The Oklahoma City Thunder will host the top team in the Eastern Conference tonight. And that team is not the Miami Heat.
The Indiana Pacers hold the best record in the NBA this season at 18-2, taking advantage of the weak conference that they are in. But this team is surely for real this season. A trip to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last year left them thirsty for more, and they seem poised to take more this season.
The Thunder are returning home after a three-game road trip at Sacramento, Portland and New Orleans where they went 2-1, losing only to the Trail Blazers. The return home is one that always has this Thunder team looking good, but the Pacers won’t make it easy on them tonight.
Leading the Pacers will be emerging superstar Paul George, who is averaging 24.8 points and 5.9 rebounds per game this season. George led the Pacers with 28 points last night in the team’s road 111-100 win over the Spurs.
George was a star last year as well but seems to have a new confident swagger this season that is helping him edge to the next level. He takes as much pride on defense as he does on offense, which means he’ll likely be checking Kevin Durant for most of the game.
Durant, the league’s leading scorer at 28.5 per night, has been playing the best basketball of his life this season. He’s averaging a career high in assists per game and everything just seems to be coming to him easier than ever this season.
The Pacers’ best record in the league is thanks mostly to their incredible defense, which is allowing just 91.0 points per 100 possessions. While the Thunder have just the ninth most efficient offense this season, they are still an animal the Pacers have yet to see this season.
The best thing about playing at home is all of those shots that seem to go in and out on the road suddenly start falling. The Thunder have had solid production from their role guys away from the Peake this season, but there’s no denying they’ve been better at home, where the Thunder are undefeated this season.
The Pacers’ starting five play as much as almost any unit in the NBA. There will be some games where all five of them exceed 40 minutes. That means that their bench unit is not the sharpest and could be an area of weakness for the Thunder to take advantage.
When Roy Hibbert is out and the lanes are a little more free to drive through, that is when Reggie Jackson must take advantage. Jackson has been leading the Thunder second unit as he is playing with the most confidence of his life this year. Against a stout Pacers defense, he must look to create not only for himself but his teammates. Jeremy Lamb will need to knock down shots, and that goes for starters like Thabo Sefolosha and Serge Ibaka as well.
Barring a George three-point barrage, the Thunder should be able to contain the Pacers for the most part. They’ll need to box out a little better than they usually do, but the Pacers shouldn’t be able to hang 100 on the Thunder either way.
To beat the team with the best record in the NBA, the Thunder will need a complete game. That’s just what they’ve been getting when they’ve played at home this season. The difference tonight is that Indiana is in a league of their own with what they do on the defensive end. It’s just the regular season, but this test will be one we look closely at tonight.