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Pacers still need George, but they've survived without him

Indiana has learned much about itself while Paul George recovers

POSTED: Mar 30, 2015 11:00 AM ET

By David Aldridge

BY David Aldridge

TNT Analyst

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George Hill and Rodney Stuckey (background) have proven crucial to Indiana remaining in the East playoff chase.

In This Week's Morning Tip

  • Where does OKC go from here sans Kevin Durant?
  • A Q&A with Spurs guard Manu Ginobili
  • Clippers, Spurs, Bulls on rise in DA's Top 15 Rankings

For a guy that lay mangled on the floor at Thomas and Mack Center just seven-plus months ago, the victim of a gruesome fracture of his tibia and fibula, Paul George looked pretty close to normal as he prepared to get some shots up last week. He said he felt pretty good.

So ... was this the night?

"Now, you know I'm not going to give up any secrets," he said, and it was here that the Indiana Pacers reminded everyone present that George had already spoken on his "day" last week, as per league rules for any injured player who is currently not active.

And so continues the Pacers' season, aka, Waiting for Paul.

He is a 6-foot-8 ghost who walks among them, a franchise player who flashes his old form often in scrimmages -- "I've seen him do windmills," teammate Roy Hibbert said -- but is still not back on the court. He was supposed to return March 14, according to him, and then he was supposed to return March 21, according to ESPN. Both predictions were wrong. And so the Pacers enter the final fortnight of the season still waiting, still hoping, that their franchise player can return.

George said Saturday that he feels good, "but it's not just me that has to feel good, everybody has to feel good about it. That's what we're waiting on ... It could be close, it could be not but everybody's got to be on the same page with this."

But at this point, would his return really help?

Seeing the things he does in practice, it's awesome. He's coming. ... The things he does in practice looks like the old PG, so whenever he comes back he'll be good ... People are going to be surprised.

– Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert, on Paul George

The Pacers have played almost an entire season without him. Whatever they are, they've got a rotation and they've come to count on the players they have, not the players they want. Getting a season's worth of rust off of George, no matter the potential benefits, may not be worth the risk. Indiana basically has no margin of error if it is to overtake the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics for a playoff berth.

And, isn't it at least possible that George may be coming back too soon?

"He wants to play bad," forward David West said. "He's just got to be smart. He's got to be patient. He's got to get healthy. He's got 12 more years in this. You have to be smart about it. That's what, at least me personally, that's my message to him, just to be smart, trust your body, trust yourself, which he's doing. He's trying to get after it every day, I know, but obviously wanting him to be healthy for the long haul."

George's horrific injury wrecked Indiana's plans to again contend in the Eastern Conference, even after it lost Lance Stephenson in free agency to the Charlotte Hornets.

And it was just the first of a half-dozen injuries to almost all of the team's key players, from West (sprained ankle) to George Hill (left knee contusion) to C.J. Watson (bruised right foot) to Rodney Stuckey (foot, calf), during the first half of the season.

The Starters: Indiana's Playoff Chances

Are the Indiana Pacers a legitimate playoff contender when and if Paul George comes back?

And yet, the Pacers are still on the edge of the playoff chase in the East this morning (Yes, it's the east, but still...). That's the result of no-excuses coaching by Coach Frank Vogel and inspired play by Stuckey and George Hill -- who is in the best stretch of play of his career.

"I love our competitive spirit," Vogel said last week. "It's a group that's been deep in the playoffs. And I like our chances."

George has been traveling with the team for weeks. Team president Larry Bird has maintained all season he thought it was important for George to play this season if at all possible.

But, as the Chicago Bulls found out with Derrick Rose a couple of years ago, having your franchise player so tantalizingly close is a double-edged sword.

The Starters: Should Paul George Return?

Should Paul George come back? Is Charles Oakley right about the game being worse than in his day? And, should John Wall be jumping in to the stands?

"Seeing the things he does in practice, it's awesome," Hibbert said. "He's coming. But I don't know what's going on with, I'm not a part of it. The training staff hasn't told us what they're planning on doing, and the front office doesn't. So they collectively talk. But the things he does in practice looks like the old PG, so whenever he comes back he'll be good ... People are going to be surprised. He's going to have a big play his first couple of possessions back."

Bird told ESPN last week that George had been cleared to play by the team's doctors.

"I expect him to play this year," Bird told ESPN. "I hope he does for his own good -- not for us to get in the playoffs or anything like that, but just for his own mental state. I think anytime you go through an injury like that, you have to get back out there and prove yourself. But he's not going to be 100 percent."

