Pacers (28-25, 11-16 road) vs. Thunder (40-14, 25-5 home)
Radio: WWLS The Sports Animal (98.1 FM, 640 AM, 1300 AM The Buzz Tulsa)
Time: 7:00 PM CST
Team Comparisons (per NBA.com/Stats)
- Offensive Rating: Thunder – 110.2 (2nd), Pacers – 102.0 (22nd)
Defensive Rating: Thunder – 101.6 (10th), Pacers – 99.6 (3rd)
As the NBA begins the unofficial 2nd half of its season, its good to be reminded that, even after the trade deadline, the Oklahoma City Thunder are still one of the best teams in the league. Other than Cleveland, who picked up Channing Frye, none of the contenders made any major moves (sorry, Randy Foye). And none of the 2nd tier teams made any moves that would hypothetically vault them into contender status. Most teams chose to wait until the offseason, where the increase in the salary cap will leave most teams flushed with enough cap space to offer at least one max contract to a free agent of their choice. And we all know this offseason is the summer of …..Dwight Howard.
As the Thunder turn the page on the first half of the season, they look forward towards a more treacherous second half of the season. The easier, home-heavy, first half schedule has been replaced by a road-heavy schedule that is the hardest remaining schedule in the NBA. Of the remaining 28 games on the Thunder’s docket, 17 are away from the friendly confines of the Chesapeake Arena. Fortunately, the rest of the contenders also face difficult schedules in the second halves of their seasons.
This is the first of two meetings between the Pacers and Thunder. The teams split their season series last year, with each team winning on its home floor. The final meeting, in Indianapolis, was probably the final nail in what was a frustrating season. While there were a myriad of games last season that the Thunder could have pointed to as the difference in missing the playoffs, the Pacers’ loss was most prominent because of its position on the schedule. If the Thunder win their last four games, they likely make the playoffs last year. But that one loss allowed the Pelicans to finish with the same record as the Thunder and make the final playoff spot in the West by virtue of a tie-breaker. In addition, that loss stung a bit because Russell Westbrook scored a career high 54 points in that game.
The Pacers come into this game with a 28-25 record, sitting in 6th place in the Eastern Conference, but only 1.5 games ahead of the 9th place team. Their record has been one of consistent inconsistencies. They started the season 16-9, but have gone 12-16 since the middle of December. The Pacers used to be a half-court, grind it out type of team. Now, with ball-stoppers like Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson no longer on the team, the Pacers have transformed themselves into a more up-tempo outfit that launches from deep at a much higher clip than two seasons ago (23.7 to 18.8). Pacers’ president Larry Bird has made it his mission these last two seasons to field a team that can better compete in this faster paced NBA.
Paul George is back from the scary broken leg that sidelined him for much of last season. He is once again one of the best all-around players in the game, and scored a crazy 41 points in last Sunday’s All-Star game. Joining George on the wing is Monta Ellis, who is having a down year statistically, but still has the ability to explode for 30 points at any time. George Hill runs the team with a steady hand, averaging 13 points per game on 43.3% shooting from deep. Rookie Myles Turner has impressed of late with his ability to score in the paint and block shots (over 2 per game in his last 13 games). Rodney Stuckey, Ian Mahinmi, Lavoy Allen, CJ Miles, and Jordan Hill round out the rest of the veteran-laden rotation.
3 Big Things1. Defend the Perimeter
The Pacers don’t necessarily shoot a ton of three compared to the rest of the league (16th most attempts per game), but it is now a staple of their offense. Outside of Rodney Stuckey, all their wings attempt at least three 3’s per game, with Paul George leading the way at 7.2 attempts per game. With so many willing shooters out there, the space that George, Ellis, and Hill have to operate increases significantly. Surprisingly, the Pacers lead the league in shot attempts from 15-19 feet, but only make about 37% of those shots. This will play into Billy Donovan’s philosophy of forcing teams off the 3-point line, and making them shoot mid-range jumpers.2. Limit Turnovers
The Pacers are the best team in the league at turning opponent turnovers into points, at 20 points per game. All the long arms on the perimeter generate a ton of deflections and steals, while the speed of Paul George and Monta Ellis can convert those deflections into points on the other end.3. Paul George vs. Kevin Durant
It’s funny how the career of these two have kind of paralleled over the past few seasons. Two years ago, George and Durant were thought to be contenders for the small forward crown that rested on LeBron James’ head. They both had great years that season, with Durant walking away with the MVP and both of their teams losing in the conference finals. Then last season, both of them were beset by injuries that kept them out the majority of the year. And this season, they’ve both come back to form and are once again two of the best players in the league. Here’s hoping their parallels for the rest of their careers include success and health.
Thunder Killer – Opposing player most likely to have a breakout game against the Thunder:
CJ Miles – It’s easy to say George, but I think George will have a tough time scoring on Durant. Miles, on the other hand, has a penchant for having big games against the Thunder. The last 3 games Miles has played against OKC, he has averaged 22.3 points.