Opponent: Oklahoma City Thunder
Starting Lineup: Chris Paul-Shai Gilgeous-Alexander-Terrance Ferguson-Danillo Gallinari-Steven Adams
Second Unit: Dennis Schroder-Hamidou Diallo-Darius Bazley-Mike Muscala-Nerlens Noel
Leading Scorer: Gilgeous-Alexander (21 PPG)
Leading Rebounder: Adams (10.1 RPG)
Leading Assists: Paul (5.2 APG)
Biggest Challenge: Paul
With the injuries to Edmond Sumner and Jeremy Lamb, the Indiana Pacers have gone with Aaron Holiday in the starting lineup, bumping Malcolm Brogdon to shooting guard. Based off size, Brogdon will have to match up with Gilgeous-Alexander, so if the Pacers continue to start Holiday, that leaves him matched up with Paul. That’s a tough task for him, offensively and defensively. OKC’s savy-veteran point guard might be able to bait him into mistakes on offense and expose Holiday’s defensive liabilities on the other side of the court.
Biggest Advantage: OKC’s forced youth movement
With the trades of Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Jerami Grant, the Thunder can’t afford to lean too heavily on their veterans, or else they might find themselves stuck in NBA purgatory (see: Detroit Pistons). Their forced youth movement is good for their long-term outlook, but bad for the short-term. For example, Diallo and Bazley, who both could eventually turn into good NBA players, have played in every game this year and average a combined 40 minutes per game. That’s a lot of playing time for net-negative players, but OKC’s forced youth movement has thrusted them into primary rotation players. The Pacers, who are filled with smart veterans, can use this to their advantage and attack some of OKC’s younger players’ flaws.
The X-Factor: Jakarr Sampson
Sampson draws a pretty tough defensive matchup with bucket-getter Gallinari, but Sampson is athletic and has shown promising signs defensively. How much can he disrupt Gallinari at the point of attack? T.J. Warren, who has seen an increase in minutes at power forward since Myles Turner’s injury, might struggle defensively against Gallinari, so this is Sampson’s time to showcase his skills with a possible increase in minutes. The Thunder have limited offensive playmaking outside of Paul, Gilgeous-Alexander and Gallinari, so eliminating one of those options would go a long way. This will be a key matchup to keep an eye on.
The Thunder signaled a full-rebuild by trading franchise cornerstones Westbrook, George and Grant for mostly draft picks and young assets. This team is competitive, though. Getting Paul and Gallinari back in those trades gave them good veterans that keep the team afloat, while Gilgeous-Alexander blossoms into a star in OKC. It will be fun to watch him and Brogdon go at it. Another good matchup will be Domantas Sabonis and Adams in the post, as both are bruisers who will get after it on the boards. OKC has been an extremely feisty team this year and will continue to play that way. There will be a lot of fun things to watch this game.