The Pacers have struggled all season without him to find any continuity. They've had four losing streaks this season of six or more games. Vogel has mixed and matched lineups all season -- sometimes because of the injuries, but sometimes to get a spark out of an ineffective unit. He's used Solomon Hill, the Pacers' first-round pick in 2013, most of the season in George's small forward spot, though he's gone with three-guard units for long stretches, too.

"It's definitely not the team we had last year," Hill said. "Through all the ups and downs, we were able to win games. If we wasn't playing so well at the offensive end, or we wasn't playing so well at the defensive end, we had experience. We had a close-knit team. But we've got a lot of new faces. A lot of guys who may not have played last year are playing a lot more this year. It's an adjustment period."

GameTime: Return Of George

Antawn Jamison and Dennis Scott give their two cents on whether All-Star Paul George should return for the Pacers this season.

The Pacers aren't the shutdown group defensively that they've been in the recent past; they've fallen to 12th in defensive rating, and they're 14th in 3-point percentage allowed.

But they've been .500 since their 7-17 start.

"When we were losing, guys were positive," West said. "There were times where maybe we coupled the mental fatigue with the physical fatigue, and it was just a bad week. The good thing about this group is that it just pushed through the whole thing. We were able to stay on our feet ... we're still in the fight."

Hill didn't play until just before Christmas because of the knee contusion, then only played five games before straining his groin. But since returning Jan. 23, Hill has taken on a leading role in the Pacers' offense. In March, he's played the best basketball of his career, averaging 19 points per game and shooting 51 percent from the floor -- including a 30-point, eight-assists effort against Boston and a 29-point, nine-assist gem in Washington last week, including the game-winning basket.

Hill was better against Miami in the playoffs last year than he was in 2013, when he disintegrated against the Heat's pressure in the Eastern Conference finals. But he was determined to get better. The day after the Pacers were eliminated, Hill was back in the gym in Indiana -- and stayed there all summer instead of going back to Texas to train, as he normally did in the summer.

He's just got to be smart. He's got to be patient. He's got to get healthy. He's got 12 more years in this. You have to be smart about it. That's what, at least me personally, that's my message to him, just to be smart, trust your body, trust yourself, which he's doing.

– Indiana Pacers forward David West, on his advice for Paul George

Hill did "insane" workouts, as Vogel put it -- five hours daily of shooting and ballhandling drills, combined with weightlifting and yoga. And he looks like a different player than he has in any of his previous six NBA seasons.

"This would have happened, regardless of Lance and regardless of what happened to Paul," Vogel said.

Hill's progression has allowed Vogel to put back some of the sets he's used effectively in the past. But what's different is how much the ball is in Hill's hands this season without Stephenson -- or, to a lesser degree, George -- on the floor to initiate the offense.

"I think he's an All-NBA player, the way he's been playing," Hibbert said. "He's been stepping up. He has the ball in his hands a lot more this year, and he's been very productive. He's been leading the charge."

And Stuckey has been equally valuable in his way.

Signed after the Pacers lost Stephenson to Charlotte following seven seasons with the Detroit Pistons. He has been a part-time starter at the two with C.J. Miles, and has responded with career bests in field goal percentage and 3-point percentage.

Miles hasn't shot quite as high a percentage from the field as Stuckey, but he's had a lot of high-scoring nights: 30 against the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 10, 25 against the Heat on New Year's Eve, 23 against the Houston Rockets on Jan. 19 and 26 in a Feb. 6 win against the Cleveland Cavaliers.

"You look at some of the situations we've been put in, and it's like, 'we've been in worse situations before,' " Miles said. "Guys have had to step up all year, and guys that aren't playing now played 30-plus minutes at the start of the season, and they may get called upon, so it's not foreign to them. Having to grind out games all year, and continuing to find ways to win, the biggest thing is that we continue to play. We play hard. You can wear on people that way."

Yet they haven't been able to turn the corner.

Indiana looked like it had righted itself for good with a 15-4 stretch that ran from late January through mid-March. Now, it's true that a lot of those wins came against the league's dregs -- three wins over the Knicks, two over Orlando, two over Philly -- but there were two wins over the Cavs, and a huge victory over the Golden State Warriors after the All-Star break. Indy ripped off seven straight wins to get to 30-34 on March 12. They had climbed all the way up to seventh in the East. George's self-predicted return was two days away.

We've been pretty much winners since I've been here. You kind of take it personal. It doesn't sit with me well. Like I tell people, I don't care about stats or anything like that. We've just got to get the daggone job done.

– Indiana Pacers point guard George Hill

And then, inexplicably, the Pacers spit the bit.

