Pacers vs. Thunder (8pm ET Friday, ESPN)
Paul George and the Pacers peaked in mid-December at 16-9 and have since gone 12-16 to bring their record to 28-25 – not bad for sixth place in the East. Indiana closed out the first half of the season with a 117-95 loss to the Charlotte Hornets as they found themselves down 17 at the half. Paul George had a ho-hum performance of 22-8-6, leading the team in all three categories, but the Hornets .517 shooting percentage and 45-39 rebounding advantage were just too much on a night when the Pacers made only four of 18 from three-point land.
Winners of 12 of their last 14, the Oklahoma City Thunder moved past the Cavs for the third-best record in the NBA. At 40-14, the Thunder are on pace for an OKC record 61 wins. The Thunder’s last game before the break was a 121-95 dismantling of the New Orleans Pelicans as OKC had 11 guys score at least four points with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook leading the way with 23 apiece. This season, Durant is averaging 27.7 points, 7.9 rebounds and 4.5 assists, while Westbrook is at 24.1-7.6-10 – it’s hard to believe a tandem this good only makes for the third-best team in the league.
Celtics vs. Jazz (10:30pm ET Friday, ESPN)
Following a 120-114 loss to the Knicks on January 12, the Boston Celtics found themselves at 19-19 and out of the playoff picture. Just five weeks later, they’re 32-23 and in third place. It’s hard to know how seriously to take the Celtics, who have the eighth-best record and sixth-best point differential in the league, but no true star. They closed out the first half of the season with a 139-134 OT victory over the Clippers, but it’ll be interesting to see how their second half goes as they begin without the services of center Kelly Olynyk, who’s tending to a bum shoulder.
The Utah Jazz are another team that has made a mid-season charge to get back into playoff contention. At 18-24 following a January 20 loss to the Knicks, the Jazz have since won eight of 10 and are now 26-26, making them tied for the seventh-best record in the West. During their recent surge, the Jazz have outscored the opposition by 8.4 points a game, outrebounded by 6.1 a game, outpassed by two assists, and outshout 47 percent to 43 percent. How does a team suddenly turn it on like that? Well, it helps they finally got Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert back on the floor after each missed roughly a month. That paired with Rodney Hood going off, scoring 20.4 a game after averaging 13.5 for the first 42 games. How does a team playing that well lose their last game before the break to the Pelicans? That mystery remains unsolved, though being on the short end of a 17-9 turnover differential may have been a factor. Maybe getting Alec Burks back from a broken fibula will help, too.