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Expectations soar as Pacers embark on new season

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Expectations soar as Pacers embark on new season

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Indiana finally won a playoff series, had a chance to eliminate eventual NBA champion Miami last spring and strengthened its bench.

The locals expect bigger and better things this season, and so do the Pacers.

``We do have high expectations and with that comes a different kind of burden,'' said swingman Danny Granger, who has been slowed throughout the preseason with a patella tendon injury in his left knee. ``With the guys coming back, I feel like we're further along than we ever have been.''

For the Pacers, it's been a steep climb back in a state where basketball has traditionally been the king of the sports universe.

Following the 2004 brawl in Detroit, Reggie Miller retired, there were other problems off the court, two years without a playoff appearance and a six-year span without a playoff series win. Donnie Walsh, architect of Indiana's last legitimate title contender, left a tattered team behind when he went to New York and former coach Larry Bird was tasked with rebuilding the team he coached to the 2000 Eastern Conference title. Frustrated fans stayed away from games, creating a decline in attendance and team owner Herb Simon renegotiated his deal with the city.

At times, it seemed things couldn't get any bleaker.

But Bird changed everything for the better and the fans, well, they seem to be coming around.

``We know we have a lot of work to do, there's a lot of expectations and we're ready for it,''All-Star center Roy Hibbert said. ``We have veterans who are working hard and rookies who work hard. I think we're going to take it real far this year.''

Walsh is back, replacing the retiring Bird and the franchise looks completely different.

Back then, Granger was just beginning to emerge as a team leader and potent scorer but hadn't yet been to an All-Star Game. Forward David West was a star in New Orleans. Hibbert and guard George Hill hadn't been drafted yet and swingman Paul George was still in high school.

Today, the Pacers call those five their starters - the same group that led them past Orlando in the first round of last year's playoffs and gave them a 2-1 lead over Miami in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

What's changed since the Heat won those last three games to knock Indiana out of the playoffs?

Walsh returned as team president, general manager Kevin Pritchard decided to re-sign Hibbert and Hill to big contracts, keeping the core of this young team intact, and the Pacers revamped their bench. Indiana traded guard Darren Collison to Dallas for center Ian Mahinmi and used its first-round draft pick on Miles Plumlee, with an eye toward giving Hibbert some help.

The new management also brought in point guard D.J. Augustin to back up Hill and signed forward Gerald Green. With forward Tyler Hansbrough already an established force on the bench, the addition of rookie guard Orlando Johnson and the possibility Lance Stephenson emerges in a key role this season, Indiana could have one of the deeper rosters in the league.

``This team has got ability, there's not been a lot of change,'' coach Frank Vogel said. ``My approach is just the understanding that this team is a year further along with experience and the bench is deeper.''

Stability should help the Pacers, too, who would like to reach the NBA Finals for the first time since 2000.

``We want to grow. From looking at a playoff standpoint, we got to the second round last year, so we're hoping to get further than that. We got a third seed in the regular season and we're hoping to do better than that,'' Vogel said. ``Those are probably the first steps in terms of taking that next step as a franchise. We finished the season last year feeling like we were good enough to win the championship and we're a team that sets our sights high and we shoot for the moon.''

All the Pacers have to do now is prove they can handle the hype and keep winning - right through the playoffs.

``We have something special here,'' George said. ``That makes it even more exciting knowing that everybody's on the same page.''

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Dustin Hopkins isn't 100-percent so the Redskins reportedly worked out five kickers

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USA TODAY Sports

Dustin Hopkins isn't 100-percent so the Redskins reportedly worked out five kickers

Lost in the fact that Tress Way is having a stellar season is that his fellow specialist, Dustin Hopkins, is getting it done, too.

The Redskins' kicker has made 17 of 19 field goals so far in 2018, giving him an 89.5-percent conversion rate on kicks. Against Carolina, he nailed a career-long 56-yarder, plus he's 17-for-17 on extra points.

But on Tuesday, a report came out saying that Hopkins is "a bit banged up." As of now, the Redskins don't know if they'll have Hopkins or not this weekend vs. the Texans, which is why they worked out five kickers five days before the Houston matchup, per Field Yates.

Among the group of free agents was former 'Skin Kai Forbath, who made 32-of-38 three-pointers for the Vikings in 2017. He was with the Burgundy and Gold from 2012-2014 and also briefly in 2015. 

Washington also reportedly tried out two maligned kickers in Roberto Aguayo and Blair Walsh. 

The Bucs drafted Aguayo in the second round of the 2016 draft but he flamed out in Tampa and was gone after a single year and poor 2017 preseason. Walsh, meanwhile, hasn't been the same since missing a 27-yard game winning playoff attempt versus Seattle while he was with Minnesota.  