They lost six in a row at the worst possible time, with the defense drying up in losses to the Toronto Raptors and Nets, the offense anemic in losses to the Celtics and Bulls. After the last loss, to Houston, a week ago, the Pacers had fallen back to 10th in the conference. All the work of a season, all the scratching and clawing, looked to be wasted.

"If you didn't think that way, you weren't being real with yourself," Hill said. "No one wants to lose. I've never been a part of this, where we're on these long losing streaks. We've been pretty much winners since I've been here. You kind of take it personal. It doesn't sit with me well. Like I tell people, I don't care about stats or anything like that. We've just got to get the daggone job done. Sacrificing your body or trying to make plays, just get it done."

Wednesday's win in Washington, in which the Pacers overcame a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit, stopped the slide. Indiana got off to a horrible start the next night in Milwaukee -- bad starts have plagued the Pacers all season -- and this time, their fourth-quarter rally fell short in a 111-107 loss.

Yet Sunday brought more hope, against a Dallas Mavericks team fighting like mad to stay ahead of the crowd in the Western Conference.

Hill scored eight straight in the fourth quarter to break an 89-all tie. Dallas rallied to tie the game again at 97, but Hibbert made two free throws, and Miles, who scored 28, hit a clutch three with a minute left to give the Pacers some breathing room. They held on for a 102-99 win, tying Boston in the conference, just a hair behind resurgent Brooklyn for the final playoff spot.

This week may well decide things for good. The Pacers are at Brooklyn and Boston Tuesday and Wednesday, then host Charlotte and Miami Friday and Sunday. It's all in front of them, still.

Maybe George returning is a pipe dream this season. But a chance to make the playoffs, and be a longshot with no pressure instead of the top seed with a target on their backs, is, still, very real.

"We rattled off seven in a row before, and I think we can do it again," Hibbert said. "Collectively, we have to be tired of losing."

TOP O' THE WORLD, MA!

(Last week's record in parentheses; previous ranking in brackets)

1) Golden State (4-0) [1]: Clinched best record in the Western Conference and home-court advantage throughout the West playoffs with its win Saturday over Milwaukee -- the Warriors' 43rd win this season out of 60 by 10 or more points. Incredible.

Warriors vs. Bucks

Stephen Curry, 25 points, 6 assists and Klay Thompson, 21 points, 5 rebounds, pace the Warriors as they beat the Bucks, 108-95.

2) Atlanta (2-1) [2]: First division title since winning the Central in 1993-94. Locked up the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference on Friday after they defeated the Miami Heat and the Cleveland Cavaliers lost in Brooklyn. Last season, the Hawks were No. 8 in the East.

Heat vs. Hawks

DeMarre Carroll with 24 points and Paul Millsap with 21 points and 9 rebounds lead the Hawks over the Heat, 99-86.

3) Cleveland (2-1) [3]: Not quite as sharp this week as they've been lately, but get much-needed rest this week, with just one game Thursday against Miami.

4) Houston (4-0) [4]: Rockets' 7-1 rip in last two weeks suddenly has assured Houston of the No. 8 spot out West. That gives the Rockets home-court advantage until the Western Conference finals.

5) Portland (3-1) [5]: Blazers also closing in on long-denied division title, their first in a non-lockout season since 1991-92, when they were in the Pacific Division.

6) L.A. Clippers (3-0) [7]: Since Blake Griffin's return, entering play Sunday in Boston: offensive rating: 111.2 (4th in NBA)/defensive rating: 98.1 (5th).

7) Memphis (1-3) [6]: Three barely competitive losses to three of the league's better teams last week is not a good sign for the Grizzle this late in the campaign.

Grizzlies vs. Spurs

Kawhi Leonard scores 25 points and g rabs 10 rebounds as the Spurs drop the Grizzlies at the AT&T Center.

8) San Antonio (3-1) [9]: Just three wins in their last nine games assures the Spurs of a 15th consecutive non-lockout season with at least 50 regular season wins. And that's with all the injuries and rest that coach Gregg Popovich has been doling out!

9) Dallas (1-2) [8]: Monta Ellis' consecutive games played streak ended at 237 Sunday when he missed the Mavericks' game in Indiana with a calf injury.

10) Chicago (3-0) [12]: My Butler's Back, and you're gonna be in trouble.

11) Oklahoma City [10]: Before this season, Kevin Durant had played in 542 of 558 games (97.1 percent) for the Sonics/Thunder.

12) Toronto (1-2) [11]: Does it feel like the Raptors clinched the Atlantic Division on Friday, or like they'd walked over to the playoffs via forfeit six weeks ago?

