4:00 PM EST, NBA TV – Line: Rockets -7, Over/Under: 232.5
In the penultimate contest for many teams there is still much to be decided in terms of seeding for the looming Postseason, with tonight’s combatants, the Indiana Pacers and Houston Rockets, still jockeying for position within the Standings from ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex in Orlando, Florida. With the top three seeds in the East already locked up, the following three have yet to be decided with the three teams in competition being separated by 1.5 Games, with the Pacers (43-28, 5th in Eastern Conference) sitting squarely in the middle. As of this post, Indiana finds themselves one game behind the Miami Heat for Fourth, and a half-game ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers for Sixth. Granted, there is no home court advantage for anyone this year, and whether they happen to be Fourth or Fifth in the Standings, a matchup with the aforementioned Heat is the same. Of course, this is particularly relevant due to the fact that Nate McMillan’s charges will be well acquainted with Miami by the time the Playoffs begin; by the end of the weekend, they will have met twice since the restart, both of which will have come within five days. Hopefully, they’ll have learned from their mistakes, for the first of those two meetings was nothing short of one-sided as the Heat hammered the Pacers 114-92 on Monday Night.
This was one of the more highly anticipated contests in the restart, particularly after their showdown back on January 8th, in which Shooting Guards, TJ Warren (19.8 PTS, 53.6% FG, 40.3% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 1.5 AST, 1.2 STL, 12.5 PER) and Jimmy Butler, exchanged unpleasantries in a 122-108 Miami victory. On that fateful night, Warren fouled Butler on a drive to the rim, with each player earning a Technical Foul for their respective reactions. Butler would then return the favor and foul Warren on the ensuing possession, with the young Swingman clapping and taunting him afterward leading to his ejection. Butler, who always entertains, promptly blew kisses his way, leading to an obscene gesture and some unflattering comments from both players. Needless to say, both sides had this rematch circled on their calendars, an individual matchup that was only heightened by the fact that Warren has been on absolute FIRE in the Bubble, leading the NBA in scoring since the restart at 34.8 Points per Game on 60.5% shooting form the field, including 55.6% from beyond the arc, heading into Monday Night’s battle. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to the expectations, for 26-Year Old entered Halftime with Twelve Points and wouldn’t find the bottom of the net again. In the end, he shot just 5-of-14 from the floor (35.7%), with the team as a whole netting a miserable 39.3% overall, including 10-of-35 from downtown (28.6%), with nearly as many Turnovers (17) as Assists (20). Victor Oladipo (14.4 PTS, 40.9% FG, 33.7% 3FG, 3.8 REB, 2.8 AST, 0.9 STL, 12.5 PER) added Fourteen Points on 4-of-9 shooting (44.4%), with Malcolm Brogdon (16.5 PTS, 43.8% FG, 31.8% 3FG, 4.8 REB, 7.1 AST, 0.7 STL, 17.7 PER) chipping in with Twelve of his own on 4-of-12 shooting (33.3%). Furthermore, Indiana was manhandled on the boards (45-59), and were outscored 44-66 in the Second Half. For those who were curious of the individual matchup, Butler scored Nineteen Points on a similarly poor 5-of-13 shooting (38.4%), but in roughly twenty-five minutes of guarding Warren, he relinquished a scant Two Points on 1-of-3 shooting. It was the third straight loss to Miami this season, which is certainly something for McMillan & Co to think of before their likely matchup in the Playoffs, for it’s looking like they’ll meet at least six times (and possibly more) inside of two weeks.
