May 15, 2013 1:50 AM EDT
INDIANAPOLIS – The ball swung around the perimeter, and Paul George suddenly popped to the top of the key. Suddenly, George made his endless arms available, received a pass and swiftly attacked to the heart of the New York Knicks’ defensive wall on Tuesday night. The biggest game of his NBA career, and George had blown past Carmelo Anthony and leaped with two hands.
Only, George was smacked across the back of his head by Anthony, and smacked into him had been an aching stinger. It sent him to the floor, but his relentless and inspired play all night led everyone to believe he would get up and keep attacking the Knicks.
When George stood after his fall, he closed the Pacers’ 93-82 win over the Knicks in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals. For George, this had been the most critical performance of his career, in the ultimate must-win situation: 18 points, 14 rebounds, seven assists, two steals and two blocks. Most of all, George knew he had to snap out of the stinger Anthony laid on him in an attempt to block his shot.
“I had to get up and I had to play through that,” George said in a private moment in an empty locker room.
From Game 1 to Game 4, George has hounded Anthony at every dribble, every turn, and forced a predictably aggressive Anthony to nine of 23 shooting on Tuesday. Between Saturday and Tuesday, memories flooded back of last year’s inability to win Game 4 against the Miami Heat in these conference semifinals. Whatever the outcome this time, it centered on if the Pacers would finally take control of a series to reach their first Conference Finals since 2004 or if they’d become complacent between Games 3 and 4 and lose grasp.
Around the Pacers’ locker room, maintaining homecourt advantage was precious, because there would have been fear going back to New York tied in the series. Now, these Pacers have moved past last season’s obstacle, pushing the Knicks to the brink of a season that started magnificently with hot shooting and MVP candidacy out of Anthony.
“We didn’t want to give them homecourt [advantage] back, and this makes the series a lot different now: From 2-2 to 3-1,” George told RealGM. “We didn’t want to play with that pressure – we wanted to put that pressure on us. It is the biggest game thus far in [my career], because I knew coming in that I was going to have a tough task going against Carmelo for us to be victorious.”
George revered Anthony growing up, and he’s always wanted to emulate ‘Melo’s rise in the NBA. And George knows this: What can separate their tracks in the league is how he influences games, influences opposing offenses, with his defense and passing – especially on a Tuesday when he shot just six of 19.
Sometimes, George twiddles his left hand on his way back on defense. He’s dealt with a left pinkie injury, but the issue is nothing more than an annoying sprain and won’t require a procedure in the offseason, a league source told RealGM. There is no animosity between him and Anthony, and yet in George’s mind there are possessions within games now when he tells himself the league’s scoring leader won’t get a clean shot away.
“I know I make it tough,” George said. “I’m not interested in trash talking. I’m not a trash talker. ‘Melo is actually somebody I look up to because he’s an elite guy and where I want to be at in my career, as far as his superstar status.”
For now, the Knicks have shown no sign of consistent rhythm on offense. J.R. Smith needed 22 shots for his 19 points and Ray Felton put up 16 attempts for his 14 points. As a team, the Knicks again shot just 35 percent, leaving Anthony to say flatly: “Our offense has been s--t.” And when it wasn’t Roy Hibbert dominating inside, it was George Hill scoring 26 by constantly getting into the paint.
Shooting hasn’t always been pretty for George in this postseason, but he’s already rivaling LeBron James as one of the game’s most prolific, complete players. On those terrible shooting nights, George is all over the place – defending the opponent’s best, rebounding and disrupting passes. On offense, he doesn’t need solacing.
“It’s on me,” George told RealGM. “It’s everybody around me, everybody telling me to be aggressive. But I got to want it, and I do …
“I do want it.”
The pass had found him in the fourth quarter of his biggest NBA game, and George leaped over all the Knicks and only came down when Anthony swiped him on the back of his head. George wanted to push the Pacers to the cusp of the Eastern Conference finals, wanted to get up from that smack across the head from the player he revered growing up and mostly wants the pressure in a series against LeBron James.
Paul George understood he had to get up Tuesday night, had to keep playing, and at 23, he’s still coming for everyone.