Lakers vs. Raptors

Jonas Valanciunas scores 19 points with seven rebounds, James Johnson adds 17 as the Raptors handle the Lakers 94-83.

13) Washington (1-3) [13]: Everything else may be falling apart for the Wizards, but John Wall is representing.

14) Milwaukee (2-1) [14]: I'm not picking on Michael Carter-Williams, but the numbers are the numbers: 39.1 percent shooting (75 of 192) since coming to the Bucks.

15) New Orleans (2-1) [15]: Toney Douglas the latest castoff who wasn't on the Pelicans' bench at the start of the season (Norris Cole, Dante Cunningham) to give New Orleans a lift in its playoff chase.

TEAM OF THE WEEK

Golden State (4-0): Took apart four playoff teams this week by an average of 20.3 per game, and have given up more than 100 just three times in its last 15 games. Championship-level play at both ends of the court.

TEAM OF THE WEAK

New York (0-4): Knicks lost their franchise-record 60th game Saturday to Chicago, by 31, and are a cool 5-21 since Feb. 1. The starting lineup against the Bulls: Langston Galloway, Shane Larkin, Lance Thomas, Lou Amundson, Andrea Bargnani.

NOBODY ASKED ME, BUT ...

Is it better or worse to know the cavalry isn't coming?

The Oklahoma City Thunder's announcement Friday that Kevin Durant would undergo bone graft surgery and definitely be out for the playoffs wasn't unexpected. GM Sam Presti had said a week ago that the indications were leaning toward Durant not being available for postseason play.

But it was still jarring for OKC, which looks to be in control of the last playoff spot in the West, 2 ½ games ahead of New Orleans and four clear of Phoenix entering Monday. Losing the franchise player when there's a chance at a championship -- and, with 2016 and Durant's unrestricted free agency looming, every shot at a ring is vital for the Thunder -- is a tough blow to overcome, mentally as well as on the floor.

GameTime: Durant Out For Season

Kendall Gill and Sekou Smith take a look at the list of injuries incurred by the Thunder's Kevin Durant.

Playoff injuries to key guys is a common occurrence, though, throughout the history of the league. The most famous was New York Knicks center Willis Reed's uncertainty for Game 7 of the 1970 Finals against the Lakers, after suffering a torn thigh muscle in Game 5. His teammates had no idea if their captain would be able to play, or how well he could move if he somehow did.

And, of course, with ABC's Jack Twyman exclaiming "here's Willis!," Reed's entrance just before tipoff of Game 7 lifted the Knicks and demoralized the Lakers before the opening tip. New York crushed L.A. 113-99 to win the championship.

Isiah's ankle (Game 6, 1988 Finals), Jordan's Flu (Game 5, 1997 Finals), Magic's hamstring (Game 2, 1989 Finals) ... there is an infamous list of the infirm at the worst possible time. They still talk in Cleveland about how Jim Chones' injury in 1976 ended the Cavaliers' "Miracle of Richfield" season in the Eastern Conference finals against the Celtics, denying the Cavs their best chance for a generation at a championship.

Without the reigning MVP, Oklahoma City's chances in the brutal West would seem minimal. Russell Westbrook has been sensational this season, garnering his own MVP talk. But the numbers are the numbers: the Thunder is a barely above .500 team (24-23) without Durant this season.

"Oklahoma, they play very similar that way (without Durant)," Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. "You know they're way better with him, but they have their way of playing. And even though Durant's not playing, they still play that way. And they're still hard to beat. But it's tough."

GameTime: Impact Of Losing Durant

Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman joins GameTime to report the latest on Kevin Durant's season ending surgery and where the Thunder go from here.

In 2009, Rivers' Celtics were defending champions, and looked even more formidable than ever. But in February, Kevin Garnett went down with a knee injury. He was never healthy afterward, and though he occasionally could tantalize in practices with the team down the stretch of the regular season, he only played in four more games that year, and didn't appear in the postseason.

Boston gutted its way through an epic seven-game first round series against the Bulls (and Chicago's then-rookie point guard, Derrick Rose), then took a 3-2 lead over Dwight Howard and the Magic in the Eastern Conference semifinals. But Howard went wild in Game 6, with 23 points and 22 rebounds, and the Celtics ran out of gas in Game 7, getting mauled at home.

"We never made the announcement (that Garnett would officially be out of the playoffs), and it probably hurt us in retrospect," Rivers said Friday. "'Cause we actually thought he was going to come back, if you remember that time. We just kept thinking he would come back, come back ... we couldn't have done anything, because he was working to come back. And then, finally, you knew he wasn't. But we were in the middle of the second round already."

