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These Pacers Have Some Growing Up To Do

The Indiana Pacers are a very good basketball team.

Despite what the Internet might lead you to believe, they even spent a good chunk of the season as the best team in the NBA. Over the last several weeks, however, they have become Twitter’s favorite whipping dog.

While they certainly deserve to be criticized, there are more numbers that support them as one of the best teams than as one of the most disappointing. The Pacers had more regular-season wins (56) than all but three teams. Two of those clubs, the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder, are battling it out in the Western Conference Finals. The third, the Los Angeles Clippers, enjoyed a run to the semifinals despite the overwhelming shadow of Donald Sterling.

Indiana had the NBA’s best home record (35-6) during the regular season and tied San Antonio for the best record in conference.

Defense was the main reason the Pacers were so successful and why they are in the Eastern Conference Finals for the second-straight year.

The Pacers ranked first in defensive rating (99.3 points allowed per 100 possessions) and in opponent’s true shooting percentage (.501), effective field goal percentage (.460) and points per shot (1.12). They did so while playing at a pace that ranked in the bottom third of the league. They forced teams to take tough shots and didn’t allow them to compile enough possessions to make up for poor percentages.

Frank Vogel, defensive-minded since he took over for Jim O’Brien during the 2010-11 season, leaned on his defense because his team often slipped into periods of atrocious offense. The Pacers had a 104.1 offensive rating during the season, which ranked 23rd overall and was worse than only two playoffs teams (Charlotte and Chicago). 

Indiana’s advanced shooting percentages were middling, but a high turnover rate (14.3%) compounded their offensive problems. Playing at a slow pace keep the Pacers from scoring in the same manner that it limited their opponents.

The Pacers haven’t been quite as stingy in the playoffs, but they have the lowest defensive rating (103.1) among the remaining teams. The offense has been through peaks and valleys, but at a rate of 103.5 points per 100 possessions it’s only a fraction of point worse than what they posted over the regular season. 

So why have the Pacers struggled? 

They needed seven games to get past the Atlanta Hawks, who entered the playoffs with a losing record. The Wizards took Game 1 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse before the Pacers won four of the next five to win the series in six. After thumping the Miami Heat in the first game of the conference finals, three straight losses put them in the unenviable position of having to win three in a row to advance.

Vogel’s crew has endured uncharacteristic defensive lapses, especially in the first round and against the Heat, who saw their offensive rating increase in each game (from 108.2 in Game 1 all the way to 125.1 in Game 4) before Indiana’s win on Wednesday night. They’ve also scored fewer than 90 points in six of their 18 playoff games. Their overall offensive rating hasn’t dipped significantly because they’ve scored more than 100 points twice.

For these Pacers, the biggest reason for their inconsistent play has been startling immaturity and a lack of mental toughness.

Lance Stephenson (immaturity) and Roy Hibbert (fragile psyche) have been the poster children for what is wrong with the Pacers, but in truth the problems are much more deep-seeded. 

They were one big happy family when cruising through the first half of the season, looking like a band of brothers while sitting at 20-3 in mid-December. Running off so many wins early on may have done more harm than good in hindsight. Perhaps these Pacers became too good, too quickly. Maybe they were never quite as good as their record looked early in the season. It’s feasible that they figured they had punched to a ticket to the NBA Finals back in the first month of the season.

It’s disturbing that a team with so much experience as a unit -- the starting five has tallied roughly 3,500 minutes together since the start of the 2012-13 season, nearly double the next most common lineup -- can’t handle adversity. They are young, with a two starters that began the year at 23, but not cripplingly so. The average age of Indiana’s starting five is 27, greater than Oklahoma City (25.6). Miami (30.8) and San Antonio (29.4) are significantly older.

While it’s clear that the mental state of the team was never as strong as it looked, things started to come unglued over a three-week period at midseason. Larry Bird, seeing that a championship was within the team’s grasp, signed Andrew Bynum and traded the beloved Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers for Evan Turner.

The moves were universally lauded, including by yours truly, but before long they became unquestioned failures.

