Wade. It went down to the wire and ultimately a well-drawn play for Chris Bosh came up short and the Pacers got back their Mo, at least for the time-being. LeBron James scored 38 points on 11-of-19 shooting in his duel with Paul George, but six turnovers and zero steals and blocks reflected some of his troubles on an otherwise stellar night. James added two threes, 14-of-15 FTs, eight boards, five assists and one flying (unintentional) elbow to the dome of Roy Hibbert.
It was that type of night.
Wade and Stephenson were an interesting side-show as the two talked trash all night long, and aside from goading Stephenson into a ticky-tack ejection he added 15 points on 6-of-11 shooting, four rebounds, one steal, one block and six turnovers of his own to the stat sheet. All in all he looked a lot like the Wade of last year’s playoffs that wasn’t all that sharp.
Bosh hit a huge three to keep the game close at the end but didn’t provide enough scoring with just eight points on 3-of-11 shooting, two threes, four rebounds, three steals and two blocks. Udonis Haslem (two points, four boards, one block, 21 minutes) was brought in to push Roy Hibbert off the block, something that was too easily accomplished from a Pacers point of view.
Look to see the Heat go back to that during the postseason, but make no mistake they have critical problems with their interior defense and that makes them vulnerable to any team proficient in that department. Hibbert toyed with Bosh and Greg Oden (two points, two blocks, six minutes) early on and the takeaway is that if Hibbert can get out of his funk, then he’ll force the Heat to play Haslem and that will jam the paint up for the Heat offense – particularly if Wade's defenders sag the way they did in last year's playoffs. I think Oden might have played his way out of a job covering Hibbert in the playoffs.
Wade left the game early with hamstring spasms and of course he’ll be questionable the rest of the way. Ray Allen did not travel to Indiana due to the flu and while I’ve been cautiously optimistic about his ability to avoid the DNPs this is a pretty bad development. He didn’t travel with the team to Indy, and he’ll be questionable for Friday and Saturday’s games in Detroit and Milwaukee – two games the Heat probably aren’t going to rush him back into. After all, they don’t want the locker room getting sick and it comes with the added bonus of getting the veteran some rest. The Heat return home for Monday’s game and another pair of four-game weeks so I can get behind a hold, but at this stage of the game owners should obviously feel free to move on somebody else that they may need.
The other guy I’ve been high on for schedule reasons has been Chris Andersen, and he put up a fairly Birdman-like three points, four rebounds and three blocks in his 19 minutes. That’s pretty much within expectations and a win for those seeking his big man stats. Looking forward to the eventual matchup between these two teams in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Heat will need Andersen to be healthy enough to play 25 minutes per game if they want to keep from getting eaten alive down low.
REMEMBER WHERE YOU CAME FROM
You guys have watched me slowly kick the can down the road during the Pacers’ slump, slowly losing a little confidence in them each week as my NBA title pick. March and April games have a way of being overrated, however, particularly in the aggregate as the All Star break, trading deadline and long journey of a season all culminate in some pretty lousy play league-wide. The Heat had been going through similar issues as of late, but because the Pacers don’t have a multi-year history of domination at either a team or star-level their slide has been a league-wide topic.
They also struggled with the Sixers twice in a row and just about everybody else, too, with cracks in the foundation bulging amidst problems up and down the roster. The struggle has been real.
Roy Hibbert has sometimes looked like a defensive liability, though not always, but his struggles have been the most pronounced. He hasn’t been getting the ball on offense, either, and conversely the young and brash Lance Stephenson is on the other end of that equation pushing the issue scoring-wise just a bit too much.
Hibbert called Stephenson out last week and nothing changed as they lost to the Grizzlies and Bulls in consecutive games before last night’s heavyweight bout.
Paul George has been both pressing and deferring to Stephenson, perhaps not entirely by choice, but deferring at times nonetheless as the Pacers offense has struggled to get easy looks. George Hill has functioned as the poor man’s version of both PG and Stephenson in a quasi-shooting guard role, with all three guys playing outside-in rather than inside-out with Hibbert and David West.
It’s no surprise the trademark defense has fallen off with offensive balance lost in the blending of roles, since guys always play a bit harder when they feel like they’re being involved at the appropriate level on the other end. New acquisitions in Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum have been a bust so far, as Bynum’s knees are Jello and Turner has looked a lot like the guy that struggled to get minutes back when the Sixers fielded a competitive squad.
So virtually everything has been going wrong, including off the court stuff if you want to count Paul George’s paternity issue, catfish story or talk that the team got all high on the horse. A loss at home would have put the panic button right at their fingertips, putting the Heat just two games back rather than the three they are right now. The Pacers have stated that home court advantage is a goal and it should be as they seek to dethrone the current kings of the court.
Four of five starters are experienced but still not fully schooled in the dark arts of playoff basketball, with just David West as the lone, true bad ass of the bunch that knows for sure which levers to pull. Stephenson showed some of that immaturity when Dwyane Wade goaded him into losing his cool and the rest of the group have been searching for their edge for most of the past two months.
Luckily that has been good enough to stay ahead of a coasting Heat squad in the standings, but a loss last night at home could have had an exponential effect.
That’s what made it the perfect bounce-back opportunity. The Pacers first got a chance to get Hibbert going in a custom-built matchup, and the big man finished with 21 points on 7-of-15 shooting and 7-of-9 hits from the line. It’s baby steps right now for Hibbert, who sounds like he suffered a concussion when LeBron elbowed him on a drive to the hoop. He grabbed just four rebounds and had just one steal to go with a big zero in the blocks category. In fact, the Pacers as a squad did not block a single shot. For them to win in June, they need Hibbert to fight for position on the block, get opposing bigs into foul trouble and most importantly rebound his position.
Getting Hibbert going wasn’t the biggest development, though. Getting Paul George to reclaim his rightful place atop the offensive food chain was exactly that. Even with LeBron hounding him, George was turned to as the clear No. 1 option because quite frankly he needed to be. Stephenson hit some key shots and finished with 15 points on 6-of-12 shooting, three treys and a steal, but he had just two rebounds and two assists while getting caught up in the adrenaline of the game. Stephenson wasn’t able to turn the corner much or get shots for his teammates, but George did exactly that against James and even crammed in his face on one possession.
The former MVP candidate finished with 23 points on 8-of-19 shooting, three triples, eight rebounds, four assists and three steals, David West chipped in with 13 points, nine boards, five assists, one steal and 6-of-6 makes from the line, and against the Heat’s pressure defense they all relied upon one another to get better looks.
Sometimes it takes the brink to bring you back to the things that you do best. Now that they’ve had a chance to chill out Stephenson by the appropriate smidge. It probably didn’t hurt that he also got a talking-to by Frank Vogel after the game for making a scene on the way to the locker room once he was ejected. Hibbert is shaping up to be an X-factor and it remains to be seen if he can do the damage necessary, but the Heat are so poorly matched-up against the Pacers’ size and athleticism that if he can simply be okay the Pacers will be fine. But most importantly George was called up to the front of the room to deliver against LeBron and he did that and then some. Indy can coalesce behind the team effort and strategy that was necessary to deliver this win, and with everybody getting a bite from the apple on offense the defense will lock in.
The Pacers remembered who they were last night. And as long as they don’t forget that they’re a better team than the Heat.