This past summer could have been humiliating for the Indiana Pacers after they failed to show up for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Miami Heat, allowing their rivals to coast to an easy victory in the biggest NBA game of many of the Pacers’ careers.
Instead, that game served as motivation for the core of this talented team to shore up its weaknesses and improve during the offseason, and the result is an 11-1 start and the tab as the NBA’s best team in the opening month. It’s November and it’s still early, but the Pacers have raced to the type of start they discussed and imagined in training camp.
They wanted to take nothing for granted. Approach every game as if it were the playoffs, win even when they are not at their best, and respond with bigger efforts in bigger games.
So far, so good.
“There’s no question, we feel like we’re on a mission, we feel like there’s teams like Chicago and Miami that are going to push 60 wins, and if we want to earn a [No.] 1 [playoff] seed like we want to, every night matters,” said coach Frank Vogel, a former Celtics video coordinator under Rick Pitino.
“That’s a fun thing to be a part of. Every single night you go out there, you’re playing for something big and it’s been fun.”
The Pacers are attempting to follow the path of Eastern Conference predecessors such as the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls, who were beaten in bitter Game 7s two decades ago only to overcome their rivals and reach the NBA Finals in subseqent years.
Of course, most of the Pacers were not old enough to watch those games, but they understand perhaps their own disappointing path was necessary to make it to the next level.
“It was motivating because I knew we were going to have the same core back,” All-Star forward Paul George said. “And for us still being young, to come one game shy of being in the Finals, it was a lot to be positive about going into the summer.
“So, I was really motivated to make sure that I brought something new to our team.”
Center Roy Hibbert, who was quite vocal during the playoffs about the Pacers’ perceived lack of respect, said the team increased its work ethic after seeing what it needed to do to reach the next level.
“We’re focused. We’re ready to work, we’re going to be a really good team,” said Hibbert. “We want to stay focused, build off of last year, but also we want to win a championship, and we’ve got a lot of work to do.
“You have to work. We have to go about our business the right way every single time, getting rebounds, being focused and mentally preparing for all games — so we have a different approach this year, a little bit older, more experienced.
“We’re going to see how we handle adversity at some point in the season. As of right now, everything is clicking. We want to win every game, and we just don’t give up. I just worked on getting strength, getting in the weight room and working hard. I just stuck my head to the ground and was working hard.”
The development of George has been the least surprising feature of the Pacers. After nearly matching LeBron James basket for basket during last season’s Eastern Conference finals, he is an early MVP candidate, averaging 24.6 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 3.2 assists, while shooting a career-best 46.3 percent from the field.
George has increased his scoring average 7 points over last season. He is considered one of the league’s elite players. And George is a testament that sometimes the best players aren’t always high lottery picks. He was the 10th overall pick in 2010, taken after Wesley Johnson, Ekpe Udoh, and Al-Farouq Aminu.
“It’s been a huge jump but I always felt I would get to this point,” said George. “I didn’t know how fast it was going to come around or how soon things were going to be to where I’m at now, but I had that confidence in myself that this was going to be my outcome, being on this level, so I just knew I had to stay with it.
“This is the expectations I wanted. I’m a guy who loves pressure. I think pressure builds character, so coming into this year I knew it was going to be a big year, I knew there were going to be a lot of eyes on me and a lot of burden on my shoulders, but the great thing about this is we got so many guys who can do it, I don’t feel like the pressure is on me. I can play freely and I know my teammates have my back.”
The Pacers are a young but experienced group. George Hill, Lance Stephenson, Hibbert, and George have played extensively since they were rookies, and the offseason additions of David West and Luis Scola have added to the depth.
Indiana is No. 1 in the league in points allowed and opponents’ field goal percentage, stifling teams with the combination of athleticism and physicality.
“It’s just us being around for so long now, three or four years of us being together, our core really knows what to expect out of one another,” George said.
“It’s great basketball when we’re playing together and we’re playing at our highest, and even when we’re not playing at our highest. We are always able to pull each other together and recognize what needs to be done.”