Bynum’s troublesome knees limited him to just two games, but Hibbert still seemed frazzled by the addition. The All-Star center, who averaged 11.8 points, 7.6 rebounds and 2.5 blocks on 46.4% shooting before the break, posted just 9.0 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.9 blocks on 40.5% shooting after Bynum was signed.

When the Pacers announced on May 7 that Bynum would no longer be with the club, Hibbert responded a few hours later with 28 points, nine rebounds and two blocks on 10-for-13 shooting against the Wizards.

Turner has been a non-factor for the Pacers, especially in the postseason. He has logged more than 12 minutes in just five games and sat out entirely on six occasions. More upsetting than his lack of production on the court, his new teammates have put undo blame on Turner for the departure of Granger.

Shortly after the Pacers sent Granger to Philadelphia for the former No. 2 overall pick, Paul George posted an Instagram photo of him and Granger sitting together on the bench laughing. Granger had been in Indianapolis longer than any other player, enduring losing seasons as the roster was rebuilt. Injuries and age had limited his on-court role, but Granger’s presence in the locker room was more valuable than Bird estimated.

This has been more a case of the Pacers missing Granger than Turner being a bad seed, but it was a mistake nonetheless. Bird made the deal, but it was the team’s responsibility to act like professionals. In a lengthy conversation I had with George Hill nearly two weeks after the trade, it was clear that he was still coming to terms with the change. He alternated between saying the right thing and refusing to let Granger go.

“It sucks to see a teammate leave, you never want to see that. It’s a business though, and it can happen to anybody, any of us. It shows that in the league these days you have to come to work with a purpose and make the most of it because it’s not promised,” Hill told me in Boston. “We wished him well and we hope that he has a great career after this. But it just sucks; you never want to see a teammate leave. Especially a guy that’s close to you.”

An indication that even Bird was beginning to panic came on March 11 when he told Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star that we was “disappointed” by the team’s play. The Hall of Famer was absolutely right in criticizing his troops for lacking urgency, but they weren’t the only ones caught in the line of fire. 

Vogel, perpetually positive, has maintained a “stay the course” approach throughout Indiana’s lowest moments. Bird, the yin and Vogel’s yang, called for the coach to be tougher on his players.

“I’m sort of going to Frank’s side because he's had so much success by staying positive,” Bird told Kravitz. “We do have to stay the course. But I also think he’s got to start going after guys when they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do. And stay on them, whether you’ve got to take them out of the game when they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do or limit their minutes. I will say, he hasn’t done that enough.”

A few weeks after Bird critiqued his coach, the players started to air their dirty laundry publicly.

“Some selfish dudes in here,” Hibbert told the media after taking eight shots in a 91-78 loss in Washington on March 28. “Some selfish dudes. I’m tired of talking about it. We’ve been talking about it for a month.

"We play hard, but we've got to move the ball," he added. "Is it obvious, or what? I don't know whatever our assist ratio, or whatever it is, is in the league, but it probably isn't up there. I'm really trying hard not to spaz out right now, but I don't know. We've been talking about it for a month. I'm not handling the rock. I don't know. I've made suggestions before and we do it for, like, one game, and then we revert back to what we are. I don't know. I'm not the one to answer that question. It directly affects me and the bigs. We're just out there and it makes us look bad."

Soon after Hibbert took his gripes to the media, it was revealed that a series of players-only meetings were held after the All-Star break when losses started to come as frequently as wins.

“We’ve had plenty of players-only meetings,” Hibbert told reporters. “We’ve had plenty of sit-downs with the team and coaches, some with upper management listening in. Maybe we should all go to group therapy and have an airing of grievances.”

A few days after Hibbert gave us all a peek into the team’s psyche, Vogel expressed a desire for things to be kept in-house by saying Hibbert’s comments “bothered him.” Putting a positive spin on things becomes much more difficult when everything coming from the locker room is negative.