May 12, 2013 2:47 AM EDT
INDIANAPOLIS – As the clock pushed into early Saturday morning, J.R. Smith awoke freezing, chills running through his body, and sickened with a virus. Treatments had started ferociously then, and the New York Knicks’ doctors began giving Smith fluid, trying anything to get him in playing capacity.
Smith had been consistent offense in the regular season, a Sixth Man of the Year, revitalizing himself as a force the Knicks can’t win without. They need his shooting and the way he creates plays, but he’s settled for jumpers and played unsteady too often in these playoffs. Smith never felt like himself Saturday night, and his voice was groggy and he lacked energy in his shooting.
For Smith, the walk out of the Fieldhouse couldn’t come sooner after the Knicks had lost to the Pacers, 81-72, in Game 3 of this conference semifinals. Smith rose for eight jumpers on Saturday, coming up short on several, and appeared out of place on some offensive possessions. With his head down heading toward the team bus late Saturday, Smith perked up to greet a Knicks official and let out a truth that has haunted him throughout the playoffs: “Just missed shots, man.”
In all, Smith missed eight of 12 from the field, slipping to just 11 makes in 42 attempts for the series. Just minutes into entering the game, Smith already had his hands on his knees and was admittedly winded. Nevertheless, the Knicks badly needed Smith on a night Carmelo Anthony took a beating, took the least amount of shots he has all postseason, and no one else scored more than nine. The Knicks know this is what the Pacers do: Slow the pace, muck up the game and close off the three-point line.
Amar’e Stoudemire did play for the first time since March, logging just eight minutes and wearing bulky casts of ice around both knees on the bench. He’s discussed with Mike Woodson that his limit is 15 minutes, and clearly Stoudemire won’t be the savior of these Knicks and their offense that revolves around how Anthony and Smith attack.
All the time sidelined has given Stoudemire heightened prospective about the Knicks, and he understands the offense’s limitations when Smith doesn’t assert himself, doesn’t weave through defenses for drive and kicks. Never mind in a Game 3 when two rotation players (Pablo Prigioni, Jason Kidd) went scoreless and Tyson Chandler dealt with foul trouble because of Roy Hibbert’s immense paint control.
“It was difficult for [Smith] out there,” Stoudemire said. “He’s still under the weather, not feeling great. Hopefully he feels better by Game 4.”
Smith, for his part, believes he has either a stomach or nasal virus and he was adamant he’ll play on Tuesday night – whatever treatments await him. “I don’t know, but I’m still playing. Being sick doesn’t really matter,” he said.
From one end to another within the Knicks’ locker room, players believed the Pacers aren’t using any different schemes, but rather they’re simply missing shots. Truth is, Indiana has the bodies, the defensive structure and the manpower in Hibbert, Paul George, David West and George Hill to destruct New York’s gameplan in a way that the depleted Boston Celtics couldn’t in the first round.
“It was a bad offensive game and we couldn’t put the ball in the basket,” Ray Felton sighed.
The Knicks have come to rely upon the brilliant scoring and one-on-one abilities of Anthony and Smith, but Anthony kept getting crowded, kept getting hit, and Smith never shook off the chills. Anthony’s talent has widened the Knicks’ margin for error in stretches of these playoffs, and yet the Pacers are determined to show he won’t have those scoring binges on them. This is where Smith has been so valuable, so consistent in proving opponents’ efforts futile.
Smith had gotten a virus and sat for dinner here Friday night, wondering how worse it would get, wondering if he’d play. Sure enough, there was no flu game out of J.R. Smith on Saturday – just shots going awry, shots falling short, and a teetering, welcomed walk out of the Fieldhouse and into recovery time to find any resemblance of the Sixth Man.
Apr 17, 2013 2:23 AM EDT
MILWAUKEE – Ty Lawson remembers the moment vividly three seasons ago, his coach livid with him over a step-back jumper he took. In that rookie season, Lawson made that shot, and yet George Karl was fuming and gave Lawson a stern message on his way back to the Denver Nuggets’ next huddle.
“You can’t do that!” Karl shouted.
“[Karl] was pissed,” Lawson says now. “He didn’t want me shooting anything but a layup or a three. But I’m like: In the year 2013, that’s when I know I’ll do that step-back.”
