INDIANAPOLIS — The final Sunday showcase of the NBA regular season is here.
It’s the Oklahoma City Thunder versus the Indiana Pacers, a noon matinee from Bankers Life Fieldhouse that might be a preview of the NBA Finals.
If so, it’ll be the Finals the league fears.
Two small-market teams and seven potential defensive slugfests could deliver disappointingly low television ratings and a series the country struggles to get behind.
None of these things amount to dollars and cents for the NBA.
But the Finals series that the NBA fears is one that the Thunder craves.
Because Oklahoma City matches up incredibly well with Indiana, because the Thunder has a history of success against the Pacers and because anyone that emerges from the East that doesn’t hail from South Beach would be a welcome sight for the Thunder.
Both clubs, however, have bumpy roads to the Finals.
The Thunder must navigate the brutal waters of the Western Conference, while the Pacers currently appear to be a lost bunch, losing nine of their past 15 while searching to regain their once-impressive identity.
Remember, though, that for a time these two were the best teams in basketball and seemed stuck on a course to collide in June. Now, the Thunder can only hope Sunday’s meeting isn’t the final showdown.
Oklahoma City has won three straight against Indiana and five of the past six meetings. The Thunder’s past five victories against the Pacers have come by an average margin of 17 points.
The Pacers’ biggest advantage against most, their size, is neutralized by the Thunder’s trees up front and altogether negated by the Thunder’s athleticism.
Kendrick Perkins is tailor-made for Roy Hibbert at the center position. Serge Ibaka contends well with David West at power forward. Kevin Durant, who averages more points (30.6) against the Pacers than any other opponent, has owned Paul George in the small forward matchup. Thabo Sefolosha is a stopper for Most Improved Player candidate Lance Stephenson at shooting guard. And Russell Westbrook runs circles around Pacers point guard George Hill.
Who knows? Had it not been for Westbrook’s fluke knee injury in Game 2 of the Thunder’s first-round series with Houston last year, or Pacers coach Frank Vogel inexplicably parking Hibbert on the bench late in Game 1 of the East Finals, these two teams could have had the league sweating — and the Thunder salivating — last year.
But maybe a potential Finals series between these two might not be so bad.
Despite their small-market locales — both Indiana and Oklahoma City rank in the bottom third of the league’s media markets — each team fields two All-Stars. The Thunder offers Durant and Westbrook, while the Pacers have Hibbert and George. Durant is the frontrunner for this year’s MVP award, Hibbert is a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, George is a rising superstar and Westbrook is as electric as they come.
All four are in pursuit of their first championship.
Meanwhile, the contrasting styles, the Thunder’s high-octane offense versus the Pacers’ rugged defense, would provide another intriguing storyline and perhaps a series-long chess match between two up-and-coming coaches in Vogel and Scott Brooks.
It could turn out as a surprising best-case scenario for the NBA outside of a Finals series featuring LeBron James and the Miami Heat against the Thunder or Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and the Los Angeles Clippers.
Then again, there’s no telling whether anyone other than hardcore hoop heads would care for a Thunder-Pacers Finals. The public certainly didn’t care for the Spurs-Cavs matchup in 2007, or the Spurs-Pistons series in 2005, or the Spurs-Nets Finals in 2003, all of which delivered record- or near-record-low ratings.
So in this final Sunday showcase of marquee teams, the Thunder could be hoping for one thing while the league looks on praying for another — “just don’t let them meet again in June.”