Are the Miami Heat or the Indiana Pacers the Better Matchup for the OKC Thunder?

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Are the Miami Heat or the Indiana Pacers the Better Matchup for the OKC Thunder?
Michael Conroy/Associated Press

Thunder and heat tend to go hand in hand. But that may not be the case in the NBA.

With the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers clearly outclassing the rest of the Eastern Conference, the playoffs in the East seem like they're going to be a waiting game until the conference finals. 

Heat vs. Pacers. That's all we need to see. Can't we just skip the rest?

The Western Conference playoffs will provide a different kind of entertainment. Eight teams, all competitive, fighting for one spot in the NBA Finals. 

As the Oklahoma City Thunder grapple the San Antonio Spurs for the best record in the West, they will also try to climb their way to Western Conference supremacy. The Thunder lost Russell Westbrook for last year's playoffs after falling in the Finals the previous season. But this year, all is supposed to go right.

If that comes to fruition—if all does, in fact, go right—OKC will find itself in the NBA Finals for the second time in three years, likely matched up against a team from either Indiana or Florida. And if that's the case, the Thunder may want to buy up those yellow foam fingers and start rooting for the Pacers right now. 

There's no fun in facing either of those Eastern Conference teams, but in the long run, the Heat may be the worst potential matchup for the Thunder. Here's why:

 

The Miami Heat

Richard Rowe/Getty Images

The Heat have an aggressive, trap-heavy defense, which is successful in creating live-ball turnovers. It's a style that fits their personnel well.

Miami plays small, and because of that, it uses speed to its advantage. But because of the scheme that sends guards and forwards trapping ball-handlers beyond the three-point line, the Heat are susceptible to allowing other, easier shots.

With all that chaos, the Heat don't guard the corners particularly well. They will have games when they give up too many shots at the rim.

So much of that strategy depends on the inappropriately underrated Chris Bosh making the right rotation. He almost always does. But on days when Bosh is just a smidgen off (which isn't very often), you can get your shots in the paint against the Heat, and that's when this team is beatable. 

The problem for the Thunder is that they don't really have that type of player who can make Miami pay for its high-risk, trapping scheme. Who's the wing that's going to drain corner threes when Durant and Westbrook get double-teamed above the three-point line? 

Richard Rowe/Getty Images

Oklahoma City is shooting just 33.7 percent from the corners this year. That ranks third-to-last in the NBA. And the Thunder rank in the bottom half of the league in corner-three attempts, as well.

Are we really expecting Caron Butler to be the savior? Derek Fisher? Is the currently injured Thabo Sefolosha a needle pusher?

Let's remember that this Finals matchup happened just two years ago, and the Heat handled the Thunder with relative ease. Durant may be better. Serge Ibaka may be better. But that doesn't change everything.

In the end, this team is built the same way it was two years ago. And if the Thunder go up against a healthy Heat team with a healthy Dwyane Wade, they may find themselves with James-Durant, Westbrook-Wade and Bosh-Ibaka matchups that cancel each other out.

If Scott Brooks wants to play Kendrick Perkins heavy minutes against a small Heat team, that's a problem. If the quicker Miami guards find themselves penetrating by a creaky Derek Fisher, there are issues. 

The Thunder absolutely can win a seven-game series against the Heat, but their best matchup may come against the team fighting with Miami for the No. 1 seed in the East.

 

The Indiana Pacers

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Don't tell anyone, but Indiana is secretly slumping.

The Pacers are just 7-5 in their past 12 games, which doesn't seem too bad, but with Miami hot on their tails, Indiana is falling in danger of losing the No. 1 seed it's fought so hard to earn all season. But that's not the reason the Thunder may match up better with the Pacers than with the Heat.

The best-player rule has always been a strange one. You know it. The one that says, "If you have the top player in a series, you'll probably will it." But it's not always true.

That said, if you've got the two best players in a series, things are going to look good for you. And isn't it incredibly possible the Thunder would have just that if they were to go up against the Pacers in the Finals?

Paul George has made a tremendous leap this season, but it almost feels like the basketball community jumped the gun on the whole "third-best player in the NBA" conversation. 

George still isn't the creator off the dribble we wish he'd be. He's still not close to the passer or distributor that Durant or James is. He's not as efficient as you might expect from someone with the "third-best player in the NBA" moniker.

He's still a wonderful player, someone who can easily be the best guy on a championship team. Someone with the potential to be a top-three player sooner rather than later. But let's not take this too far.

Saying that George is automatically the second-best player in a potential Thunder-Pacers series purely to fit an early-season narrative that expunged itself over the Pacers' last 19 games, over which George has shot 37 percent from the field, would be conveniently wrong. It would be a slight to Russell Westbrook, himself.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

And with that best-two-players-in-the-series rule going for Oklahoma City, the Thunder could take advantage of the stylistic contrasts between them and the Pacers.

Indiana has a relatively simple concept to its defensive strategy: We have one of the best rim protectors in the NBA surrounded by tall, bulky wing defenders. So we're just going to force all opposing offense to the middle of the floor.

The Thunder, though, run some sly side action, which can discount some of what Roy Hibbert, the arguable Defensive Player of the Year, does in manning the paint.

The side pick-and-rolls with Ibaka work. Westbrook driving on the right side of the floor and kicking out to shooters on the left works. These are the sorts of plays that can help a team succeed against the No. 1 ranked defense in the NBA.

As shunned as the mid-range shot has become in today's NBA, the elite are still the elite. Ibaka is shooting 48 percent from the mid-range area. Durant is at 46 percent. Westbrook is at 44 percent.

The Thunder, as a team, rank at the very top of the league, shooting 43.9 percent from mid-range. 

These attributes are all Hibbert neutralizers and ultimately, hoarding loads of ways to take Roy Hibbert away from the paint is how a team would eventually beat Indiana. It's why playing Perkins might actually be a detriment in a potential Thunder-Pacers series.

Would the Thunder be better off playing the Heat or Pacers if they made the Finals?

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The Ibaka jumper is a Hibbert neutralizer. So is the Westbrook pull-up 16-footer. So is Durant being Durant. 

Still, though, the Pacers defense has been tremendous all season. It's not a good matchup for anyone.

Andrew Lynch and Ian Levy of Hardwood Paroxysm recently normalized every team's defensive efficiency to the league average dating back to the 1973-74 season. And what did we learn from that data? That this year's Pacers defensive rating, when compared to league average, has been the best we've seen over the NBA's past 40 years.

That's a long time. And it makes you want to ask, "Is this defense really the best, or is there regression on the horizon?"

Over the last few weeks, we may have started to learn that the latter is more applicable than the former.

Since the All-Star break, the Pacers rank just eighth in the NBA in points allowed per 100 possessions. Maybe this team isn't quite as good as the one that started the season 16-1. It almost seems like Indiana and Miami are going in different directions in that aspect.

Monday, James dropped 61 points on the Charlotte Bobcats. Wednesday, that same Bobcats team downed the Pacers by 22. 

The 82-game sample size is starting to reveal the same truths it always does: When in doubt, pick the Heat.

  

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.

*All statistics current as of March 7 and from Basketball-Reference and NBA.com, unless otherwise noted. 

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