In 1987, the Celtics were on their last legs in the Bird Era. Larry Bird's back was already giving out on him, Bill Walton's contributions to the 1986 title team were long gone and, tragically, Len Bias died before getting a chance to show what he could do.

The Starters: Kevin Durant's Surgery

KD is having surgery and his season is over. Time to remorse.

Boston got back to the playoffs in '87, and it somehow managed another trip to The Finals, despite Kevin McHale playing the entire postseason -- 21 games -- with a broken right foot. McHale broke the foot late in the regular season, but never thought about not playing, even though Bird said he was crazy to do so and should go home and rest.

"If it's major surgery, I say, 'get his butt out of here,' " Bird said then. "It's a hell of a burden to place on a guy, especially in The Finals. It takes the pressure all off (Celtics management)."

McHale put up incredible playoff numbers on one foot -- 21.1 points, 9.2 rebounds, 58.4 percent shooting, all while playing 39.4 minutes per game. But in The Finals, he couldn't do much with James Worthy, and the Lakers won the championship in six games. He had surgery immediately after The Finals and missed the first month of the following season.

"I always say, I would never do it again -- until the time came to do it again, and then I'd do it in a heartbeat," McHale said Sunday. "It's like anything else. When you're looking at another ring dead square in the face and that time comes again, and your competitive juices start flowing, you've got to be dumb enough to believe that that you're better than guys on one foot, and I was."

Westbrook, Thunder Soar Past Suns

Russell Westbrook had 33 points, nine rebounds and seven assists, as the Thunder beat the Phoenix 109-97 on Sunday.

For short stretches, teams can coalesce around one another. It's happened before: OKC does have one quality weapon available almost no one else in the league has: Westbrook, who has been relentless in carrying the team since the All-Star break. And the Thunder's got a lot of talent with which to surround Westbrook if it makes the playoffs: Steven Adams, Dion Waiters, Enes Kanter, D.J. Augustin and Anthony Morrow and -- maybe -- Serge Ibaka, if he can return by the playoffs from knee surgery.

Westbrook's ferocity gives the Thunder at least a puncher's chance. "Everyone in the West has a shot," one NBA coach texted Sunday night. But it's still a long shot -- unless, a GM noted Sunday, the Thunder can somehow catch Dallas and get out of the eighth seed in the West.

"Golden State will beat them in four," the GM predicted, "and one of the games will be less than double digits."

It's a sharp, steep hill that the Thunder has to climb, without the best Sherpa its ever known to guide the way.

... AND NOBODY ASKED YOU EITHER

He is unimpressed with your 60 wins, Bay Area team. From Stan Williams:

Do you think that the Warriors lack of any inside game will prevent them from a deep playoff run or championship?

No, Stan, but I think the lack of health of Andrew Bogut would prevent Golden State from making a playoff run, because he's the anchor of their defense. Look, the Warriors can shoot, and they make sure the ball is in the hands of their guys who can make shots almost all the time. (The SportVU stats say the Warriors are scoring almost 60 points a game on either catch and shoot baskets, or pull-up jumpers.) Everyone else is rim running for layups or dunks. They score the way teams score in today's game -- they're either making threes or layups (Golden State does not shoot a lot of free throws). Teams that can generate open shots tend to make them, as we saw with the Spurs in the Finals last season.

Warriors Keep Cooking

Rick Fox, Brent Barry and Rick Kamla discuss several topics including the Chicago Bulls and Golden State Warriors.

And behind Door No. 3 is ... more basketball! From Jacob Harrington:

Recently we have heard a ton about the Draft, ensuring there is no "tanking", the Draft "wheel", etc. I have a thought on this and I wanted to get your input as to whether you think this would be realistic or not.

How about adding a "consolation bracket" to the playoffs for those teams who miss the playoffs and allow them to play -- tournament style -- for Draft position?

The idea behind this came from that other great American sport -- fantasy football. I always set up my leagues so that the teams who kiss the playoffs goodbye play one another for top draft position the following year. The NBA could, in essence, do the same thing.

The thinking would be that the teams who lose during the regular season still have to at least TRY to put their best team on the court. The winner would earn the top spot in the Draft. The losers could still get a top pick while not throwing the entire season (or seasons) away.

It would add additional revenue for the owners and something exciting for fans. It would also make the ratings for the Draft even more exciting because fans would be even more investing in their teams.

Most importantly though, it make sure that each team has a reason to win.

It seems like a winning idea, what do you think?