Despite a near free-fall in March and April, the Pacers held onto the No. 1 seed and achieved their season-long goal of home court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. Once again, they took their foot off the gas as they lost Game 1 to the Hawks at home. They would fall down 3-2 in the series and need a pair of season-saving wins to avoid a historic disaster.

As they battled Atlanta, Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports reported that Stephenson and Turner fought during practice on the eve of the playoffs. The Pacers deflected the story with the precision of a defensively focused Hibbert, but the damage was done. Of all the negative attention this team has garnered in the past few months, this story seemed to carry the least weight. Stephenson gets under everyone’s skin and Turner just isn’t as well versed at ignoring him than the rest of his teammates.

As the Pacers continued to alternate between focused and lost, rumors floated around that women were dividing the locker room. One rumor, that Paul George slept with Hibbert’s fiancée, made enough of an impact that George took to Instagram once again. This time he posted of picture of himself with Hibbert and Hill smiling during a fishing trip. He outwardly denied the rumors, while Hibbert choose not to comment on the odd situation.

The reports piggybacked an admission by George to Candace Buckner of the Star that he may not have handled stardom and a few embarrassing off-court situations as well as he should have.

"It was a bit of a learning curve," George told Buckner. "I just felt like I took that big step of just being an average player to, you know, someone who everybody recognizes. My Instagram taking a big hit with people following. With Twitter, people following.

"There was really no in-between, so everything was like new to me."

That seems like a reasonable mistake by an athlete that turned 24 on May 2, but he proceeded to throw Stephenson under the bus this week when the guard’s goading of LeBron James backfired.

Stephenson told reporters he felt he was getting in LeBron’s head in Game 3 and prior to Game 4. Stephenson, who has since admitted fault, had “no regrets” after James put up 35 points and 10 rebounds in a dominant Game 4 win by the Heat.

"Well, you know, Lance is young," said George, who is just a few months older than his teammate, after Monday night’s loss. "You know that's teaching point, it's a learning lesson for him. Sometimes you just gotta watch what you say. You're on a big stage and everything you say is bulletin board material. It's really going to have a powerful meaning behind it. We've just got to be smarter with situations and voicing our opinions sometimes."

After coughing up chances to win the second and third games against Miami, George’s criticism of Stephenson wasn’t the only display of immaturity. Almost to a man, the Pacers blamed the referees for a wide free throw disparity. George earned himself a $25,000 fine for suggesting that the Heat enjoyed some home cooking. The lack of accountability following a loss that featured a 23-point deficit in the second half was startling.

Hibbert, who is a completely different player when he makes his first shot attempt, added to the negativity following Game 4 by openly complaining about his touches again.

“The game plan really wasn’t to utilize me as much; I’m just trying to be effective as I can,” Hibbert told reporters. “Would I like a little bit more touches early on? Yeah. But that’s how the cookie crumbles sometimes.”

Hibbert was right when he added: "I just need to be a good teammate if I don’t get looks.” However, if that is how he feels, why is he complaining to the media with a once-promising season slipping away?

The Pacers earned themselves a short break from ridicule with a narrow win in Game 5, but they still have a huge hill to climb if they want to avenge playoff losses to the Heat in each of the last two seasons. Stephenson made some big plays in the victory, but flirted with disaster while trying to irritate Miami once again. He forced his way into a huddle between Erik Spoelstra, Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole late in the third quarter and provided fodder for bloggers everywhere when he softly blew into LeBron’s ear during a stoppage in play.

After Game 5, LeBron went out of his way to call the Heat “professionals.” Ray Allen called Stephenson’s antics “buffoonery.”

No matter when this season ends for the Pacers, it’s clear that they have some serious growing up to do. True character is revealed through adversity and these Pacers haven’t dealt well with hardship. Avoiding elimination on Wednesday night was a step in the right direction, but there is still little public confidence that they have the fortitude to pull off an epic comeback.

They are all mostly solid citizens, but at least the Stephen Jackson, Ron Artest and Jermaine O’Neal teams, who aliened the team’s fan base, fought on the court with as much fervor as they did off it.

The late John Wooden might as well have been talking about these Pacers when he said, “Winning takes talent, to repeat takes character.”

