8:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Thunder -6, Over/Under: 214.5
A pair of Playoff Teams struggling down the stretch look to stop the bleeding tonight at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, as the Thunder host the Indiana Pacers in a matchup featuring teams with a great deal of connective tissue. In many respects, we could all see this coming for the Pacers (45-29, 4th in Eastern Conference), who despite providing bullish resistance, have finally begun to succumb to attrition in the wake of Victor Oladipo’s season-ending injury. The All-Star Guard, who was voted the league’s Most Improved Player last season after he was acquired in an Offseason Blockbuster Trade that sent the Franchise’s figurehead Paul George to Oklahoma City in exchange for he and Domantas Sabonis (14.1 PTS, 58.7% FG, 9.3 REB, 2.8 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.4 BLK, 22.0 PER), unfortunately suffered ruptured Quadricep Tendon in his Right Knee back on January 28th, ending what was indeed a promising campaign for the 26-Year Old. While not nearly as prolific nor as efficient as he was the season beforehand, Oladipo (18.8 PTS, 42.3% FG, 34.3% 3FG, 5.6 REB, 5.2 AST, 1.7 STL, 17.7 PER) was nonetheless voted to his second consecutive All-Star Game since arriving in Indianapolis, with Indiana a promising 32-17 and occupying the Third Seed in the Eastern Conference prior to his injury. However, apart from a brief six-game winning streak before the All-Star Break, Nate McMillan’s charges have struggled to keep their collective heads above water, going 7-9 since the Break, losing six out of their past nine contests. It was only a matter of time before Oladipo’s absence would catch up with them, for they can certainly count themselves fortunate playing in the Eastern Conference, where their slide has been far more gradual than it could have been. Unfortunately, the dreaded injury bug is beginning to spread, with veteran Point Guard Darren Collison (11.3 PTS, 47.2% FG, 41.6% 3FG, 3.1 REB, 6.0 AST, 1.5 STL, 16.9 PER) having already been ruled out of tonight’s contest after missing each of the past three outings with a strained Quadricep. Needless to say, this is a less than ideal situation for McMillan & Co. who are without a doubt being a cautious with Collison as possible in lieu of the Playoffs, though after being surpassed by the Philadelphia 76ers in the Standings, are in danger of losing the luxury of Home Court Advantage in the First Round, for they lead the Boston Celtics by just Two Games at the moment. If not for Boston’s own struggles, this situation could be all the more dire for Indiana. So with that said, what’s been the Pacers’ key to staying afloat without the presence of Oladipo, you ask? Dogged defense. McMillan has managed to make up for his team’s lack of offensive production with their prowess on the defensive end of the court, relegating opponents to just 103.9 Points (2nd Overall) on 44.9% shooting from the field (5th Overall), including 50.5% shooting from within the arc (7th Overall) and 35.4% beyond it (15th Overall), while forcing 15.9 Turnovers (4th Overall), and committing the fourth-fewest fouls in the league (19.5), which of course leads to a dearth of Free-Throws to their opposition.
When we last saw the Pacers, they managed to halt a four-game losing streak in the most improbable of fashions, blowing out the second-best team in the Western Conference, the Denver Nuggets, in a 124-88 victory. After a relatively tight First Quarter (27-23), Indiana owned the visiting side, outscoring them 97-65 the rest of the way. Even without the services of Oladipo and Collison, this particular showing might have been their most complete performance of the season; McMillan’s charges shot a blistering 56.0% from the field, including 8-of-18 from beyond the arc (44.4%), assisting on a staggering Thirty-Four of their Fifty-One Field Goals, while committing just Eleven Turnovers, and limiting Denver to a dreadful 35.5% shooting overall, including 7-of-29 from downtown (24.1%), and forcing them into Seventeen Turnovers. Five different players scored in double-figures for the home side, led by Bojan Bogdanovic (17.9 PTS, 49.8% FG, 42.3% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 1.9 AST, 0.8 STL, 16.1 PER), who scored Twenty-Six of his Thirty-Five Points in the First Half (a career-high for one half). The Bosnian Forward was unconscious from the field, netting 13-of-16 attempts from the field (81.3%), including 5-of-6 from three (83.3%), to go along with Six Rebounds, Three Assists, and a steal, going on a 12-2 run all by himself late in the second stanza. Myles Turner (13.2 PTS, 48.3% FG, 37.4% 3FG, 7.0 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.8 STL, 2.7 BLK, 17.7 PER) and the aforementioned Sabonis dominated the Paint, combining for Thirty-Two Points on 14-of-28 shooting from the floor (50.0%), Twenty-Four Rebounds, Six Assists, a Steal, and a pair of Blocks, with the Bench as a whole accounting for Fifty-Four Points. The Pacers pummeled the Nuggets inside, outscoring them 72-42 in the Paint, while advancing to 20-1 this season when they hold their opponents below Ninety-Seven Points.
