In the end, the scoreboard says it all about the Indiana Pacers loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder; the closers came to play when they had to. That unfortunately equates to none of those closers playing for the Pacers, but it was the kind of result that you look at and say, "What can you do?" Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook struggled shooting the ball for most of the night, but every possession late, it was their shot to take, and every possession late, it found the bottom of the net.
This was a tough loss because you could see the Pacers playing extremely well, shooting 60% in the first half, keeping pace and leading the Thunder in the second half, cutting the game to three points late in the fourth quarter. But when you expect an Indiana team that, while improved, isn't great on the offensive end to match buckets, despite a solid defensive effort, it does become more about simply being over-matched than not coming to play. The Thunder had two long stretches where they didn't allow themselves any empty possessions, and it was a key part in their success tonight.
The Thunder took a 13-point lead late in the second quarter on that kind of play, but when Indiana was able to get stops, they were still able to score on the Thunder, rattling off a 13-0 run to tie it up. The difference defensively was also apparent late. While the Pacers did play well enough defensively, they couldn't get the stops, but big defensive plays late in the game for OKC turned the tide in their favor to close the game on a 10-2 run.
Indiana had just seven turnovers on the night, winning the battle, moved the ball extremely well with the starters in the game, but one of the biggest keys for the Thunder tonight came in the free throw battle. Oklahoma City got to the line almost three times as often as Indiana, getting 30 attempts to Indiana's 13. The Thunder are notoriously one of the league's most prominent free throw shooters, and it becomes difficult for Indiana when they aren't able to play tougher defensively without getting whistled every trip down the floor.
The starters played heavy minutes, but went blow for blow with the Thunder all night. Unfortunately, Indiana's worst stretches came with the bench play, which is disappointing, because as a whole, they played fairly well. But when the Thunder can bring a guy like Kevin Martin off the bench with 22 first half points. D.J. Augustin played well in the first half, Gerald Green was successful when he found himself attacking Martin on the offensive end, yet it's naturally going to be hard to keep pace when well enough for your bench is 20 points for the entire unit.
All five starters reached double figures, led by David West with 21 & 9. West was big for Indiana early in the game, and made some big plays late. Paul George had 17 points. While he didn't shoot exceptionally well, he did play a solid game, hitting some timely shots and making plays on defense to frustrate Durant early. George Hill had 15, with Roy Hibbert and Lance Stephenson each pitching in 10.
Stephenson was a big advantage for the Pacers as a playmaker, his awareness opening a lot of opportunities for the Pacers to find some easy buckets through most of the game. Hibbert shot 4-9, his night unfortunately defined by a well-timed block by Westbrook. As for Durant and Westbrok, each reached their scoring averages with 27 & 21 respectively, both guys just coming up and making plays.
It's easy to say the Pacers were probably going to come away with a loss, but it doesn't make the result any easier to swallow when you aren't able to see a solid effort rewarded. The Pacers couldn't get the stops, but it didn't come from a lack of trying. When Paul George missed an open jumper late in the game, you could see that despite his improved play as of late, he's not even in the same ballpark as a closer that Durant and Westbrook are.
The pair of losses hasn't done any favors for Indiana in the standings, who despite leading the Central, now find themselves 1.5 games back alone in third place at 10-11. It's frustrating, but the Pacers just have to keep fighting and playing at the level they played at tonight. Wins are a lot harder this year, but that's the kind of team they have right now. They'll have a chance to return to .500 when they host the Cleveland Cavaliers on Wednesday.