Indiana's Hometown Floor General

It’s a cold morning on the campus of UMass-Boston in early March. All is well for the Indiana Pacers, who have had their shootaround moved to Dorchester because of a Boston Bruins game. The only question heading into the night’s game against the Boston Celtics is whether or not George Hill will play. 

Hill, the starting point guard by label only, landed awkwardly on his shoulder in a win over the Milwaukee Bucks two days earlier. He attempts several jumpers and discusses plays with Frank Vogel on one side of the court, while Indiana’s big men gather on the other end. He seems healthy enough, but the training staff will soon decide to keep Hill on street clothes as a precaution.

The decision makes sense given that the Pacers went into the March 1 game at 44-13, two games ahead of the Miami Heat for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. Hill also sits the next day at home against Utah Jazz, but Indiana still wins both games.

As shootaround winds down a handful of players are still hoisting shots, but Hill strolls over to take a seat. After a few reporters gather information about his shoulder and status, it is proposed to the six-year veteran that a story is been written centered around him.

“On me? Why me? I’m not the guy here; you want to talk to Paul [George] or Lance [Stephenson],” Hill responds.

The truth is, while the Pacers have two All-Stars in George and Roy Hibbert, the front office and coaching staff have constructed a roster and put together a game-plan with a team-centric approach. Paul George was an MVP candidate early in the season and averages 21.7 points, but Indiana has five players averaging at least 10 points and eight shot attempts (six if you include Andrew Bynum).

“George is very low-key, but he’s a big character too,” Hibbert said of his teammate. “Don’t let him fool you though, he’s a funny dude, but he’s incredibly selfless.” 

Hill has seen his shot attempts decrease over the last year in conjunction with Stephenson’s improvement, but has still been the most efficient offensive player on the floor for the Pacers, who have struggled on that end. He has the highest oRTG (115) among rotation players, while Indiana ranks in the bottom third (103.8) overall.

George, Hibbert, Stephenson and even David West may garner more national attention, but Hill is vital to Indiana’s chances of upending Miami in the postseason.

“That’s who he is and that’s kind of who our whole team is,” Vogel said when told of how Hill reacted a lengthy-interview request. “We have a ton of team-first guys and guys that don’t want the individual spotlight. They want to be part of a true team. If it’s a difference-maker when you have evenly talented teams, how well you come together and show positive culture and chemistry. George is definitely one of our leaders in that regard.” 

The Pacers, despite their recent struggles, have cemented themselves as one of the best teams in the NBA and they should remain so for at least the next few years. Hill, who signed a five-year, $40 million deal in July 2012, has done wonders to help organization on and off the floor.

Hill, who was born and raised in Indianapolis, has helped bring fans back to Bankers Life Fieldhouse, which was nearly abandoned in the years immediately following the sub-.500 finishes and off-court issues that plagued the team in mid-to-late 2000s. His workmanlike approach and clean-cut lifestyle appeal to the club’s working class fans.

“I grew up during the Michael Jordan days, so he was one of the players that I looked up to and watched, but at the same time I was a huge fan of the Pacers,” he said. “I really couldn’t afford to get tickets or things like that, but I always kept tabs on them as far as watching them. I’d see them in public and certain places. When I was able to go to games, I certainly rooting for them.” 

Hill went on to star at Broad Ripple High School, where he earned 11 total letters in basketball, baseball and soccer. As a senior, he led the state in scoring (36.2), the fifth-best average in the history of the basketball-crazed state.

When the time came for Hill to choose a college, he put his family over the spotlight, committing to IUPUI so he could be closer to his ailing great-grandfather despite an offer from Indiana. The Jaguars were 61-30 in his three seasons (he was forced to redshirt in 2006-07 because of an injury). He left IUPUI fifth on the college’s all-time scoring list despite leaving with a year of eligibility remaining. Hill remained at IUPUI despite the unfortunate passing of his great-grandfather soon after he made his verbal commitment. He had a chance to change his mind, but passed on greener pastures yet again. 