I think I understand the concept, Jacob. But unless you're going to provide extra pay for the extra games those teams are playing in your "tournament," this idea will be DOA with the players' union. And the stigma of losing such a tournament will not be easy to sell as palatable for teams involved in it. So I wish you luck selling it. Personally, though, I think this is a solution in search of a problem. I just am not as worked up about tanking as others.

He feels my pain. From Mike Hodges:

I read your Morning Tip column every week. You are clearly the best NBA writer out there currently. Why are you wasting weeks of columns on prospects? Just like the pros, wait until they've done something to learn their name. There are dozens of NBA stories I would love to hear you weigh in on this time of year. Also, with all the caveats you lay on these rankings, it sounds like you don't want to do it anyway. So don't. No disrespect, this just seems like a waste of your talents.

Howard-Cooper's Top Prospects

NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper joins the show to share his Top 10 draft prospects for 2015.

I appreciate the concern, Mike. I'm kidding (mostly) about my resignation in writing Draft pieces. My issue is more with the game-playing that goes on between agents and Draft touts, and the lying that teams freely engage in to help their prospects -- aided by either gullible or conspiring reporters. It's silly to think that fans don't care about the Draft, because they do. So I don't mind doing it. I like to think that I give you all plenty of NBA material during the other 44 weeks of the year I'm not writing about the college guys.

Send your questions, comments, criticisms and more carefully thought out armed robbery plans than this one to daldridgetnt@gmail.com. If your e-mail is sufficiently funny, thought-provoking, well-written or snarky, we just might publish it!

MVP WATCH

(last week's averages in parentheses)

1) James Harden (26.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 7.8 apg, 313 FG, .882 FT): Still setting the pace for his team despite injuries to almost everyone in the Rockets' backcourt -- Houston had to play Nick Johnson and Pablo Prigioni down the stretch Sunday against the Wizards.

All-Access: Houston Rockets

A look at Head Coach Kevin McHale, MVP candidate James Harden and the Houston Rockets at a recent team practice.

2) Stephen Curry (30 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 8 apg, .577 FG, 1.000 FT): Not to put too fine a point on it, but he destroyed a pretty good guard in Memphis' Mike Conley on the road Friday, to the tune of 38 points and 10 assists.

The Starters: Westbrook or Curry?

Who would you rather start your franchise with: Russell Westbrook or Steph Curry?

3) LeBron James (21.3 ppg, 8 rpg, 6.7 apg, .426 FG, .667 FT): Maybe Kevin and LeBron won't be going to the Hamptons together, but they can still pull this off //twitter.com/NBA/statuses/581666177820332032 every once in a while.

4) Russell Westbrook (28.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 7.8 apg, .396 FG, .875 FT): Led Thunder to largest comeback (20 points) in OKC history in clutch win at Phoenix Sunday night.

5) Anthony Davis (25.3 ppg, 10.7 rpg, 3.3 bpg, .585 FG, .593 FT): Hard to argue with a single word here, and there is nothing more important to the long-term health of this franchise.

BY THE NUMBERS

10,014 -- Career rebounds for the Mavericks' Dirk Nowitzki, who passed the 10,000-rebound mark in Tuesday's win over the Spurs. He became just the seventh player in NBA history to amass at least 27,000 points and 10,000 rebounds, joining Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain, Karl Malone, Shaquille O'Neal, Moses Malone and Elvin Hayes.

20 -- Years since Michael Jordan's "Double Nickel" -- 55 points -- in a 113-111 road win over the Knicks in the Garden on March 28, 1995. (People forget the game-winning basket in that game was when Jordan drew what looked like all 12 Knicks in uniform to him, then coolly dropped the ball off to Bill Wennington for the dunk.) On that same date 25 years ago, Jordan scored his career high, 69 points, in a win over the Cavaliers.

Jordan's "Double-Nickel" at MSG

Michael Jordan talks about his return to the game and his tremendous 55 point night at Madison Square Garden.

4 -- Consecutive seasons the Clippers have made the playoffs, the first time in franchise history Los Angeles/Buffalo Braves has accomplished the feat.

I'M FEELIN' ...

1) The Bulls would not give Luol Deng $15 million a year, in part, because they believed Nikola Mirotic would be able to come over from Europe and play a big part for their team going forward. On this, they have been proven, indisputably, correct.

Rookie of the Year: Who is it?

Does Andrew Wiggins have Rookie of the Year locked up? Or is Nikola Mirotic making a run? What about Nerlens Noel or Elfrid Payton?

2) There is work being done by Nerlens Noel in Philadelphia. It is not the turnaround; it is not the beginning of the turnaround, but it might -- might -- be the beginning of the end of the horror show that the 215 has had to endure for three seasons.

