Clearing Recent Hurdles, the Indiana Pacers Face Season's Toughest Stretch

Feb. 28, 2012; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert (55) dribbles the ball around Golden State Warriors power forward Ekpe Udoh (20) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana defeated Golden State 102-78. Mandatory credit: Michael Hickey-US PRESSWIRE

The Indiana Pacers appear to be back on track after stringing together their best winning streak in seven years, but despite clearing that hurdle with flying colors, the blue and gold are being rewarded with a brutal nine game stretch where they'll be tested in waves. The next two and a half weeks will not only be big for Indiana as they hope to establish themselves as the third best team in the East, but also to win over skeptical pundits who believe the third spot is a race between Orlando, Atlanta, and New York while also giving Indiana a great confidence boost heading into the final month of the regular season.

The nine game stretch features 6 games against above .500 teams (with the final three games against two quality opponents), with four on the road. Here are the next nine games for Indiana with the current record against the teams they've faced so far:

March 5 - @ Chicago Bulls (1-0)
March 6 - vs. Atlanta Hawks (1-1)
March 10 - @ Miami Heat (0-2)
March 11 - @ Orlando Magic (1-2)
March 13 - vs. Portland Trail Blazers
March 14 - vs. Philadelphia 76ers (0-1)
March 16 - @ New York Knicks
March 17 - vs. New York Knicks
March 20 - vs. Los Angeles Clippers

Indiana is currently 3-6 against the teams they've already played, totaling half of the team's losses to this point in the season. But even still, it appears this nine game stretch is split into the first four and then the final five where opportunities could swing the nine games in a winning or losing fashion.

Indiana starts against Chicago, back in the United Center in the game Derrick Rose vowed he would never forget. The next night, they face off against an Atlanta Hawks team they've not beaten twice in the same season in four years. Expecting a win when they travel to Miami may be a tall order given the Pacers first have to show they can be competitive against the high flying Heat, and they travel north to Orlando the following night where Indiana has taken on a pair of beatdowns at the hand of the Magic.

In the second half, Indiana may catch a break as the quality of the opponents remains, but will face a series of teams working through their own struggles. Portland started out well, but has fallen on hard times, winning just three of their last ten, losing four of those by double digits. The Pacers played the 76ers well without George Hill and Danny Granger, and they themselves are working themselves out of a recent five game skid. The New York Knicks caught the attention of the league with a season saving seven game winning streak, but have been just 3-4 since while the Lob City Clippers have been just a .500 team themselves since they lost Chauncey Billups for the season.

Indiana will certainly have their work cut out for them when they tip off tomorrow in Chicago, but getting through these nine games won't be it, as immediately waiting Indiana on the other side of this storm is their second back-to-back-to-back, featuring the first games of the season against Washington, Phoenix, and Milwaukee. Whether the Pacers make any deadline moves will be dependent largely on this stretch, and whether the Pacers can establish themselves as the team they've made themselves to be will be as equally dependent on this stretch. But even while the road may get bumpy, the Pacers will enter playing some of their highest level of basketball, which should ease some more minor concerns.

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