As disappointing as that defeat was, it was only their second since the restart, as the Pacers have been one of the more understated surprises within the Bubble. Needless to say, nobody was expecting them to maintain their place in the Standings following the four-month hiatus due to the Covid-19 Pandemic. The aforementioned Oladipo missed the first Forty-Seven Games of the campaign rehabbing from a torn ACL, and was brought along cautiously by the Coaching Staff following his return, and just when they thought that they were going to finally back to full strength, they were dealt a major blow when promising young Center, Domantas Sabonis (18.5 PTS, 54.0% FG, 12.4 REB, 5.0 AST, 0.8 STL, 0.5 BLK, 20.7 PER), suffered a broken foot in practice, ending his season. Indiana had found success playing a slower, defensive-oriented style with the 23-Year Old playing a prime role en route to allowing just 107.7 Points (4th Overall) on 44.9% shooting (8th Overall), including 51.2% shooting within the arc (9th Overall) and 34.4% beyond it (4th Overall), while permitting 23.3 Assists (7th Overall), racking up 5.2 Blocks (10th Overall), and only committing 19.6 Personal Fouls (8th Overall). As a result, McMillan has been forced to roll out some smaller lineups emphasizing spacing and shooting, which is a big reason as to why the aforementioned Warren has been able to make the impact that he has; the Pacers have risen offensively, averaging 110.8 Points on 48.1% shooting overall and 36.3% shooting from three. Fellow young big man, Myles Turner (12.0 PTS, 45.9% FG, 34.4% 3FG, 6.5 REB, 1.1 AST, 2.1 BLK, 14.7 PER), has had to carry the load in the Paint without Sabonis, and though he got off to a hot start following the shutdown, he hasn’t been nearly as effective of late. In the first four outings sine the restart, the 24-Year Old averaged 16.0 Points on 61.0% shooting, while showing the ability to step out to the perimeter and knock down the money ball at a ridiculous 61.5% clip, while also adding 6.3 Rebounds, 1.5 Assists, and 2.0 Blocks, but in the last two tilts he’s managed just 8.0 Points per Game on 33.3% shooting, including 12.5% from downtown, with 5.0 Rebounds, 1.5 Assists, and 1.5 Blocks. Turner must play a more consistent role heading into the Playoffs if Indiana to turn the tide in their eventual matchup with the Heat.
Meanwhile, like their opponent tonight, the Rockets (44-26, 4th in Western Conference) find themselves in all likelihood locked into either the Fourth or Fifth Seed out West, and since there is once again no such thing as home court advantage this Postseason, resting players has taken precedence. Barring something truly spectacular happening, Houston will be facing the Oklahoma City Thunder in the First Round of the Playoffs, which would place them on the half of the bracket that features the Top-Seeded Los Angeles Lakers, which may be viewed as an easier track to the Finals than on the other side, where Los Angeles’ other side, the Clippers await. This team currently sits 1.5 games behind the Denver Nuggets for Third, though it would take winning out and Denver losing out to leap them in the Standings. So in this most unusual of seasons, what is the best road forward for Mike D’Antoni’s charges, you ask? In all honesty, staying where they’re at is probably the best thing for them given their track record against any of those aforementioned teams that they would matched up with. In three meetings thus far, they’re 2-1 against the Lakers, with D’Antoni’s smaller rotation creating havoc for their larger counterparts, particularly of late given the injuries that they’ve sustained in the Backcourt; they recently met back on August 6th, and Houston had their way them in a 113-97 victory, outscoring them by FIFTY-SEVEN Points from beyond the arc. Conversely, the Rockets are only 2-2 against the Clippers, whom they only managed to shoot 42.4% overall against, and 30.4% from downtown, with their length and size on the perimeter neutralizing their own spacing to a degree.