3) Glad to see Lester Hudson back in the league, signed by the Clippers Sunday to a 10-day to replace Nate Robinson, out with an injury. Hudson had been playing terrific in China the last few months.

4) How does one, you know, get an invite to this?

5) I'm obviously an NBA guy, but those were two pretty compelling college basketball games Saturday, with Wisconsin holding off Arizona and Kentucky surviving against Notre Dame to reach the Final Four. Should be a great one in Indy, with Duke and Michigan State joining the party with their wins on Sunday.

NOT FEELIN' ...

1) Love to Craig, Stacy, Craig, Jr., and the Sager Family. Thinking of you all. #sagerstrong

2) There is spirited debate about what this allows Indiana residents to do. There are many honest brokers that don't believe it will allow anyone to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Unfortunately, everyone isn't taking as academic a view about the new law. (And a governor who believed the law was inclusionary probably wouldn't have signed the bill in near secrecy). The NBA may not have official league-affiliated business in Indiana like the NFL's combine or the NCAA's Final Four, but there are surely gay NBA and WNBA players who play in Indy -- whether for the Pacers, the Fever or for visiting teams -- and it will not be okay for businesses to refuse them service while they're in the state. Religious freedom is an important and integral part of our way of life -- but there are limits to everyone's freedoms.

2A) By the way, there are also 19 other states with similar laws, so let's not single out Indiana here.

3) The resting thing is coming home to roost. The Hornets beat an Atlanta team Saturday that sat all of its starters -- four of whom were healthy -- but that had already clinched the top seed in the East. Which is fine for the Hawks, but not so hot for the Celtics and Nets and Pacers, who are fighting Charlotte for the East's last playoff spot.

Hawks vs. Hornets

Kemba Walker scores 21 points, Gerald Henderson adds 20 points as the Hornets top the short-handed Hawks 115-100.

4) RIP, Rod "Hot Rod" Hundley. He was the voice of the Jazz for as long as I can remember, a great storyteller and a heck of a player, part of the great line of West Virginia ballers that included Hal Greer, Jerry West, Rod Thorn and many others.

5) Bad time for the Heat to be gearing up for the playoffs without Hassan Whiteside (hand).

Q & A: MANU GINOBILI

We have been writing the Spurs' team obituary for so long it feels like the first ones must have been written on a Selectric III. (Kids! Ask your grandparents how they used to work these things.)

As early as 2009, when the Spurs were beaten 4-1 in the first round by Dallas, there were rumblings that San Antonio's time had passed. We certainly thought the ride was over in 2011, when the Spurs were outmatched by Memphis in another first-round loss. And after Ray Allen Happened in The 2013 Finals, we all said -- loudly -- that this was it.

GameTime: Manu Ginobili

Four time NBA champion Manu Ginobili talks about coming back from injury and trying to stay focused on another title run.

The Spurs, famously, have paid no heed to reports of their demise, and have continued pounding on that Jacob Riis Rock, winning it all last season. This season has brought more doubt, with injuries to Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Tiago Splitter and Patty Mills leaving them vulnerable. For a while, it looked like the Spurs would have to fight just to make the playoffs.

But then -- a little late, but there -- the Spurs found their stride.

Parker's hamstring healed. Mills' shoulder healed. Leonard got healthy. And San Antonio hit hyperspeed. The Spurs had won 13 of their last 16 games, holding double-digit leads in 15 straight games through Friday.

"We've got that consistency back," Tim Duncan said last week. "We know how to win games. We know what we need to do. We just need to do it on a nightly basis."

The only health question now is Manu Ginobili, who missed five straight games after spraining his ankle earlier this month. Ginobili is the team's touchstone, still capable of injecting any game with his unique blend of shotmaking, passing and courage. Even at 37, the 12-year NBA vet remains a key component of the Spurs' attack, and a necessary cog to any hopes they have of repeating.

Me: The Rodeo Trip was not as successful as it usually is for your team. Was there concern afterward that, maybe, we just have had too many injuries this season to overcome?

It looked like in February we were just waiting for things to happen, or we were trying to get it easy. It looks like the last few games, we've started to go after teams and value more possessions than before. It's been great to see them do it.

– San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili

Manu Ginobili: There were concerns, for sure, because not only were we missing players, we weren't playing well. That was the bottom line. We were starting to get everybody back, but not enough players playing well. There was some concern. But, still, you're in late February. You still have March and half of April to sort things out. Some mistakes here and there. But we've been better, for sure.

Me: Where has the improvement come from? Just getting Kawhi and Tony back in the lineup?

