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2013-14 Game 80 Preview: Thunder try to make things worse for the Pacers

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For a while this season, these two teams were treated as the best teams in the NBA. Things have changed, a little bit for the Oklahoma City Thunder and a lot for the Indiana Pacers.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

2013-2014 NBA Season
Won 3

Lost 1
April 12th, 2014
Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, Indiana
12:00 PM Central Standard Time
Radio: ESPN Radio, WWLS 98.1FM OKC, 1070 The Fan

Injury Report: Russell Westbrook (Questionable)

Andrew Bynum (Out)

Previous Matchups: Dec 8 (W, 118-94)
Probable Starters
George Hill PG Russell Westbrook
Lance Stephenson SG Thabo Sefolosha
Paul George SF Kevin Durant
David West PF Serge Ibaka
Roy Hibbert C Kendrick Perkins
2013/14 Advanced Stats
92.5 (20th) Pace 95.6 (9th)
103.9 (23rd) ORtg 110.6 (7th)
99.3 (1st) DRtg 103.6 (5th)

I'm sure that at one point not too long ago, this matchup looked like a potential NBA Finals preview. In fact, for most of January and February, the Oklahoma City Thunder and Indiana Pacers held down the top seeds in their respective conferences. Check your calendars–this game might've been one you circled a few months ago.

Now? Well, I'm sure you know how things are different now. The Thunder stumbled a little out of the All-Star break as the San Antonio Spurs ripped out an 19-game win streak, but the main narrative coming into this game is how far the Indiana Pacers have fallen in the last few weeks.

In their last 20 games (arbitary sample size alert), the Pacers have had a defensive rating of 103.4. You can see above that they still have the league's best defensive rating for the season, which is a testament to just how great they were earlier in the season when they had a defensive rating in the mid-low-90s. For context, just eleven teams in NBA history have maintained a defensive rating of 95.0 or less for a whole season since the stat was created in 1973, and the San Antonio Spurs have been the only team to manage it (they did it twice) since the 70s.

Now, Indiana's defense is still pretty good. However, their fall from being one of history's best defensive teams to performing at what would be "just" a top-five level in the NBA if extrapolated to a whole season hurts them because they're terrible on offense, and they rely on their defense to carry their offense. In fact, as their defensive rating has climbed, their already-bad offensive rating has plummeted. In their last 20, the Pacers have an offensive rating of 97.1. No team is ever going to maintain that level of bad for a whole season, but for the sake of having a reference point, the Philadelphia 76ers have a 99.1 offensive rating this season.

It just feels like everything has fallen apart for these guys. Roy Hibbert's individual rebounding has vanished, and word is that he's complaining about a lack of touches. Paul George's shooting has fallen off a cliff. Lance Stephenson has gone from a wild-card to just wild. The Evan Turner trade hasn't really helped at all. The team is making basic mistakes that can be reduced to a plain lack of effort and focus, like setting lazy screens and throwing passes off target. Frank Vogel actually chose to sit all five of his starters against the Milwaukee Bucks last Wednesday, though the team still won because Bucks.

With a Sunday matchup against the Thunder, you can bet the Pacers are looking for a turnaround, especially after losing to the Miami Heat by twelve points on Friday. Getting another contender is tough scheduling luck for them, however. The Thunder and their own elite defense should cause all sorts of trouble for the Pacers' fumbling offense. In fact, the Thunder have found their zone again on defense after struggling out of the All-Star break. In recent games, most notably the streak-buster game against the Spurs a week and a bit ago, the Thunder have been all over the place in the way that overwhelms opposing offenses and prevents them from finding any good shots. This is a nice change from when they were all over the place in the way that lets defenses pick and choose which hole to exploit.

What will probably matter most for the Thunder in this game is how their offense attacks the Pacers' defense. It's an elite offense meeting an elite defense, and if the Thunder allow themselves to be neutralized on that end, then they will offer the Pacers' drowning offense a lifeline to win the game. The Pacers play conservatively on pick-and-rolls and concede inefficient midrange jumpers, but the Thunder have the benefit of one of the league's best catch-and-shoot players in the midrange in Serge Ibaka. They also have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, who should push Paul George and George Hill (both solid defenders, if not even better than that) to their limits.

I don't think it's likely that the Thunder bungle up against the Pacers' defense, at least not to the point that it lets the Pacers offense make it competitive. They might play well enough out of the gate to hang around for some or maybe even most of the game, but it's going to take a vintage Pacers performance for this game to truly go down to the wire. Just don't see it happening, folks.

Prediction: Oklahoma City Thunder 107, Indiana Pacers 92