“It was the commitment I gave coach [Todd] Howard and coach [Ron] Hunter,” Hill said of his decision to remain at IUPUI. “I gave them my word that I would start my career there and help try to put IUPUI on the map. I feel like things happen for a reason, so I stuck with my decision and it turned out well.” 

Hill, who is a few classes shy of his degree, has a lot of basketball left in him, but having that diploma in hand is a goal that rivals winning an NBA title on his list of desires. 

“I have 12 credit hours that I have to finish,” he told me. “I’ve been talking to the dean of the school about coming up with different plans that best fit my schedule and best fit their schedule to get my degree. That’s one of my goals in life.” 

IUPUI helped propel Hill to the NBA, but The Summit League isn’t a huge breeding ground for basketball talent. Before Nate Wolters landed with the Milwaukee Bucks this season, Hill had been the only alum of the conference in the NBA for decades. 

“Going to IUPUI, they always said ‘you never can make it to the NBA from there, it’s a small school,’ and things like that. I’ve always been a guy that likes to be the underdog. No one can tell me I can’t do something; I’m going to try to prove them wrong,” Hill explained. 

“In the NBA, it doesn’t matter where you are, if you can play they’ll come and find you. Knowing that and me being close to Conseco [Fieldhouse, now Bankers Life], I’d go down there and meet with guys like Ron Artest and play with them during the summer. That was one avenue that allowed me to open doors. People could see me playing with them at open gyms. I knew if I just continued to do what I had to do, I’d be fine.” 

Hill was rewarded for his loyalty and conviction. Despite being projected by some as mid-second round pick and being completely left off the board on other mock drafts, the San Antonio Spurs selected Hill with the 26th overall pick in 2008.

In three seasons as Tony Parker’s backup, Hill averaged 9.9 points, 2.4 assists and 2.4 assists in 24.6 minutes over 231 games. He also started 55 games for the Spurs, who gave him the ability to gain valuable postseason experience. In 20 playoffs games with San Antonio, Hill saw increased minutes and boosted his numbers accordingly -- 11.4 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists.

“How to be a winner and a positive teammate,” Hill said when asked what he learned from his time with the Spurs. “How to conduct myself on and off the court. There are things that I learned there that I’ve carried with me to this day. They’ve helped make me a better player here in Indiana.”

Hill spent the summer prior to the 2010-11 season working on his point guard skills with Spurs shooting coach Chip Engelland and assistant Chad Forcier. The duo pushed him to the brink physically, while suggesting that he work on both his three-point and teardrop shot. After hitting just 32.9% of his threes as a rookie, Hill has hovered around 37% since. He hasn’t been an elite shooter with the Pacers, but a consistent one nonetheless. Over the last three seasons, his basic shooting percentages haven’t deviated by more than a tenth of a percent.

“Everybody has to play to their strengths and who they are. He wasn’t raised through grammar school and everything as a pure point guard, a setup guy,” Vogel said when asked about the label of ‘point guard’. “He’s a score-first guy, but he’s pretty good at setting people up too. He’s a good leader. He runs the point guard position for us in his way and does a good job of it.”

Looking to fortify the roster with a respected, seasoned player, Larry Bird and then-general manager David Morway swung a deal with the Spurs for Hill on draft night in 2011. The Pacers selected Kawhi Leonard with the 15th pick for San Antonio and shipped him southwest for Hill. Less than three years later, the trade has been a rare win-win. 

Popovich called Hill that night to inform him of the trade. When the coach had a hard time communicating with one of his more-trusted players, Hill knew his time with the Spurs had come to an end. 

“I do things in the summers for little kids, as far as camps and things like that, and I was actually going to a radio show to promote an event I was having when I got the call from Pop,” Hill remembered. “When he actually couldn’t talk easily with me, I knew something was up.” 

Hill was headed home, which made the news a little bit easier to digest, especially for his family. 

“They were very excited to have me come back home where it all started. I get to play in front of my family and friends in the city I grew up in, it’s something that you can only dream about. It was probably one of the happiest days of their lives,” Hill said with a smile. 