Damian Lillard, Portland making right moves
The Portland Trail Blazers are 11-2 and have won nine consecutive games, off to their best start since 1999-2000, partly because of the development of second-year point guard Damian Lillard, who was Rookie of the Year last season.
Lillard is averaging 19.9 points, 5.8 assists, and 4.5 rebounds as one of the league’s emerging point guards. Facing the likes of Russell Westbrook, RajonRondo, DerrickRose, and ChrisPaul on a nightly basis is a challenge that Lillard is eager to meet.
“You’ve got to watch for the last three or four games to see what they’re successful doing,” Lillard said. “See if they have been shooting the ball well. You got a top-notch guy, you’ve got to compete. That’s the fun part, especially when you’re going against the top guys, it’s a good measuring stick. That’s how I see it for a guy like myself who wants to be one of those guys. When I see one of them, I want to see if I am on that level. It’s always exciting.”
The Trail Blazers are ninth in the league in scoring and ninth in defense, making for a well-rounded team.
“We’ve really focused on being a better defensive team, and we’ve made improvement just with the players that we’ve brought in also,” Lillard said. “But I think it’s just been us paying attention to detail. We lost the first game to Phoenix and we knew we gave up a lot in transition and we focused on it and we fixed it. So, I think it’s been a matter of us focusing on our defense and being able to make adjustments.”
Lillard was unquestionably the league’s best rookie last season but said his improvement is a byproduct of taking a deep breath and becoming more experienced.
“The game slowed down, the first time out there everything is happening so fast,” Lillard said. “It’s your first time playing against a lot of people. The point guard, you have to have some type of voice on the team, and I’ve been wanting to speak up a little more, and that’s what the team is going to need from me if I am going to be the guy with the ball in my hands all the time.”
Second-year coach Terry Stotts is an early candidate for Coach of the Year and the Blazers are by far the league’s most surprising team.
“We still have a long way to go,” Stotts said. “Just like every team in the league in November we need to improve, but we’ve done a good job on the road. We’ve beaten some teams that we needed to beat.”
General manager Neil Olshey acquired Mo Williams, Robin Lopez, Thomas Robinson, and Dorell Wright in the offseason. Williams has made a big splash as Lillard’s backup, as well as his ability to switch to shooting guard for one of the league’s quickest backcourt combinations.
“The new guys are finding a niche in how they can contribute,” Stotts said. “That just takes time. Four of our five starters played together very well last year and they’ve kind of maintained that, but I think the newer guys have come in and gradually found their way. We’ve settled into a nine-man rotation and there’s guys on our bench who can contribute, but that’s the good thing about having the depth we have. We didn’t have that last season.”
Billy Hunter fighting back with serious charges
Former players’ union executive director Billy Hunter continues to file litigation to fight his ousting during All-Star Weekend last February, and last week filed declarations in California Superior Court with some serious allegations about the leadership of former president Derek Fisher and a claim that Kobe Bryant and his agent told Hunter to strike a 50/50 deal on basketball-related income in 2011. Hunter eventually reached a 49/51 deal with the league’s owners.
Former executive committee members Etan Thomas, Theo Ratliff, and Maurice Evans, all of whom are out of the NBA, also filed declarations supporting Hunter, detailing the division in the union. Here are some key pieces of the declarations, many of which implicate Fisher, who is currently with the Oklahoma City Thunder and no longer serving as union president.
Hunter wrote: “Late in the evening before the [October 28, 2011] Waldorf Astoria meeting, I was already in bed for the night when my phone rang. The caller identified himself as the ‘Black Mamba.’ I knew it was Kobe Bryant, a superstar player for the Los Angeles Lakers and the highest-paid player in the NBA. He told me that his agent, Robert Pelinka, who was also known to me, was on the call with him. I knew that Bryant and Fisher were friends and former teammates and shared an agent. Prior to this late-night phone call, Bryant had publicly supported the union’s negotiating position. On the phone call, Bryant told me to agree to the new CBA at a 50-50 share of [basketball-related income], saying, ‘I know that tomorrow is a big day. You can put this thing to bed. Do the deal.’ And also telling me, ‘I got your back.’ What Bryant and Pelinka were telling me is that a 50-50 deal had already been completed behind my back.”