Now, Karl has immense trust in Lawson, a relationship that has constantly tightened. They know it had to be this way once Chauncey Billups left in the Carmelo Anthony trade. Ultimately, Karl understood the Nuggets’ future rested on giving Lawson freedom, and in turn rested on his ability to blossom with it. And he hasn’t looked back.
Danilo Gallinari is done for the season and Kenneth Faried won’t return until the playoffs, but the Nuggets still clinched homecourt advantage through the first round, escaping Monday night with a 112-111 win over the Bucks. Lawson played his third straight game since missing eight of nine, and he put on a clinic: 26 points, seven assists, five rebounds – and a step-back game-winning jumper with 9.3 seconds left.
For all the talk about the Nuggets lacking a superstar, a go-to guy, Lawson looks around the locker room and believes the talent is there for a championship run this season. Yes, Gallinari is gone – a date for surgery on his torn ACL still not set so that the swelling in his knee subsides – but teammates believe Faried will return from a sprained ankle for Game 1 of the postseason. With an offense based on execution and movement and a defense heightened by Andre Iguodala, the Nuggets have been entertaining and nearly unbeatable at home all season.
So will this Nuggets season be a failure if Denver doesn’t win a championship?
“I think it would be a failure,” Lawson told RealGM. “We’ve been playing well all this year. We have the best record in team history. We’re a deep team, players good at each position, and we’ve been playing well. I feel like if we don’t make it past the second round, I wouldn’t be satisfied.”
For Lawson, the recovery from a torn plantar fascia in his right heel has tested him physically, tested his patience. From ankle and foot mobility exercises to massages, icing to even acupuncture, Lawson has done whatever it takes to get back on the court, get back healthy. He had been coming three hours before Nuggets practices – 8 a.m. trips to the team’s facility for treatment. Lawson’s mindset was clear: “I got to do what I got to do to get healthy,” he said.
Karl had a plan to ease Lawson into the Nuggets’ lineup: Limited minutes in a bench role in the first game back, an increased workload in the second and a complete test in the third. After playing 19 and 31 minutes in his first two games back, Lawson’s performance Monday was punctuated in over 38 minutes, in a brilliant display of blazing past defenders and absorbing and finishing through contact all night. It left Lawson, Karl said, “reassured … [with] his swag back. We know how valuable he is to us.”
“Sometimes, I thought that it was getting better – I was able to walk with no pain – and I start running and I couldn’t cut,” Lawson said. “I feel like I’m close to a 100 percent now or almost there.”
Three postseasons have come and gone for Lawson, and he knows the Nuggets need him to be more of Games 2, 3, 6 and 7 of last season’s series against the Los Angeles Lakers. Lawson has taken such a critical responsibility, games with seven points, with nine points, would shape a playoff failure for him.
The Nuggets know this: Their defense, especially on the perimeter, will have to stiffen in the playoffs. Monta Ellis shredded them inside and outside, dropping 38 points, and J.J. Redick and Mike Dunleavy continually got open shots on pin-down sets. Nevertheless, the Nuggets are a virtual lock for the third seed in the Western Conference and either possible six-seed, the Golden State Warriors or Houston Rockets, play right into Denver’s style.
Soon, Lawson knows the Nuggets will again start to hear their supposed flaws. No superstar, no All-Star. Lawson has long wanted this chance to lead the Nuggets deep into the postseason, this chance to receive the credit, the accountability that comes with being a go-to guy. On the cusp of the playoffs, there was Lawson on Monday, hitting a game-winner and strutting, nodding back to the bench.
“I think I’m getting better and better every year,” Lawson said. “Between me and Iguodala and even JaVale [McGee] – he has the most potential probably out of anybody – and Wilson [Chandler] is a starting three on any team in the league ...
“We can have superstars, All-Stars. Definitely somebody will be that in the near future. As of next year.”
For now, these Nuggets will be Lawson’s show, and he and Karl both knew the organization needed it this way. He can take whatever shot he wants in any moment, Lawson says with a smile, and he has the free rein and Karl just lets him run and run now. Even so, Lawson remembers it wasn’t always like this, and he still recalls that Karl message when he took – and made – a jumper that the coach deemed a bad shot.
