The Indiana Pacers, effected severely by the off-season injury to Paul George, have mucked around in the lower part of the Eastern Conference all season. Veteran talent like Roy Hibbert, David West, and Rodney Stuckey keeps the Pacers somewhat afloat, but the lack of a star and offensive weapons really hurts Indiana. Various assorted injuries have hurt the team as well, and the Pacers haven't generally been seen as a contender up to this point.
But over the past few weeks, things have changed. Paul George recently announced that he may make an on-court return by March, and the long-injured George Hill finally made a return to the lineup. The players are noticing that their intended team is nearly complete, and are playing a bit more inspired. Check out this fantastic article by C.Cooper of Indy Cornrows to see David West as an example. As such, the Pacers are 6-1 over their last 7, with wins over the Warriors, Cavaliers, and Pelicans.
Many are still doubtful that the Pacers can make a serious playoff push, though. As noted by this other C. Cooper Indy Cornrows article, the Pacers stood pat at the deadline:
As things currently stand, the Pacers (21-33) are chasing the Detroit Pistons (21-33), who added Reggie Jackson while gutting their bench, the Boston Celtics (20-31), who added Isaiah Thomas, the Brooklyn Nets (21-31), who added Thaddeus Young, the Miami Heat (22-30) who added Goran Dragic, and the Charlotte Hornets (22-30), who added Mo Williams, for the seventh and eighth playoff spots in the Eastern Conference.
Prior to today's moves, John Hollinger's playoff odds projected the Pacers to finish the season at 35-47 and miss the playoffs. Though in choosing to hold their roster together and with Paul George possibly returning for the stretch run of the season, in the words of Kevin Garnett, "Anything is possible!"
Who's behind the current 6-1 Pacer run?
One of the biggest culprits has been Rodney Stuckey. Over the past 5 games, Stuckey's averaged 21.8 points on 60% shooting with 3.0 assists and a steal in only 26 minutes. Admittedly, Stuckey is a very streaky player. But Stuckey is a player that generally works on the weak side, catching and shooting off of screens. So when Stuckey does well, it means the Pacers are moving the ball well. Appropriately, the Pacers are averaging 23 assists per game over their last 5, compared to a season average of 21.3. Still, don't underestimate Stuckey's presence on the ball, as he's adept at ducking around screens and drawing fouls. The Thunder have trouble with everything Stuckey seems to be good at, so watch for him to have a big night.
The aforementioned George Hill has been key in a couple of wins, dropping 20 against Detroit and Cleveland as well as 17 against the Pelicans. However, Hill has turned in a couple of clunkers as well, going 2 of 8 against Philadelphia and 4 of 13 against Golden State. Hill is a high energy player that can only really flourish when he gets a step on his opponent. As such, he may be able to get his numbers rather easily against Russell Westbrook.
Not to be forgotten is the presence of veteran wing C.J. Miles. Miles has averaged 13.6 points on 43% shooting and 1.3 steals over the Pacers last 7. Those numbers don't blow anyone away, but simply having that offense there has been huge for the Pacers. Miles works almost exclusively off the ball, often lurking in the corner or on the wing. Miles can hit the three or drive to the basket with ease, but he very rarely creates for teammates. That usually means that Miles will almost immediately look to score or reset the play, and the Thunder should be aware of that defensively. Still, like the above two, I envision Miles having a good night due to the Thunder's D preferring to trap and protect the rim.
If that weren't enough to be concerned about, the Pacers actually have a passable bench. C.J. Watson has been providing the same production he has all year, adding some desperately needed three point shooting to Indiana. Solomon Hill is the team's perimeter defensive leader, using his high IQ and loud voice to help guide other players. Luis Scola, the old Argentine big man, has shown better shot selection and can be a force on the boards. Lastly, the Pacers have even gotten production from two first year men, Damjan Rudez and Shayne Whittington. Over the last 7, Rudez is shooting 53.8% from the floor, while Wittington is shooting 47.1%. Rudez is a pick and roll Euro big who can shoot the three, while Whittington is more post oriented.
Obviously, Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook retained their minutes through the trade deadline, and Kevin Durant figured to pick his minutes back up when he eventually returns. Kanter looks to be the biggest piece coming in from the trade, grabbing 29.5 MPG in his first two. D.J. Augustin isn't far behind at 26 minutes, and he's followed by Kyle Singler at 16.5 minutes. Singler is officially a starter, but Coach Brooks appears to prefer playing Dion Waiters in crunch time. The same can be said of the 13 MPG Roberson, whom is effectively replaced by Augustin.
For now, it appears as if all of the key players were able to retain their roles. Nick Collison got his usual minutes, as did Dion Waiters. The only real loser appears to be Anthony Morrow, whom has played 19.5 MPG compared to a 23.9 MPG season average. That's not huge, and is probably a good thing considering Morrow's defensive liabilities. Still, Morrow has shown more work off of screens lately, and he continues to carve out a spot in this lineup.
How can OKC win this game?
The new-look Pacers generally win games by outrebounding their opponents and taking better shots. Indiana doesn't necessarily get out in transition a ton or have a bunch of dead-eye shooters. But a responsible offense coupled with a solid defense can weather this Pacers through some tough opponents. The Thunder should counter that by trying to play a bit more conservatively on defense. The Thunder's usual strategy plays right into Indiana's hands, and I don't think the Thunder are as good at forcing turnovers as they were before.
Prediction: Indiana Pacers 103, Oklahoma City Thunder 97.
What do you think of tonight's game? Drop a comment and let us know!
|2014-15 NBA Season Game 57|
|February 24th, 2015|
|Chesapeake Energy Arena, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma|
|7:00 PM Central Standard Time|
|TV: Fox Sports Network Oklahoma, Fox Sports Network Indiana|
|Injury Report: Kevin Durant, Steven Adams, Paul George (Out)|
|Last Season's Matchups: Dec 8 (W 118-94), Apr 13 (W 102-97)|
|George Hill||PG||Russell Westbrook|
|C.J. Miles||SG||Andre Roberson|
|Solomon Hill||SF||Kyle Singler|
|David West||PF||Serge Ibaka|
|Roy Hibbert||C||Enes Kanter|
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