Scott Agness: Pacers assistant coach Greg Foster is back, and continues working with Goga Bitadze. They hugged before beginning pre-game warmups.
There is concern about Bjorkgren's mental state. That's not to suggest he's on the verge of a mental breakdown, but league sources have told IndyStar that he has taken this hard. The losing and internal conflict has been bad enough, but his fierce, competitive nature can be a weakness as much as a strength.
While there is ample smoke surrounding Bjorkgren, multiple league sources disputed much of what is being reported. Before the Pacers hired Bjorkgren from the Toronto Raptors, where he was an assistant, they ran it past Warren to get his input. Both were briefly in Phoenix together.
Thursday's 133-126 win against the Atlanta Hawks kept the Pacers (31-35) in ninth place, a half-game ahead of the 10th-place Wizards (31-36). Seeds 7-10 will participate in a play-in tournament for the final two playoff seeds. "We just talked about playing basketball the right way, just playing hard and when you do that, most of the time you come out on top," said Bjorkgren, who met with his team until 1 a.m. following Wednesday's non-effort vs. the Sacramento Kings that resulted in disciplinary actions.
Scott Agness: Caris LeVert called the last few days different and unique. "We’ve had a lot of speculation surrounding the team. We just wanted to come together tonight and play for each other, have a lot of fun and just block out the noise, and I feel like that’s what we did tonight."
Nurse was heavily consulted throughout the interview process, sources said, but Indiana brass never contacted Phoenix executives for insight on Bjorkgren’s time as a Suns assistant from 2015-17. Nor did they consult with last year's Orlando Bubble breakout player T.J. Warren—who played under Bjorkgren in Phoenix—according to sources. When news of Bjorkgren's hire became public, Warren requested a trade from the Pacers, according to sources.
It’s believed that Warren even opted for an elective season-ending surgery in March, both to better serve his recovery from a stress fracture in his left foot and also to avoid playing for Bjorkgren for the remainder of this season.
Should a change ultimately occur on the bench, Mike D’Antoni is once again considered the leader in the clubhouse to fill Indiana’s opening, sources said. But could a few games and the play-in tournament be enough to prevent any turnover?
As ESPN’s Adrian Wojnorowski first reported on Tuesday evening, it appears Bjorkgren’s tenure in Indiana will likely come to an end after just one season. His struggles as a head coach could even put longtime Pacers executives Kevin Pritchard and Chad Buchanon in jeopardy as well, multiple league sources told Bleacher Report.
"He’s just very different," said one league executive who has worked previously with Bjorkgren. "He’s not a d--k; he’s just completely out of his element as a leader." "He didn’t come in relationship-building in an easy way from Day 1," said one Pacers voice.
Bjorkgren’s communication style has been categorized as aggressive and abrasive with players and members of the Pacers staff, from his front-of-the-bench assistants down to trainers and equipment personnel. That behavior was cited as the cause for one assistant coach’s resignation and one player to elect for season-ending surgery. "Typically younger coaches bring a more positive, spirited, encouraging behavior, not an antagonistic approach," said an assistant general manager.
Nate McMillan’s success in Atlanta, after Indiana curiously fired him back in August just two weeks following a contract-extension agreement, has further muddied these waters. Multiple league sources with knowledge of the situation described McMillan’s additional year as something more of a parting gift than an earnest extension. By the Orlando bubble when Miami swept Indiana in the first round of the playoffs, Pacers players had grown fatigued by McMillan’s tough-minded approach, sources said. His slower-paced scheme, which diverged from modern trends of playing style—Indiana finished 30th in the NBA in three-point attempts per game last season—was also a source of consternation within the organization.
In turn, Pacers management set out to find a high-energy, new-age coach. Indiana initially cast a wide net, meeting with north of 20 candidates, sources said, including various profiles ranging from Spurs assistant Becky Hammon to former head coach Dave Joerger. And while Mike D’Antoni was long considered the favorite to fill Indiana’s opening, the Pacers grew to specifically covet a "Nick Nurse-type," sources said. Pritchard is said to hold a longstanding relationship with Nurse, the inventive play caller who piloted Toronto to the 2019 championship in just his first year at the helm of the Raptors. Both men played overseas and later coached in the American minor leagues such as the ABA and USBL during the early 2000s. Nurse’s analytics-minded offensive acumen, honed in the G League, plus his outside-the-box defensive tactics, such as mixing various zone looks to keep opponents off kilter, particularly intrigued Prichard, sources said.
"They didn’t do their background on who [Bjorkgren] was or how he treated people," said one person close to the coaching search. "They just talked hoops with him." It seems that missing intel foreshadowed the very interpersonal issues that have since risen in Indiana. "When he was hired I was surprised, because he’s not the easiest to work with just on anything," said one of Bjorkgren’s former G League players. "He’s kind of stubborn, won’t listen, even though it might be good conversation. He’s a micromanager and he’s not for everyone."
