Four straight victories over sub .500 teams coupled with the Miami Heat going 5-5 over their last 10 games has aided the Pacers in building a much needed 3.5 game cushion atop the Eastern Conference standings. Even so, that was then and this is now, and the reality of now is that the Blue and Gold's days of feasting on the league's bottom feeders are numbered.
Looking ahead to the Pacers' slate of games over the coming week, Indiana will first be travelling to Madison Square Garden on Wednesday evening to face the New York Knicks. The Knicks (27-40), sitting at ninth in the East, are currently on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff standings. However, winners of six straight contests, it seems safe to say that the Knickerbockers are playing their most inspired basketball of the 2013-2014 season. Perennial All-Star Carmelo Anthony attributes his team's sudden turnaround to the rumored hiring of Phil Jackson stating, "It made us come together as a team, as a unit." Fighting for a playoff spot and failing, thus far, to avenge their loss to the Pacers in the semi-finals of the 2013 playoffs, bank on the Knicks coming with a little extra motivation for their rematch against Indiana on Wednesday.
Next up on the docket, the Blue and Gold will be returning home to tip-off the first night of a brutal back-to-back against the Chicago Bulls. Allowing just 92.2ppg, the Pacers' central division rival has narrowly surpassed Indiana as the league's stingiest defense. In what will likely be a defensive showcase, Indiana is going to have to take care of business, as well as the basketball, if they want to arrive in the Grizzlies' Grindhouse for the second night of their back-to-back with a "W" already under their belt. Unfortunately, after going toe-to-toe with the Bulls (winners of 7 of their last 10) and the Grizzlies (also winners of 7 of their last 10), the Pacers will have to fly to the United Center for their final head-to-head match-up with Chicago.
As can be observed from their tough upcoming schedule, things are about to get real again for the Pacers if they want to hang on to the East's best record. Meanwhile, the Heat will be playing two back-to-backs this week; however, their four games in five nights will come against, for the most part, much softer opponents - @ Cleveland Cavaliers (3/18), @ Boston Celtics (3/19), vs. Memphis Grizzlies (3/21), and @ New Orleans Pelicans (3/22). (Note, the Grizzlies will most likely be coming off a tough game with Miami (3/21) before travelling home to face the Pacers at FedExForum (3/22).
Of course, Miami's ability to make a move in the standings is, in part, dependent upon Dwyane Wade's ailing knee and his ability to actually suit-up for each of the Heat's upcoming back-to-back contests. That being said, last week, when his team was mired in a three game losing streak, he suited-up for both of the Heat's games in Chicago (3/9) and at home against Washington (3/10). Therefore, it seems that if Miami has a chance to close the gap on the East's top seed he will likely choose to forego rest for seeding.
On the season, the Pacers and Heat still have two crucial upcoming head-to-head match-ups (3/26 and 4/11). These games are, of course, rightfully hyped because two victories or two losses can change the standings by two full games for either team. From a comparative standpoint, the Pacers have 16 games remaining and two back-to-backs with nine of those contests on the road and nine coming against above .500 teams. Conversely, the Heat have 18 more games to play and five more back-to-backs. Nine of those games will take place in South Beach, and nine will be against above .500 squads.
Speculation on final seeding aside, if the playoffs started today, the Pacers would be facing the eighth seeded Atlanta Hawks (30-35) in the first round. Indiana is 2-1 against Atlanta thus far this season, but it is no secret that Phillips Arena has been a house of horrors for the Blue and Gold. In fact, prior to defeating the Hawks 89-85 on February 4, the Pacers had lost 12 straight regular season games in Atlanta.
Nonetheless, if the Pacers manage to repeat the past and defeat the Hawks in the first round of the postseason for the second straight year, their semi-final opponent, as it stands today, would be either the fourth place Chicago Bulls (37-29) or fifth seeded Washington Wizards (35-31). While some may see a second round match-up between Indiana and Chicago as inevitable, there is no guarantee that the ever-resilient Bulls would win a series against John Wall and company. In fact, having defeated the Bulls in command fashion on January 13, 102-88, the Wizards lead the regular season series 2-0. Meanwhile, it seems likely that the Pacers, if they advance to the second round, would much prefer a semi-final series pitting them against Washington - an opponent they have defeated by 20+ points in both head-to-head contests - rather than the grind-it-out Chicago Bulls.
Undoubtedly, the Pacers' record, standings, and potential postseason opponents are all in a constant state of flux. For instance, Brooklyn sits just a half of a game back of Washington for the fifth seed in the East. Likewise, the Bulls are still within striking distance of Toronto for a top three spot. Not to mention, Indiana's 3.5 game cushion at the top is at risk of losing its cushiness if the Blue and Gold cannot take care of business this week against the Knicks, Bulls (2X), and Grizzlies.
That being said, the Pacers mounting a furious 25-point comeback against the Detroit Pistons on Saturday seemed to be just the turning point the team needed heading into the stretch-run of the season. No doubt, the Pacers enjoyed the seldom realized luxury of getting a combined 35 points out of two bench players on Saturday - something that definitely bodes well for the team with their upcoming back-to-back against Chicago and Memphis looming in the coming days. Whatever the case, while playing their best basketball heading into May needs to be the team's No.1 goal, achieving the top seed must still be prioritized because, at 31-4, no team in the league plays better on their home court than the Indiana Pacers.
What do you think Pacers' fans? Can Indiana hold on to the top seed? What do you think of their upcoming slate of games? Which of the playoff teams present the best match-up for the Indiana Pacers?