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Thunder vs Pacers preview and gamethread: 3 things to watch as Paul George returns to Indiana

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Indy will look to slow down OKC’s all-star duo, but can Westbrook and PG keep things rolling?

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NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at Indiana Pacers Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports


Time: Oklahoma City Thunder @ Indiana Pacers

Location: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis

Broadcast: FSOK

Counterpart: Indy Cornrows

Podcast: Rolling Thunder Review with Indy Cornrows


The Thunder ride a 2 game win streak into Paul George’s old home tonight. You know the drill by now: Three things to watch in this match-up between the Thunder and Pacers.

1. The Pick and Pop

One of the bread and butter plays of Indiana’s offense is a pick and pop for Myles Turner, where the Big man sets a screen for his ballhandler then slides back to open himself up for jumpers rather than rolling hard to the rim. Some, but not all, come from 3-point land, as Turner still has a tendency to settle in for 20 footers instead of dropping the extra few steps to get the bonus point. Nonetheless, these pick and pops are a big weapon, especially when Turner does drop behind the arc; he’s shooting 40% from 3 on 2.5 attempts per game on the season, but has upped that to 3.5 attempts per game since Victor Oladipo’s season ending injury.

That’s a good shot, and one that can give OKC problems- the Thunder love to bring Steven Adams all the way up to the level of the screen to help contain the dribble drive on pick and rolls. If Turner slides away, Adams will be out of position to defend the pick and pop. That could lead to a bevy of open looks for Turner, or for another Pacer if the Thunder send help from the weak side at Turner.

The Thunder have found success in their last two games playing Adams a little more conservatively, having him drop just a bit lower so the roll man can’t slip behind him and get to the rim untouched. That strategy should continue tonight, adjusted for Turner’s tendency to pop rather than roll, with Adams primary focus in the pick and roll being Turner.

The Pacers primary ballhandlers Darren Collison and Bojan Bogdanovic are fine players, but the Thunder should trust Russell Westbrook and Paul George to contain them and live with the results, rather than cede open 3’s to Turner.

2. To the Rim, To the Glass

On the other end of the floor, Turner has developed into a ferocious rim protector in what’s been a breakout season for him. Turner will “drop” in pick and roll coverage, hanging out well beneath the level of the screen to prepare himself to block shots. That effectively cedes the pull-up 3 pointer and mid-range jump shot to the opposition.

How the Thunder’s 3 primary ballhandlers attack that coverage will be key. After putting up an all time terrible shooting performance through the first half of the season, Russell Westbrook has suddenly caught fire post all-star break, hitting 38.5% of his 3’s on nearly 9 attempts per game. Most of those shots have come off the dribble, and his mid-range jumper has looked better too.

Even with Russ on a roll, the Pacers will happily give him those jumpers- history suggests Russ will miss a lot more than he makes in the long run, and is much better off going at the rim, even with Turner there, and trying to finish around the young big man.

If Russ is able to get deep into the lane, he’ll find good shots even with Turner nearby, or find opportunities to hit Adams as the roll man or sling it to the corners if the Pacers send help. Even with his jumper falling, Russ remains most effective getting into the teeth of the defense, where he’s starting to finish better, yet without regressing in his ability to sling the ball to all angles to find shooters. Just how effective he is will come down to who wins the battle at the rim between him and Turner, and whether OKC can hit the shots Westbrook generates.

It’s a different story with PG- for most of his career, dating back to his Pacer days, PG launching a 3 was the outcome opposing defense would most want to avoid. Yet PG has shot just 27% from 3 point land since the all-star break as he’s battled a shoulder injury. He’s found ways to contribute all the same, notably in last week’s win over Portland, where he was able to draw 20 free throws by driving inside despite his jumper failing him.

George found his groove a bit in Wednesday’s win over the Nets, going 3-6 from deep and finishing with 25 points. If PG is back to bombing 3’s off the dribble, Indiana better hope its defenders (Bogdanovic and Thad Young) can say attached on screens, or else PG is going to cook them alive. If his jumper isn’t falling, he’ll need to take advantage of the space Turner is ceding and finish with some touch around the rim.

3. More minutes for Burton?

With Markieff Morris out with neck soreness, the Thunder turned not to Patrick Patterson but to Deonte Burton, newly signed to a full contract, against Brooklyn on Wednesday night. Burton wasn’t mind-blowing, finishing with 7 points on 3-7 shooting, but he did the little things he’s done all season- he hit an open 3, he slashed hard with the ball, and he played some pretty solid defense. The Thunder are clearly still trying to figure out their best lineups behind their starting 5, and Burton has frankly been more impressive than Morris or Patterson when he’s gotten time this season. Will he get more minutes if Morris is out again- or even if Morris is back?

For more on this game, I highly recommend Caitlin Cooper’s preview at Indy Cornrows. Caitlin also joined me this week on Rolling Thunder Review, where we rehashed the Paul George trade, talked all things Pacers, and previewed this game in depth, including a bunch of stuff not featured in this article, including former OKC legend Domantas Sabonis’s role in this game. Check it out below, or listen on iTunes and Spotify.


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