Meanwhile, just what in the hell has happened to the Thunder (43-31, 8th in Western Conference)? At 37-20 heading into the All-Star Break, Oklahoma City owned the Third Seed in the Western Conference, and were a helluva lot closer to catching up with the top-seeded Warriors than falling to the bottom of the Playoff Field. Since the Break, Billy Donovan’s charges have been in a bonafide freefall, losing eleven of seventeen outings, including five out of their last six. As a result, they’ve fallen all the way to the Eighth Seed out West, in a virtual tie with the San Antonio Spurs, who also happen to hold the tiebreaker. Now, we don’t need to detail why a First Round meeting with Golden State is a less than ideal proposition for this group, but with just eight games remaining in the Regular Season, that is a very real possibility. Granted, it would take a great deal for the Thunder to fall out of the Playoff Field altogether, but this has been an absolutely fascinating collapse nonetheless. In looking for a reason for their downward spiral, look no further than their play on the defensive end of the court. Before the All-Star Break, Oklahoma City was holding opponents to 45.8% shooting from the field, including 34.6% from beyond the arc, outrebounding them by 2.6 Boards per Game, and forcing an average of 16.8 Turnovers. However, after the Break they’ve relinquished 46.1% shooting from the floor, including 37.5% from downtown, while getting outrebounded by 0.7 Boards, and forcing 14.5 Turnovers a night. This is a team that thrives off of the opportunities that their typically swarming defense creates, but that proverbial well has dried up over the past month and change. Again, it’s a sudden shift for a team that ranks Third and Ninth in Offensive (25.6%) and Defensive (77.8%) Rebounding Percentage, while also leading the league in Defensive Turnover Percentage (14.6%). Further coinciding with this run of poor play has been the sudden struggles of Paul George (28.2 PTS, 43.9% FG, 38.9% 3FG, 8.2 REB, 4.2 AST, 2.2 STL, 0.5 BLK, 23.7 PER). The six-time All-Star and four-time All-NBA Wing was a bonafide MVP candidate before the Break, averaging 28.7 Points on 45.3% shooting from the field, including 40.6% from three, along with 8.0 Rebounds, and 4.1 Assists, but since that respite has seen his shooting percentages plummet, netting just 38.6% of his attempts overall, and 32.9% from the perimeter. There have been a wealth of rumors for his current struggles, ranging from simple fatigue to a sore shooting elbow, but whatever it may be, it’s been a drastic turn of events for one of the premier players in the league.
When we last saw the Thunder, they proved once again that they simply couldn’t stand prosperity, following an impressive 116-109 victory on the road at the Toronto Raptors last Friday Night with a disappointing 103-115 defeat at the lowly Memphis Grizzlies. The visitors fell behind early, trailing 2-16 after the hosts opened the affair with seven consecutive Field Goals made. Donovan’s charges managed to rally back and cut the deficit to 48-54 at Halftime, but were rocked by a 17-7 run in the Third Quarter, where they at one point trailed by as many as Eighteen Points. Oklahoma City struggled throughout the night to throw the basketball in the ocean, knocking down just 40.0% of their attempts, including 12-of-36 from beyond the arc (33.3%), and as a result were hammered on the glass, where they were outrebounded 41-57. Russell Westbrook (23.0 PTS, 42.5% FG, 28.5% 3FG, 11.0 REB, 10.4 AST, 2.0 STL, 0.5 BLK, 20.6 PER) and the aforementioned George struggled throughout the contest, with the Triple-Double Machine totaling just Sixteen Points, Five Rebounds, and Seven Assists, while the latter led the team with Thirty Points, but shot just 10-of-29 from the floor (34.5%) to get there. Westbrook’s struggles were even more worse, with the former MVP managing just 6-of-20 shooting from the field (30.0%). As has been the case throughout this malaise of inconsistency, their dynamic duo’s poor shooting coincided with a dismal effort on the defensive end of the court; the Thunder allowed the Grizzlies to shoot 44.9% from the field, assisting on a whopping Thirty-One of their Forty Field Goals, and forced them into a scant Eleven Turnovers. Furthermore, the home side set up shop at the Charity Stripe, knocking down 24-of-31 Free-Throws (77.4%), owning a Plus-9 advantage over the visitors. Donovan had to have been up in arms over his team’s effort, particularly on the glass, where despite ranking Second in the NBA in Rebounding (48.0), they were nevertheless bullied by a team that ranks Twenty-Ninth (41.8), or in other words, next-to-last in the league. In fact, the Grizzlies’ Fifty-Seven Rebounds matched their season-high for 2018-2019. The loss snapped a nine-game winning streak over Memphis.