The Pacers had plenty of excuses they could have used.
Last of a five-game road trip, second of a road back-to-back, fourth of five games playing a Western Conference elite (Clippers, Trail Blazers, Spurs, Thunder). Of course those were factors in Indiana’s loss to the Thunder, but the biggest reason for the route?
Indiana may be a bad matchup for the Miami Heat, but not for the Thunder. The Pacers, likely the NBA’s best defensive team, not only have a hard time scoring against Oklahoma City, they have a hard time stopping them as well.
It starts with Kendrick Perkins and Serge Ibaka. The Thunder’s starting frontcourt makes things extremely difficult for Indiana’s Roy Hibbert and David West, especially early in the game.
Perkins, currently playing at an all-time high in a Thunder uniform, doesn’t let Hibbert catch the ball close to the basket, forcing him to either make a move or dish out of the post. Hibbert is an elite defensive stopper, no doubt. However, he can be defended. Perkins has no problem pushing players around and playing physical, which can throw Indiana’s all-star center off his game in all phases.
Ibaka seems to turn it on against certain players, West being one. The former Oklahoma City/New Orleans Hornets forward has a hard time getting comfortable against the Thunder, which makes it tough because Indiana is a half-court-minded team that likes to work from inside, out.
Thabo Sefolosha is another reason why Indiana doesn’t want any part of the Thunder in an NBA Finals matchup.
Sefolosha is a great defender, not good enough to stop Paul George, but good enough to stay with him as he flies around the court, trying to free himself off of multiple screens. That’s not an easy assignment, but the Thunder’s defensive stopper was able to handle it Sunday. When guarding him, Sefolosha was attached to George’s hip, making it tough for Indiana’s offense to get going. Of course George got his (32 point in 36 minutes), he’s nearly impossible to completely shutdown. However, making things difficult for him early can stalemate Indiana’s perimeter offense for most of the game.
So, the Thunder matches up with Indian’s three best offensive threats, not to mention Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant can, at times, make things difficult for anybody they cover. Westbrook straight owns George Hill and although Durant isn’t a great off-the-ball defender, his length can be a factor against any offensive player. You don’t want to run into a trap with those two guys.
Now, defensively, Indiana is possibly the best in the league. Hibbert defends the basket as well as any player in the league and George is arguably the best perimeter defender in the world. Hill, West and Lance Stephenson are feisty as well and Frank Vogel is one of the league’s best coaches. He has developed a great defensive philosophy with their roster.
However, can they stop the Thunder?
That may be too tough a task, even for the league’s best defensive team.
George is a great defender, but Durant obviously cancels him out. It was apparent from the tip Sunday that Durant sees George's defense as a challenge. He went at George early and often throughout the game to the tune of 36 points and 10 rebounds.
Hibbert doesn’t have to worry about defending Perkins, however, he does have to work against Nick Collison and Steven Adams. He also has to worry about rotations when the Thunder move the ball like they did Sunday.
Hill has no business guarding Westbrook, but he’s probably the only option Vogel has. That’s the matchup Indiana has to work towards evening because if they let Westbrook run around and get to the basket when he wants, he will kill them with the pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop and drive-and-dish.
Also, Reggie Jackson is turning into a legitimate sixth-man, even as the backup point guard. He really didn’t have a problem getting to the basket Sunday and also had no problem creating. Combine that with Oklahoma City’s new three-point marksmen, Jeremy Lamb and there’s a legitimate scoring threat. The Thunder’s bench has become really strong and it may be too strong for Indiana’s second unit.
Indiana has a problem guarding the pick-and-roll, especially at the top of the key. Oklahoma City's most dangerous weapon is their pick-and-roll abilities from the top of the key. That's got to be scary for Vogel and the Pacers, especially if they have to win four out of seven games.
Both the Thunder and Pacers have a long road ahead. The NBA schedule hasn't even reached Christmas Day. However, each team has to wonder who they could play in the Finals. The Thunder obviously see the Pacers as a potential threat because they used Sunday's game to make a statement. The Pacers may be today's hot team, but come June, the Thunder's matchup advantage could quickly cool them off.