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NBA Fastbreak: Even the Lakers had a feel-good story this season

NBA Fastbreak: Even the Lakers had a feel-good story this season
Coach Nate McMillan has helped keep the Pacers in playoff position despite the loss of their only All-Star player, guard Victor Oladipo, to injury. (Darron Cummings / Associated Press)

Earlier this week, we wrote that the Clippers are one of the best “feel-good” stories in the NBA this season. They’re a team without a traditional star, that dealt its top scorer and is in the middle of a rebuild, and yet still is headed to the playoffs thanks to an effort-above-all-else style.

They’re not alone.

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With the season’s final full week upon us, let’s appreciate the other stories around the NBA that deserve some appreciating.

Nate McWinnin

Victor Oladipo’s ascendance to stardom in the Eastern Conference kept the Indiana Pacers in playoff contention after the team was left with little choice but to deal Paul George in 2017. That the team was back in the same spot this season? That was a moderate surprise.

Even a gruesome knee injury to Oladipo in January hasn’t slowed the Pacers, who are locked in a battle with Boston for the No. 4 seed in the East.

While players such as Bojan Bogdanovic, Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and Wesley Matthews all have played huge roles in keeping the Pacers going, scouts and coaches around the NBA gush about the job coach Nate McMillan has done.

The Pacers are one of the hardest-playing teams in the league, execute exquisitely on defense and have survived all kinds of adversity to produce their third straight winning season under McMillan, with a chance to top last year’s 48 wins. While McMillan probably won’t win coach of the year, he’s been wonderful. And if the Pacers get past the first round of the playoffs for the first time under McMillan, it’ll only cement his reputation even more.

The ones who stay

Washington already was crumbling before John Wall was lost for the season in late December. Free-agent addition Dwight Howard ended up playing only nine games and the team’s top two small forwards eventually were traded.

Through it all, guard Bradley Beal has been there, playing every game while leading the NBA in minutes. He’s played 159 consecutive regular-season games, at an All-Star level. He’s under contract through the next two seasons and repeatedly has shot down talk about requesting a trade.

He’s been at his best this season. If Washington decides to entertain offers, teams should line up to try to acquire Beal, who is averaging 26.1 points, 5.5 assists and 5.1 rebounds, all well above the 25-year-old’s career averages.

Similarly, Portland guard Damian Lillard continued to be one of the NBA’s most consistent superstars, helping the Trail Blazers earn another trip to the postseason no matter how many people thought this would be a year they would fade.

He’s expressed total disdain for super teams. He’s one of the most loyal stars and has as much value to Portland as a community leader as he does to the Trail Blazers as a basketball player.

In an era when players control their destiny more than ever, it’s easy to cheer for players who have connected with one place and spent their career there.

Steph Curry’s pivot feet

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Because of his size, because he’s a star known more for his skill than for his athleticism, Stephen Curry has long been one of the NBA’s most likable players. This season he only confirmed that.

In November, 9-year-old Riley Morrison wrote Curry a letter encouraging him to make his signature Under Armour shoes available in girls’ sizes. Curry responded, vowed to correct the error, and in March, Under Armour debuted the Curry 6’s in women’s and girls’ sizes. Morrison, who ended up meeting Curry, even got to help design a sock liner for a special edition of the shoes.

Mike Conley going it alone

Earlier this season Memphis Grizzlies stars Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, the NBA’s longest-tenured teammates, were touted for how they helped define what pro basketball looks like in Memphis.

After the Grizzlies’ good start quickly vanished, and with the team sinking out of playoff position, Memphis sent Gasol to Toronto and entertained offers for Conley. Instead of dealing the guard for pennies on the dollar, they hung on to the remaining face of the franchise. (Though Memphis is expected to listen to offers this summer.)

Since the Gasol deal, Conley is averaging 23.4 points and 6.6 assists, helping Memphis be more competitive than expected. Long regarded as one of the most professional players in the league, he’s been even better this season.

Andre Ingram’s second act

While it’s been mostly misery, disappointment and confusion around the Lakers’ lost season, the standing ovations for 33-year-old guard Andre Ingram when he rejoined the team on a 10-day contract this month were nice.

While Ingram didn’t come close to his Cinderella moment from last season, the all-time leader in games played in the developmental league got another taste of life out of the minors, a testament to a persistence that deserves reward.

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