The Oklahoma City Thunder are all but locked in to a No. 2 seed. The Indiana Pacers would surely be disappointed if they were.
While Oklahoma City is considered a top contender for the NBA title, many might question whether the stumbling Pacers still are, and those doubts would only grow if they’re blown out again by the Thunder on Sunday in Indianapolis.
Indiana is coming off a loss to another title hopeful, falling 98-86 at Miami on Friday to briefly drop a half-game behind the defending champion for the Eastern Conference’s best record. The Pacers (54-26) led the Heat for much of the season but now need help from them to gain home-court advantage throughout the East playoffs.
Some of that help came Saturday night when Atlanta beat Miami 98-85 to clinch the No. 8 seed in the East and drop the Heat and Pacers into a first-place tie.
"As of now it’s not in our hands," forward Paul George said, "and we’re perfectly fine with it."
George and coach Frank Vogel don’t seem too concerned despite a 3-8 record since March 22 – easily the worst of any playoff team in that span. Indiana trailed by double digits for most of the second half against a Heat club missing Dwyane Wade.
"We’re still a good basketball team," Vogel said. "I think we’re taking steps to get ready."
A big one would be beating the Thunder, even if Oklahoma City limits its top players’ minutes after all but clinching the second-best record in the West with a 116-94 win over New Orleans on Friday. The Thunder need one more win or a loss by the third-place Los Angeles Clippers to officially claim the No. 2 seed.
Oklahoma City (58-21) has posted double-digit victories in all three meetings with Indiana since the start of last season, the most recent a 118-94 home win Dec. 8. Kevin Durant had 36 points and 10 rebounds, Russell Westbrook added 26 points with 13 assists, and the Thunder shot 61.0 percent.
Durant has scored 35.3 per game in the past four matchups, and Westbrook has averaged 26.0 points, 9.0 assists and 7.2 rebounds in the last six meetings as the Thunder have gone 5-1.
"We’ve struggled against them for the last couple years now, and we just haven’t found a way to make it difficult for them," Indiana’s David West said after the last meeting. "Obviously, Durant is just a matchup problem when he gets going."
For his part, Durant has been impressed lately by Westbrook, who appears to be benefiting from being rested for one game of back-to-backs. He’ll sit out either this contest or Monday’s visit to New Orleans.
Westbrook has played in four of the team’s six games this month, averaging 28.5 points, 6.8 assists and 51.0 percent shooting.
"He’s well rested and he’s taking advantage of a lot of matchups," Durant said. "That’s what we need from him. He’s playing extremely well. He’s picking and choosing his spots well. He’s playing with a lot of intensity for us."
One player not showing much intensity is Roy Hibbert, which has contributed to Indiana’s slump. The All-Star center has reached double figures in rebounds once in his last 22 games after doing so 18 times in his first 57.
He’s averaged 8.5 points and 33.3 percent shooting in his last 10 games.
"We’ve got to get more from him," Vogel said after Hibbert had five points and one board in 34 minutes Friday.
Hibbert has helped the Pacers hold opponents to 92.4 points per game – second best in the NBA – but they’ve allowed 101.0 in the last six. They forced no more than 11 turnovers in five of them.
The Thunder commit 15.4 per contest to rank near the bottom of the league but have averaged 8.3 giveaways during their three-game win streak.
"Taking care of the basketball is a priority every game," coach Scott Brooks told the team’s official website. "We’ve been doing a very good job with that the last few games."