He was heavily involved in the community during his three years in Texas, but the trade that brought him back to Indianapolis has allowed Hill to give back to the community that helped make him the player and man he has become. He has help fund and create several leagues and tournaments for the youth of Indianapolis. Hill also supports young dancers (G3 Steppers), veterans (Wish for Our Heroes) and the fight against poverty (Kids Against Hunger). 

Along with Paul George, Hill formed the G2 zone, which rivals Hibbert’s Area 55 as the loudest section at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. His presence in the community has been a breath of fresh air. 

“That’s something I build on. I said when I made it to the NBA; I would give back to the community and be a positive role model in my community, which is on a downfall right now as far as homicides and things like that,” Hill said. “I’m trying to be an outlet for kids and ensure them that no matter where you come from, or where you are, anything can happen if you put your mind to it. Since my rookie year I’ve be working on that. I started my AAU program -- George Hill Rising Stars -- and I’m on the board for Wish for Our Heroes and going to Haiti with Kids Against Hunger.”

The Pacers were on the upswing when Hill arrived, having ended a four-year playoff drought the preceding spring when they gave the Chicago Bulls all they could handle in the first round, but they really took off during the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. Since Hill was acquired and West signed, Indiana was won 17 playoff games. If they are able to cure their late-season woes in time for the postseason, they’ll add to that impressive total. 

“When I first got here Larry said he wanted to revamp this team and bring in high-character guys,” Hill said. “He wanted guys that wanted to be here, wanted to turn a program around and wanted to win. Knowing that, that he believed in me I’ve told him I won’t let him down, I’ll try to be the best player that I can on the court and the best guy off of court by leading and showing the young guys how to be professional.”

Hill is a good free throw shooter, but he doesn’t get to the line often. This season, almost half of his shot attempts have come from behind the three-point line. That appears to be by design. 

“He’s a floor general for us. He spreads the floor and makes the right play every possession,” Paul George said. “He’s probably one of the best defenders at his position as well, so he’s tied to what this team is all about.” 

Hill isn’t having the best offensive season of his career, but the Pacers need him to score or facilitate to help an offense that has sputtered lately. After averaging 98.5 points through the All-Star break (52 games), the Pacers are scoring just 92.9 points in 26 games since.

Indiana scores 4.6 more points per 100 possessions with Hill on the floor than they do when him on the bench. He’s also underrated defensively, using his huge wingspan to hamper opposing guards.

“He’s solid for us, and always makes play for us,” West said. “He’s been holding steady at the point guard position. He does his job and does it well. We need him.” 

The Pacers have known all along that they need Hill, but that has never been more apparent than now. He won’t receive any votes for an individual award, unlike many of his teammates, but that’s just fine with Hill, who would rather blend into the surroundings than find himself at the forefront. 

“I don’t do this for attention,” he said. “I just do this because I love it and I want to win. I never do anything for personal gain and to flaunt it. That’s why I said ‘Why me?’ I’m just a low-key guy at the bottom. I just want to help this team win.”

Raptors' Late Game Offense Less Alpha, More Pack

The Toronto Raptors are headed to the postseason for the first time since 2008, likely with homecourt advantage in the first round. 

The Raptors’ improvement is as surprising as the December trade that sent Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings, which seemed to signal at the time that Masai Ujiri was waiving the white flag on the 2013-14 season. Toronto is 10 games above .500, but they were 6-12 on the morning of Dec. 8.

When the postseason begins, several new faces will represent the Eastern Conference. We are accustomed to seeing the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, Chicago Bulls, Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks/New York Knicks, but the Raptors, Washington Wizards and Charlotte Bobcats will be looking to advance while learning about spring basketball on the fly.

Late-game execution is vital to success in the playoffs and while you can predict that guys like LeBron James and Kevin Durant will have the ball in their hands with the game on the line, many clubs have had success without an alpha dog.

The Raptors are one of those teams.

“We have different situations where we like to go with different people. I don’t want to give away any trade secrets or anything, but we like different guys in different situations,” Dwane Casey said when asked about how he draws up late-game plays.

