The Indiana Pacers are engaged in a tight battle with the New York Knicks for the second spot in the Eastern Conference. Second is better than third, right? The Pacers finished third in the East last season, so despite their overall play already showing improvement from last season, a step up in the standings would be a tangible demarcation of another step forward for the current team.
But does it really matter whether the Pacers finish second or third? Might it be better to finish third to set up a more favorable first round playoff matchup? The Boston Celtics appear content to let the regular season ride out and take their chances against the No. 2 team in the East with Kevin Garnett back on the court.
Assuming KG can return at a level comparable to how he played earlier in the season, the Celtics present a tough matchup for the Pacers in round one. It would make for a fun and exciting series which would be a blast for the Pacers to win. But the marketing boost of winning that series may also take a physical and emotional toll on the blue and gold which could show up in round two or (knock on wood) later in the playoffs.
Playing Atlanta or Chicago at this points, with the physical state of both the Hawks and Bulls, certainly seems more palatable than playing Boston. I'm completely fine playing the Hawks in a made-for-NBA TV first round series and quietly advancing to the second round while the Celtics and Knicks battle in a high-profile, demanding first-round series.
So the debate boils down to assessing the risks involved. Are you willing to risk playing the Celtics in the first round with Kevin Garnett back and Paul Pierce available in the waning seconds of a tight game in order to avoid the risk of having to play a seventh game in the second round at Madison Square Garden?
There's also the risk of having to face two straight opponents with closers who can rip your guts out and alter a series in a split-second before the buzzer sounds. There aren't many players in the East with that Reggie-like ability to close a game or steal a win on the road with a last-second shot when everyone in the gym knows they have to shoot it.
I'm talking last second shot where the player is able to get just enough daylight to squeeze off a clean shot attempt from 25 feet and in which has you muttering, 'uh oh' while the ball is in the air. Setting aside LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen in Miami, the two most prominent "uh oh" guys in the East are Paul Pierce and Carmelo Anthony.
I understand that to be the best, you have to beat the best and the Pacers won't be backing down from any challenges in the playoffs this years. Boston? New York? Miami? Let's go! But that gauntlet the second seed in the East could serve up will bring with it the side effects of a far more taxing post season than the Pacers might face if the slip down to the third spot.
So, what other factors do you consider in this discussion? Which opponents would you prefer the Pacers to play in the post-season? Which teams in the East do you hope the Pacers can avoid?