Rounding out the group was Sam Ficken and Jon Brown.

The Redskins have been very reliant on both Hopkins and Way this season, seeing as their offense has had its issues. They've needed Hopkins to cash in on field goals to avoid wasting points and Way to help win the field position battle each week.

For some franchises, losing a kicker for a week or two wouldn't be much of a problem. And while Washington could very well be OK without Hopkins, they'd rather not have to bring in a new foot for any amount of time.

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Capitals winger Tom Wilson returns from suspension, but has he learned his lesson?

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USA Today Sports

Capitals winger Tom Wilson returns from suspension, but has he learned his lesson?

WASHINGTON —Tom Wilson had his 20-game suspension reduced just in time by a neutral arbitrator Tuesday and the Capitals will welcome back their rugged winger tonight against the Minnesota Wild. 

Better late than never after Wilson missed the first 16 games of the season. The arbitrator, Shyam Das, actually knocked the suspension down to 14 games from the original 20, but there’s no time machine to put Wilson back in the lineup for home losses to Columbus and Arizona.

There’s also no time machine for Wilson to go back and avoid illegally checking St. Louis Blues forward Oskar Sundqvist in the head. That play, during a Sept. 27 preseason game, was the final straw for the NHL, which had suspended Wilson three times in the previous 13 months. 

It was a bad hit at a pointless time in a meaningless exhibition game and gets right to the heart of the matter: Can Tom Wilson change how he plays? And if he does, is he worth what the Capitals invested in him this summer?

“The hitting aspect of the game is definitely changing a little bit, and I’ve got to be smart out there, and I’ve got to play within the rules,” Wilson said on Oct. 14. “And at the end of the day, no one wants to be in the situation that I’m in right now. I’ve got to change something because obviously it’s not good to be out and not helping your team.”

Washington signed Wilson to a six-year, $31 million contract in July. He is a unique player in the NHL, a 6-foot-4, 220-pound wrecking ball who can put the fear of God into opposing players, but isn’t just another goon. He can play. He had 14 goals and 21 assists last year, doubling his previous best, while playing on the top line with Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov. The Capitals believe Wilson has more in him.

"No, I don't think he has to change. I've been in this situation, too,” Ovechkin said. “To be honest with you, I don't want to talk about his game because he knows what he has to do. I think it's just a situation where you let it go…He just have to play the same way he played and don't listen to no one because it's your choice how you playing."

There is also an elephant in the room. Ovechkin is only under contract two more years after this one. Nicklas Backstrom is a free agent after next season. Both players will be well into their 30s when free agency hits. The Capitals would love them to retire here, but no one can say what will happen. Wilson is a potential captain, a gregarious, vocal presence who is under contract through 2024. He is young enough to lead the post-Ovechkin team the organization builds. 

But all of that investment goes to waste if Wilson can’t stay on the ice and that is the immediate problem. Because the next bad decision, the next time Wilson crosses the line the punishment only goes higher. Remember when he broke Zach Aston-Reese’s jaw in the second round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Pittsburgh Penguins last May? If that happens again Wilson will be staring at a 25-to-30 game suspension. That’s almost one-third of an entire season. 

Wilson’s teammates have been supportive. Ovechkin’s comments indicate that. T.J. Oshie has been outspoken on Wilson’s play since the playoffs last year when he had multiple close calls, including the Aston-Reese hit that earned him a three-game suspension during the Pittsburgh series. Wilson hit Columbus forward Alex Wennberg in the first round, but escaped supplemental discipline.    

“When I'm going to hit someone, I'm going to hit him as hard as I can. But that doesn't mean I want to hurt him,” Oshie told NBC Sports Washington on Oct. 2. “It means I want to change the way the game's going. I want to separate him from the puck. I want him to fall down so for a brief moment, we have five guys going and they've got four. Tom does it the same way. He gets penalized, I think, for his size and strength.”

There is a fine line, however, between being supportive and enabling a player and Washington’s players, coaches and executives at least walk that line with their public comments. The organization is still upset at the suspension for the Aston-Reese hit. Wilson himself, while acknowledging all the work he did last year to meet with NHL officials and understand what he can and can’t do, said after that hit that ex-players and friends around the league were texting him not to change a thing. 

Those mixed messages could prove troublesome because the NHL itself is unambiguous. Wilson is out of chances and no matter how the Caps feel about that interpretation, they need him to heed the warnings.     

“There are certain ways they are calling things,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “You need to be aware of how they’re making their calls on suspensions. Tom is a big, strong guy who skates really well. There is a lot of force behind his contact. He needs to be aware of how they’re determining what’s legal and what’s illegal from the league’s standpoint.” 

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