“We have multiple guys, we don’t have one guy that we go to all the time.”

Casey can go to DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Amir Johnson or even the emerging Terrence Ross in crunch time. Before you discount Johnson as a late-game option, he’s a team-high +34 in the final minute of close games (within five points) this season.

Toronto has taken 82 shots in what I’ve defined as a clutch situation, but not one player accounts for even a third of those attempts.

“That is just the trust that we have in one another on this team, honestly,” DeRozan told RealGM. “Anybody here can hit a big shot for us at any given moment in a late-game situation. That’s big for us to have. Sometimes I’ll use myself as a decoy to free up other guys. That’s just the trust factor we have.”

Lowry leads the Raptors with 27 clutch attempts, scoring a team-high 35 points on 33.3% shooting. DeRozan, a first-time All-Star this February, has scored 27 points on 26 takes (an abysmal 23.1% shooting). He is, however, 15-for-18 from the line.

“Sometimes you have to understand that if teams are coming in on me, double-teaming me, I’ve got to be comfortable as the decoy to help get a better shot for someone else on the team, whether it’s Kyle or someone else,” DeRozan said of the team’s balance.

Johnson averages 10.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game, but has been very efficient for the Raptors late in games. He’s 10-for-17 from the field with 26 points and 11 rebounds in 29 “clutch” minutes this season. Aside from Jonas Valanciunas, 21, Johnson is Casey’s lone interior threat on the offensive end.

“Whoever has the ball, we’ll believe in him and that he’ll make the right decision,” Ross said. “We believe in whoever is in that position.”

While talking to Ross for this piece, Chuck Hayes joked that he’d like to see the second-year forward take some shots in the final seconds. Ross has made some big shots this season, but he has yet to attempt a shot during the final 60 seconds of a close game.

“It gives us more options and the defense can’t load up on one person,” Ross added. “You don’t know who the ball will go to in the final minutes, it definitely helps.

“We’ve got to play together the whole game. It’d be nice if we had a KD-type closer, but we don’t.”

Defenses may not be able to key in on a specific player when facing the Raptors, but that doesn’t mean they have excelled. They are .500 (24-24) in games that are within five points in the final five minutes, but just 16-19 and in the bottom third of the NBA if you trim that clutch time down to the final minute. The Raptors are 1-6 in overtime games.

On March 25, the Raptors had the ball with a chance to tie the Cleveland Cavaliers in the final moments. Greivis Vasquez lost his footing and turned the ball over with 1.9 seconds remaining. The result was a 102-100 loss to a team with fading playoff hopes and an injured Kyrie Irving.

“He fell down. I thought he turned his ankle, but he slipped and lost his balance,” Casey said when asked about the specific play. “Those are the kind of plays we’ve got to made and find closers in those situations at the end of games. I was telling the coaching staff in Oklahoma City, you wish you had a Kevin Durant. A player that you can throw it to a half court and he’ll give you two points, but we’ve got to learn that. We are a team in the progress of growing, developing. We’ve pulled out some games with our defense, but there’s still a lot of areas that we are growing and improving in.”

Just a few days before the Cleveland loss, they led the Oklahoma City Thunder 118-110 with 49 seconds left in double-overtime. The Thunder scored nine-straight points to win the game, while the Raptors missed two field goals, two free throws and even threw away an inbounds pass.

“We’re going for a bucket. The best bucket available,” Casey said of how he approaches the end of games. “If I had Michael Jordan, or whoever in that situation, who can rise up and shoot a three we’d probably go for that. For us, we have to go for the best bucket available.”

Lowry, one of the few players on the roster with playoff experience, spoke highly of their overall offensive balance, but as a competitor he always wants the ball in his hands.

“We’ve got guys that make big plays and take big shots. As a team, we always count on each other, not just one player,” Lowry said before cracking a smile.

“I’m always ready. I’m going to make a play if I can.”

RealGM Interview: Tim Hardaway Jr.