With that said, those are potential Second Round Matchups, folks, for the more immediate concern lies in the First Round, where it’s either the aforementioned Thunder (if they remain Fourth or Fifth) or the Utah Jazz (if they move into Third). D’Antoni & Co are no stranger to the latter, whom they’ve promptly eliminated with relative ease in each of the last two Postseasons (8-2), while taking two out of three meetings in 2019-2020. Furthermore, they’ve proven completely unable of dealing with former MVP, James Harden (34.3 PTS, 44.0% FG, 35.1% 3FG, 6.5 REB, 7.5 AST, 1.8 STL, 0.9 BLK, 28.8 PER), with the two-time scoring champion oftentimes humiliating them, which certainly hasn’t changed this season; the two-time reigning Scoring Champion has averaged 33.0 Points, 7.5 Rebounds, and 8.5 Assists in two encounters thus far. However, while that matchup is old hat at this point, the more likely affair with the Thunder is BY FAR the most juicy of storylines. That’s completely due to the fact that former Rockets’ Point Guard, Chris Paul, currently plies his trade for Oklahoma City a year after being traded there for Russell Westbrook (27.2 PTS, 47.2% FG, 25.8% 3FG, 7.9 REB, 7.0 AST, 1.6 STL, 21.1 PER) in one of the most surprising transactions of the Offseason. Of course, Paul’s addition to Clutch City back in 2017 helped propel Houston to the best record in the league, with his chemistry with Harden taking their play to an elite level. If not for an unfortunate hamstring injury suffered by the perennial All-Star in Game Six of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors (which was followed by one of the greatest meltdowns in Playoff History in Game Seven), then it’s totally rational to believe that the team would have gone on to secure their first NBA Championship since 1995. Paul and Harden would once again meet their end at the hands of the Warriors in 2019, which reportedly led to friction between the two Guards, eventually leading to his departure last Summer. Needless to say, there is no love lost between either player, and given Westbrook’s ties to his former club, emotions will run hot and heavy in any potential series. In three meetings this season, the Thunder have gotten the better of the Rockets, taking two out of three contests, relegating them to 42.0% shooting from the field, including a pedestrian 23.2% from long range, while outscoring them by an average margin of 7.3 Points per Game. Does Paul hold the key to defeating his former teammates? Perhaps, though it needs to be stated that these sides have not met since D’Antoni decided to go all-in on his small-ball philosophy; the innovative Head Coach opted to essentially play without any bigs, completely embracing his philosophy of spacing and shooting back on February 6th, which has proven polarizing across the league to say the least. A 6-5 Center? Getting outrebounded by 10.3 Boards a Night? Say what you will, but the shift has been successful, with his troops going 12-8 during that span, including 4-2 since the restart.
With all that said, D’Antoni’s tactics have typically been successful in the Regular Season though have always seemed to flame out in the Playoffs, which has certainly been the case during his tenure in Houston. Since arriving back in 2016, he’s gone 217-99 (.687) and is on the verge of taking them to the Playoffs on a fourth consecutive occasion. However, the 69-Year Old has met oftentimes met heartbreak at that stage, punctuated by a triumvirate of notorious meltdowns against the aforementioned Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, whom the Rockets met just last night in a 105-123 defeat that saw him rest Harden among other players. Against a team that had absolutely everything to play for, his charges were nothing short of flat, outscored 49-66 in the First Half en route to shooting a mere 40.4% from the field, including 14-of-48 from the perimeter (29.2%), and committing as many Turnovers as Assists (18). Then again, this what one should come to expect without Harden running the show, as Westbrook led the way with Twenty Points on 8-of-17 shooting (47.1%), Five Rebounds and Six Assists, but also totaling Seven Turnovers. Guards, Ben McLemore (10.2 PTS, 44.9% FG, 40.4% 3FG, 2.2 REB, 0.8 AST, 0.6 STL, 12.0 PER) and Austin Rivers (9.0 PTS, 42.9% FG, 36.1% 3FG, 2.5 REB, 1.7 AST, 07 STL, 10.8 PER), both came back down to earth a bit after an impressive string of performances (Rivers dropped FORTY-ONE Points off the Bench in Sunday’s win over the Sacramento Kings), with the tandem combining for Thirty-One Points on just 11-of-28 shooting (39.2%), including 5-of-16 from beyond the arc (31.2%). Looking towards tonight’s meeting with the Pacers, D’Antoni has made it clear that he’s interested in being more successful next week than this one, which will likely him to sitting more of his players; Harden and Westbrook are both listed as Day-to-Day, with the latter almost certain to be held out of action on the second night of a Back-to-Back, particularly given that the former MVP has been nursing a bruised Quadriceps. Of course, the Pacers are in a similar boat, with a host of starters possibly missing tonight’s affair, including the aforementioned quartet of Warren, Oladipo, Brogdon, and Turner.