On the night he hit the same step-back jump shot from inside the free throw line, Lawson summoned out his response to Karl three seasons ago: In 2013, I’ll be free to do that. In 2013, Ty Lawson is free to evoke a championship pursuit.
Mar 29, 2013
The Lakers have tried to force-feed Pau Gasol at times since his return last week from a torn plantar fascia, but it has been superficial faith. Gasol has admitted his benching out of Mike D’Antoni earlier in the season affected him, and why should anyone – much less the Lakers – be surprised?
Mar 24, 2013
As much as Mickael Pietrus acknowledges the transition phase that the Raptors are undergoing, he still hopes that the team trusts his ability to produce on the court when needed. In his mind, a strong push to close out the season will help players enter the offseason with a more positive outlook.
Mar 19, 2013
As Andrew Bynum is lost for the season with surgery on both knees, Nikola Vucevic continues piling up double-doubles, tied for fifth-most in the league. Maybe the 76ers indeed understood Vucevic’s capabilities, and yet leaving has released some tension, allowing him to play and learn through his mistakes, develop and focus on his game.
Mar 16, 2013
The Heat held extensive searches as far back as last offseason to add an athletic frontcourt player, bringing in big man after big man for workouts. No one’s upside with the team intrigued Miami management as much as Chris Andersen.
Feb 24, 2013
The Hawks had sought trade offers for Josh Smith, and a deal seemed inevitable. Their decision to keep Smith in the end resonated with him, but both sides know the flexibility that awaits now.
Feb 24, 2013
For his part, Derrick Rose was an advocate of Kyle Korver over the past two seasons, both guards benefiting from the facets of their repertories that capitalizes each other best – dribble penetration and outside shooting. As much as anyone, Rose would have loved for Korver to stay with the Bulls.
Dec 19, 2012
For all his immense talent, the forming of Paul George’s mindset was outlined in high school and college, back when the tireless work wasn’t matched with accolades and attention.
Dec 16, 2012
In a lot of ways, the Clippers haven’t even revealed their true identity. They will always go as far as Chris Paul can lead them, but the depth of their roster has yet to take form.
Dec 02, 2012
It’s always going to be a make-or-miss league, Doc Rivers repeated late Saturday, and the void left in these Celtics by losing the greatest shooter of his era in Ray Allen is becoming more and more revealing.
Nov 18, 2012
Larry Sanders is no longer hastily scanning the stat sheet for his numbers. Now, he has fully embraced the role of bringing energy off the bench and changing the complexion of games with his feistiness, blocks and versatile defense.
Oct 02, 2012
As much as Derrick Rose talks about wanting to stay out of the front office’s personnel moves, he reinforced a clear message on Monday afternoon: Bring me players who are immensely passionate to join the Bulls, not through trade but through desire, and we’ll deal with whatever outcome.
Sep 24, 2012
In 13 seasons in the NBA, Isiah Thomas won two championships – back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990 – but had to battle those old rivals, Magic Johnson’s Los Angeles Lakers, Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics and Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls.
Sep 22, 2012
Derrick Rose has maintained for years that he’s 100 percent behind his front office. He understands his role is to produce on the court, and he has the ultimate faith in Bulls management and its decision-making. Mostly, Rose has been loyal to the Bulls while reaping rewards out of the third-largest market in the nation to grow his brand.
Sep 22, 2012
After a trying offseason that had the Bulls ducking from committing to contracts they could get rid of, nothing but signing Tom Thibodeau and Taj Gibson to extensions will allow the organization to save face and end on a high note.
Aug 23, 2012
Dwyane Wade spoke to RealGM about his recovery from knee surgery, Derrick Rose's comeback, what he expects from the Bulls and whether the Heat enter 12-13 as the NBA's favorites.
Jul 17, 2012
Derrick Rose’s combative fury could have had a role in the overcompensation he has placed on his body and the overexertion he has endured both physically and mentally.
Jul 15, 2012
The Bulls entered the offseason with one of the best benches in the NBA, but it has incrementally been dismantled over the past two weeks in response to Derrick Rose's injury and growing luxury tax concerns.
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