Despite the disaster of their season, the Knicks can still carry two positives into the summer -- the addition of Phil Jackson to the front office and the play of Tim Hardaway, Jr.

Isaiah Thomas Learning To Lead As He Approaches RFA

Regardless of the Kings' short and long-term future, Isaiah Thomas has carved himself a place in this league at 5-foot-9 despite the growing trend towards bigger point guards.

Roy Hibbert On Education, Common Sense As Pro Athlete

The extra seasoning Roy Hibbert received in four years in college as an athlete and person was vital to his eventual success. Then a plodding big man, he has transformed himself into a two-time All-Star with Defensive Player of the Year merits through hard work and patience.

Grading The Deal: Pacers Make NBA's Boldest Deadline Move In Trading For Evan Turner

Evan Turner gives the Pacers a creator off the bench to improve their title aspirations, while also providing value in multiple ways this offseason.

More Than Just A Dunker: The Development Of Terrence Ross

Terrence Ross has quickly built his reputation in the NBA as one of the world's most explosive dunkers, but his ceiling and long-term production is dependent on his development as a shooter.

Grading The Deal: Pacers Sign Andrew Bynum

We may not be able to truly quantify what Andrew Bynum brings to the Pacers until the postseason, when we could see an incredible battle between reclamation projects if Greg Oden’s Heat matchup with Bynum’s Pacers in what could be another entertaining Eastern Conference Finals.

Antetokounmpo Represents Bucks' Uncertain Present, Unknown Future

Giannis Antetokounmpo has already become a mini-legend among hoopheads, but stories about the possibility of further growth, huge hands and potential as a future superstar only go so far. His minutes as a rookie are almost certainly dependent on whether the Bucks contend for a playoff spot.

Grading The Deal: Pacers Trade For Luis Scola

Adding Luis Scola to a team that expects to compete for an NBA title over the next few seasons is a nice move, but it becomes even better when you consider the price the Pacers paid for him.

Grading The Deal: Pacers Get David West On Three-Year Contract

Even with all of their young talent, the Pacers would have taken a big step back had they not retained David West. While the agreement did seem inevitable all along, the front office wasn’t in the best position.

Celtics Turn Page Painfully, Quickly

A pair of Kevin Garnett trades will highlight the Danny Ainge era with the Celtics, but what he does with the relative flexibility and windfall of first-round draft picks he now has will cement his legacy as an executive. The teardown may not be finished, but the blueprint has been revealed.

What We Learned: Indiana Pacers

With the draft looming and free agency on the horizon, here's a player-by-player look at what was gleamed about each member of the Pacers over the last eight months.

Hansbrough's Opportunity

Numbers have indicated that he can handle a bigger role for quite some time, but just a few months before his next contract is worked out Tyler Hansbrough is getting the opportunity to showcase just how effective he can be offensively and on the glass.

Amir Johnson Playing Bigger Than ‘Jeopardy’ Reputation

There are only a few NBA players averaging at least 10 points, seven rebounds and one block per game while also shooting 55% from the field this season. LeBron James, Al Horford, Serge Ibaka and Amir Johnson.

Grading The Deal: Celtics Trade For Jordan Crawford

The worst case for the Celtics here is that Jordan Crawford can’t earn minutes and becomes the ninth man off the bench. On certain nights, he can be a dangerous bench scorer.

Reggie Miller's Path To Springfield

Doubted by doctors, opponents, coaches, entire cities and Hall of Fame committees, nothing has stopped Reggie Miller or kept him quiet. Twenty five years after he was drafted and more than six years since his last game, there are no more doubters.

Grading The Deal: Pacers Keep Roy Hibbert

While Roy Hibbert may struggle to live up to a contract that will pay him an average of $14.5 million per season, putting him among the NBA’s top 30 highest-paid players, the Pacers actually played their hand rather well.

Grading The Deal: Heat Burn Celtics, Sign Ray Allen

Ray Allen will sign a contract with the Heat that will be worth a fraction of what he could have been able to sign with Boston, which tells you everything you need to know about how much he wanted out.

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