Hunter wrote that he confronted Fisher: “I asked him whether he had been secretly negotiating directly with the owners . . . Fisher did not deny the existence of the secret negotiations with NBA owners, but denied having had a role in them. Fisher said that it was Bryant and Pelinka who had engaged in secret negotiations with NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver, adding that they had ‘thrown [Fisher] under the bus.’ ”
Hunter also said in the declaration: “The team owners also behaved differently than they had previously. In the earlier negotiating sessions, the team owners directed many questions at Fisher, but following the confrontation, the team owners appeared to give Fisher a ‘pass’ and stopped directing questions to him.”
Ratliff wrote: “After the confrontation, it also seemed to me that the owners were less confident. During earlier CBA meetings, before the confrontation between Mr. Hunter and Mr. Fisher, the owners behaved as if they knew the terms of the CBA would be exactly what they wanted. After the confrontation, the owners behaved as if they had lost the upper hand.”
Meanwhile, Thomas, Ratliff, and Evans supported Hunter’s claim that his employment contract was legal, something an independent investigator challenged before Hunter was removed.
Wrote Evans: “Fisher spoke up in support of Mr. Hunter’s contract extension and said that Mr. Hunter deserved a new contract. There was universal support on the executive committee for the contract extension. In fact, no member of the executive committee disagreed with the decision to extend Mr. Hunter’s contract. I was never informed at that time that the contract extension needed to be ratified by another group of NBA players. Mr. Hunter was treated as if his contract was final and binding.”
And finally, Hunter denies trying to bribe Fisher with a $22,000 watch in 2011, writing: “Fisher also falsely told the union’s lawyers at Paul/Weiss that I tried to bribe him to secure his support during the 2011 collective bargaining negotiations by giving him a watch at the end of his first term as NBPA president. The tradition of gift-giving to the executive committee members to thank them for their service to the union was in place long before I began my service as executive director. Executive committee members, including Fisher, were aware of this tradition, and no one had ever complained or suggested that the practice was a violation of anyone’s duties to the union. Fisher was closely involved in the union’s tradition of gift-giving.”
There is no way Hunter will reclaim his job, but he is fiercely attempting to clear his name and avoid any potential litigation.
The NBA fined Gerald Wallace $10,000 for his use of profane language during his interview following the Celtics’ embarrassing loss to the Houston Rockets last Tuesday. Hopefully, this won’t dissuade Wallace from speaking candidly with the media because his assessments of the team have been one of the most refreshing aspects of the difficult early season. Wallace isn’t the player he was five years ago but he gives the Celtics’ locker room a conscience and voice of reason . . . The Los Angeles Clippers continue to keep tabs on Lamar Odom, who is working out in Rhode Island with hopes of returning to the NBA this season. Most teams are staying away from the troubled Odom, but the Clippers’ need for a versatile swingman has coach Doc Rivers intrigued . . . For those who believed the Celtics could make another championship run with the Big Three, take a look at Kevin Garnett’s slow start with the Nets. Garnett is averaging a career-low 6.7 points in a career-low 22.5 minutes per game, but he is also shooting just 36.1 percent and has made half of his shots or more in just 3 of 11 games. Garnett also averaged three free throw attempts per game last season, and was was in steady decline for the past several years, but he is attempting just 0.5 free throws per contest. Jason Terry, who averaged 10.1 points last season for the Celtics (considered a major dropoff), is averaging 5.3 for the Nets and shooting 38.9 percent from the field. Paul Pierce is averaging 12.5 points per game, 6.1 fewer than last season for the Celtics, and is shooting 37.8 percent from the field and 25.6 percent from the 3-point line, both career lows. Pierce has been the most productive of the three traded to Brooklyn but the Nets (3-9) have been one of the league’s biggest disappointments . . . Scouts and opponents are raving about how hard players are playing for new Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek. The Suns, expected to be competing for the No. 1 overall pick, are a respectable 6-6, snapping a four-game losing streak on Friday night.
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @gwashNBAGlobe. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.