MG: I think it's also about the mental part. We've been trying to, we've been going at people. It looked like in February we were just waiting for things to happen, or we were trying to get it easy. It looks like the last few games, we've started to go after teams and value more possessions than before. It's been great to see them do it. I watched. But from the outside, you could see more times than before the team that we want to be.

Mavericks vs. Spurs

Boris Diaw scores 19 points to help the Spurs to a 94-76 win over the Mavericks.

Me: What has happened with Tiago?

MG: Well, he's playing with way more confidence. I think since he started starting, he felt like his role was different, that he was going to be on the court more minutes, and he's been really providing. And he's a key for us. I mean, we're not expecting him to score 20 every game like the last two games, but when he's confident, and he feels good, he makes some key plays -- rebounding, stops. He's a player that can give you stuff at both ends of the court, and he understands the game. He's the type of player that we need.

Me: How important is institutional memory this time of year?

If it was up to me, I'd want to win back to back to back, you know, all 13 years. ... If it's a back-to-back, it's awesome. I'm just glad it's happening. After seven years, to win it again was just incredible. And, yeah, we're going to go after it again.

– Manu Ginobili

MG: Always very important, that corporate knowledge that we also talk about. The thing is, you don't have to rely on that that much. It's going to come back. We've been here. We've basically been through every type of situation. But sometimes that is counterproductive. You've got to go find it every game and build every game. If you just rely on what happened in the past, then you're stuck in the past. We, many of us, it may be our last shot, our last season. We don't even know if we're going to have another season. So we want to do as good as we can, get as far as we can and enjoy the ride, too.

Me: Given what's ahead, do you anticipate fewer minutes as the regular season ends to make sure you're ready for the playoffs?

Thunder vs. Spurs

Seven different Spurs hit double-digit point totals as the Spurs put a beating on the Thunder.

MG: Maybe. Maybe. We are in sort of a tough spot. We are seventh, sixth. We are trying to get a couple of spots up on that ladder. But also, we have a very tough schedule. A lot of back-to-backs against opponents, with trips. So I sort of anticipate sitting a couple of games out, depending on how I come back from this ankle.

Me: So are you more concerned about conditioning or making sure you've knocked off the rust?

MG: Well, the first two, three games, in my individual case, is more about conditioning, trying to see where I'm at, if I'm really ready to play, to go all the way to the rim, or stop coming full speed or not. Then it's a matter of chemistry, trying to get everybody involved, trying to get them feeling good about themselves.

Me: Isn't the only thing left the back-to-back championships?

MG: Uh, yeah. For sure. I mean, we want to win every year. If it was up to me, I'd want to win back to back to back, you know, all 13 years. But it's hard. There are 30 teams, and very talented, and every year younger, and you see what some of the guys can do day in and day out, it's incredible. We've managed to stay on top with a shot at winning it. If it's a back-to-back, it's awesome. I'm just glad it's happening. After seven years, to win it again was just incredible. And, yeah, we're going to go after it again.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

-- Celtics guard Jae Crowder (@CJC9BOSS), Wednesday, 9:45 p.m., after a come-from-ahead home loss to the Heat in Boston, leaving the surprising Celtics behind seventh-place Miami in the chase for the final two playoff spots in the East.

THEY SAID IT

"For me it was: I'm going to prove I can beat this guy. I'm going to shut him down or outscore him or outrebound him. Now, you have these professors who are some of the best, and you want to test yourself. You want to prove you can get an A in the class."

-- Former NBA player Troy Murphy, who's now attending Columbia University and is on schedule to get his bachelor's degree next winter, in a New York Times story.

"He got his stats and he got the L as always."

-- Utah forward Trevor Booker, in a postgame radio interview Saturday following his team's win over Oklahoma City and former Jazz center Enes Kanter. Kanter had expressed his happiness at being with the Thunder, where he was dealt in a trade deadline deal, earlier in the day Saturday, saying this was the first time he's actually enjoyed playing in the NBA. Kanter, who played his first three-plus pro seasons in Utah after being taken third overall in the 2012 Draft by the Jazz, had 18 points and 11 rebounds in Utah's 94-89 win over OKC Saturday.

"I have never said this in the 40 years since I retired, but he is the first big guy, not (Patrick) Ewing, (Hakeem) Olajuwon, Shaq (O'Neal), who reminds me defensively and on the boards of Russell. He runs the floor well, he has excellent timing, he blocks shots and keeps them in play the way Russell did."

-- Hall of Fame guard Bob Cousy, to the Worchester Telegram and Gazette, comparing Miami center Hassan Whiteside's defensive chops to those of Cousy's teammate, 11-time NBA champion Bill Russell.

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.