"Nate is trying to coach a team that he doesn’t have," said one Pacers staffer. "He’s trying to fit the system to the players and not the other way around." Shortly after Christmas, word began to circulate that Bjorkgren was indeed prone to screaming at longtime Indiana staffers just as he’d done in the G League. His niceness and "infectious" positivity seen during his interview process and training camp began to come across to several Indiana staffers as insincere. "That’s how he is in general," added one Indiana staffer. "He’s got like a Jekyll and Hyde thing."
Adrian Wojnarowski: Pacers are suspending assistant Greg Foster for one game and fining Goga Bitadze for exchange on court Wednesday, sources tell ESPN. Foster and Bitadze have had a strong working relationship this season and that’s expected to continue, but emotions are running high in Indiana.
J. Michael Falgoust: This is what led up to the Greg Foster blow up with Bitadze. He let Harkless get to the rim for a 2nd chance dunk and got scolded for not contesting. Bitadze responds w/ a 3 and when he runs back you can read his lips pretty clearly. “Sit the f$&@ down.” That did it #PacersKings pic.twitter.com/oFEmdUpPUl
Tony East: "We're in a frustrating stretch here," Bjorkgren says of the Foster-Bitadze moment. "The competitive juices are flowing. Things like that will happen."
Scott Agness: Bjorkgren arrived. He says they’re “in a frustrating stretch. Competitive juices are flowing.” He has talked individually with Goga Bitadze and assistant Greg Foster about their confrontation.
Sean Cunningham: Looked as if Greg Foster's anger was directed at Goga Bitadze, but he was partially restrained by members of the staff. Really bad look over there
Scott Agness: After watching it back several times, it’s also clear Foster’s public eruption bothered Jeremy Lamb and Domantas Sabonis too. They didn’t like it. The masks hide whatever was said. Some tough love is good, if warranted. But it’s too late.
And then things got weird. Oladipo got weird. He got arrogant. He became a superstar in his own mind. Is he surrounded by the wrong people? Talk to NBA types, they’ll tell you he’s getting very bad advice from a young agent who counts Oladipo as his only prominent basketball client. But Victor, who is 28, is his own man, a sharp and intelligent soul, and this is ultimately on him. Oladipo and his people want you to believe now that he’s all-in on making it work long-term with the Pacers.
Show teammates, who are said to have become fed up with his antics. Show management, which has bent over backward to accommodate Oladipo, only to watch him treat them like dirt. Show the city, which embraced him with such vigor and now wonders how it’s supposed to feel about the once-prodigal son.
Scott Agness: Al Jefferson: "We got to figure it out, man. We can’t blame the coaches, we can blame the GM, we can’t blame the fans, we can’t blame nobody. We the ones out there. “There’s just no effort at all. And that’s something you got to have."
Less than 48 hours after the Indiana Pacers star challenged two more players in a postgame news conference, George fired back at the notion that he was not supportive of his team. "It's complete ignorance, to be honest," he said. "Everybody knows how close I am with my teammates and I said that only to motivate my teammates to win this series and win a championship. I didn't say anything even close to throwing them under the bus. If I didn't say nothing, it would have been another story."
The Pacers entered Tuesday in a three-way tie with the Atlanta Hawks and the Milwaukee Bucks for fifth place in the East. Both teams moved ahead of the Pacers, the Bucks defeating the Charlotte Hornets and the Hawks knocking off Phoenix. The eighth-place Miami Heat, who own the tiebreaker over Indiana, also beat the Detroit Pistons to move one game behind the Pacers. “We should have a professional approach, man, and defend our home court, especially to a team that’s not even in the playoffs,” George said of losing to the Timberwolves (29-44). “That’s what it comes down to. As a team, we’ve got to have a grit and we’ve got to own up, man up.”
“It’s tough losing a game here that we need knowing that we don’t play well on the road,” George said. “When we lose focus here, I’m not sure where our head is going to be as a team tomorrow. I’ll make sure to gather these guys around and let them understand, man, that we’ve got to win. That’s the only thing that’s important. The only thing that should be motivational is winning.”
Nate Taylor: Paul George: “There’s no urgency, no sense of urgency, no winning pride. This locker room is just not pissed off enough.”
Nate Taylor: Paul George: “To be honest, man, I don’t think I got the ball enough down the stretch. I don’t think I got the ball enough.”
Sirius XM NBA: "I don't listen to reports. He is our leader and we don't sense the frustration." -@Aaron Brooks on media reports on @Paul George's frustration
A. Sherrod Blakely: Paul George says the @Indiana Pacers are a "playoff team" at home and a "lottery team" on the road this season. #Celticstalk pic.twitter.com/fukNuR3bwl
Team president Larry Bird spent much of the day weighing the option of trading George to the Boston Celtics, a team that possesses several rotational players and valuable draft picks, including the lowly Brooklyn Nets’ first-round picks in the next two drafts. Ultimately, Bird decided not to deal George with the hope the franchise can convince him to re-sign after his expected opt-out at the end of the 2017-18 season.
George, though, said he was not pleased that Bird considered trading him after previously vowing to sign George to a max contract. “I was kind of on the ropes just like you guys were on what was about to happen,” George said of his emotions before the deadline. “It was kind of a dark moment of uncertainty and that was the frustrating part. You want me to be your guy here, I thought I would have been in the loop a little more on that.”
Paul George: "I kind of was on the ropes, just like you guys were, on what was about to happen;' George told reporters in Indianapolis. "It was kind of a dark moment of uncertainty. That was the frustrating part. You want me to be your guy here, thought I would have been in the loop a little more on (trade talks)."
Not too long ago the Pacers were the main threat in the Eastern Conference to LeBron James' Miami Heat, and Paul George was leading the way. But the roster that found success a few years ago is no more, and the team is on the fringe of the playoff picture instead of at the forefront. That kind of fall from grace can get to you, and George admitted Thursday it has. "[This season] hasn't been [fun]. We're trying to work through it," George told reporters. "It's been one of the most frustrating seasons I've been a part of."
"Maybe I'm just living in the past of how good we used to be, the personnel, the guys I had around," George said. "I'm still living in that moment, maybe. I gotta put myself into a different team and maybe I have to do more, maybe that's just what it is, maybe I have to do more now. But whatever is, I'm going to figure it out."
June 23, 2021 | 5:32 am EDT Update
Sullivan is the author of “Can’t Knock the Hustle: Inside the Season of Protest, Pandemic, and Progress with the Brooklyn Nets’ Superstars of Tomorrow,” which released on Tuesday. In a conversation with our friends from Celtics Wire on their podcast, Celtics Lab, Sullivan said that Nets ownership was unhappy with Irving over his midseason “pause,” and that Irving could be available for the right offer.
Matt Sullivan: “Let me give you guys a little news, I’m not sure that’s been out there. I’ve heard that Nets ownership was quite upset with Kyrie’s ‘pause,’ especially that maskless party that turned his psuedo-paternity leave into more like a COVID suspension. And in the last week I’ve heard rumblings – whispers, really, because cracking the Nets is kind of like breaking into the Kremlin, that Brooklyn GM Sean Marks would maybe, possibly, apparently be willing to at least listen to a trade offer for Kyrie this offseason. Now, I’m not sure what the market for Kyrie is at this point. It’s not like Ben Simmons giving you the headache on the court. It’s that complex personality that comes from off the court. I think it’s been annoying some people in the franchise. I can’t speak to his teammates, who obviously want to play with one of the world’s best and get him back there.”
Deandre Ayton couldn’t stop smiling after the Phoenix Suns’ 104-103 win on Tuesday gave them a 2-0 lead in the Western Conference finals over the LA Clippers. The big man wore a permagrin as he basked in the joy that came from dunking home the go-ahead bucket in the game’s final second, finishing one of the most dramatic alley-oops in NBA playoff history, but he didn’t want any of the credit. “I’ll start off by saying that’s definitely Jae [Crowder’s] game winner, making a great pass for a 7-footer,” Ayton said after his dunk with 0.7 seconds left lifted his final line to 24 points on 12-for-15 shooting and 14 rebounds.
No wonder Ayton said he completed the best play of his three-year NBA career after finishing with 24 points, 14 rebounds and one memorable lob that gave the Suns a 2-0 series lead. “I never played so hard from the jump ball to the end, 150%,” Ayton said. “Usually it’s like 110%, but tonight it’s 150% and it’s 150% mentally. Just the level of focus and the things you have to really pay attention to, it’s really intense.”
And the production has been eye-popping. Per Elias Sports Bureau research, this postseason Ayton is the first player in the shot clock era (since 1954-55) with a 70% or better field goal percentage in any 12-game postseason span. He has had five 20-point, 10-rebound games this postseason, the most by a Suns player since Amar’e Stoudemire in 2007. “I’ve never played so hard from the jump ball to the end,” Ayton said. “A hundred and fifty percent. Usually, it’s like 110, but this is 150%. And it’s 150% mentally, too. Just the level of focus and the things you really have to pay attention to. It’s really intense, man.”
The cloud of the 2018 draft doesn’t follow Ayton. He has admitted in the past to being sensitive to perception and criticism, but put all of it behind him. “At the end of the day, we’re all different players,” Ayton said of comparisons to Doncic and Young. “I’m a 7-footer, big man, and they’re two point guards. I don’t know what you can compare. But me, I play as hard as I can. This is my team. I dominate the best way I can for this team and try to take this team as far as I can. Other than that, I trust my work, I trust my work ethic, I trust my craft.”
But with a chance to give them a three-point lead with 8.2 seconds left, George surprisingly missed both free throws despite coming into this game making 89.2% from the free throw line this postseason. “I’m not going to put too much on that,” George said afterward. “Obviously it was an opportunity that was missed. Pat made an unbelievable play that put me in position to extend the lead. I’m always confident at the free throw line. I’ve always been very successful in clutch moments at the free throw line.”
Meanwhile, the Clippers failed to capitalize on a game that was there for the taking, and now trail 2-0 for a third straight series this postseason. “This game, I’ve played a lot of games in this league, this one’s hard,” said Beverley, who got the start in Game 2. “This one goes up there. This is a hard game to kind of swallow because you look at this game, I mean, we got this game won, you know. “But we’ve been in the trenches before. We respond well in the trenches. We’ll respond well. We always do.”