Indiana Pacers: The 'Heat' is On

A look at this week's upcoming games, the current playoff standings, and an evaluation of the Pacers' potential postseason match-ups. Can the Jekyll and Hyde Pacers stay No. 1 in the East?

With a combined record of just 9-11 over the course of their last 20 games, the battle for the East's top seed is starting to seem like it may be awarded, to either Indiana or Miami, on the basis of late season default rather than merit. From the Pacers' perspective, it has become nearly impossible to predict exactly which team is going to show up to play on any given night. Will it be the Dr. Jekyll squad that banded together to mount a furious 25 point comeback against the Pistons, or will it be the Mr. Hyde team that scored a mere 71 points against the Grizzlies on a woeful 36.5% shooting? Will the Pacers have more turnovers (13) than assists (12) like they did against the Knicks, or will they unexpectedly drop 27 dimes on 34 made field goals like they did Friday evening against the Bulls?

Bottom line, predicting which one of the Pacers' divergent personalities is going to make an appearance is really anyone's guess.

Even so, the team that hails from South Beach continues to falter when it comes to taking advantage of their Eastern Conference foe's maddening miscues. Playing four games in five nights, Miami dropped two games against teams below .500 on the second night of each of their back-to-backs this week. As such, the Pacers - not playing particularly well - were still able to maintain a full 3.0 game cushion atop the Conference standings.

All of that being said, it sure seems that  the Pacers are going to want to start rebuilding their lead in the East based upon games added to their own win column, rather than watching their conference rival match them loss for loss. If this assumption is accurate, the Blue and Gold will certainly have their chance to prove they are capable of righting the good ship Victory in the coming days.

After finishing last week 2-2, the Pacers - with the opportunity to clinch the Central Division title with a victory - will face the Bulls at the United Center on Monday before gearing up for their next much anticipated match-up with the Miami Heat at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Wednesday. After those two high profile games, the Pacers will take their show on the road to face the Wizards. Although Indiana has handed Washington two double-digit defeats this season, it should be noted that the Wizards have posted the same win total (11) as the Pacers post All-Star break. The Blue and Gold will then wrap-up their hectic month of March with a seemingly very winnable game against the lottery bound and Irving-less Cleveland Cavaliers.

While no match-up is a gimme for the reappearing Mr. Hyde version of the Pacers, the most eye-popping game on their upcoming schedule is the grudge match with Miami given that the outcome of that contest can affect the Eastern Conference standings by a full game for either team. Yet, neither squad is really in the position to overlook any opponent, especially when statements such as these emanated out of both respective locker rooms over the past week:

With one team repeatedly claiming that something needs to change and the other outright admitting they "suck," it is hard to predict, not only where the playoff standings will sit after next week, but also which team will have more to prove to the NBA and themselves when they go mano-o-mano on Wednesday.

Looking past the upcoming head-to-head match-up, the Pacers have just 12 games remaining (5 home, 7 away) and 7 are against teams above .500. Meanwhile, the Heat, with upcoming games against Portland (3/24), @ Indiana (3/26), @ Detroit (3/28), and @ Milwaukee (3/29), still have 14 games to play (8 home, 6 away) and 8 are against teams above .500. Miami is a combined 5-2 against their next four opponents, whereas the Pacers are 8-2 against Chicago, Miami, Washington, and Cleveland.

Speculation on the top seed aside, if the regular season ended today, the Pacers would face the eighth seeded Atlanta Hawks (31-36). Although Philips Arena has been a house of horrors for the Indiana Pacers (having lost 12 straight regular season games there before February 4, 2014), the Hawks may be a more favorable match-up for the Blue and Gold than the suddenly surging Knicks. Winners of eight straight games, the Knicks seem to have found a rally cry behind the hyped hiring of Phil Jackson. As of this writing, the Knicks (29-40) are just three games back of Atlanta for the eighth seed. Nevertheless, with their tough remaining schedule, ESPN analyst Marc Stein notes it is still unlikely that the Knicks actually make the cut:

If the Pacers manage to win their first round match-up against likely either Atlanta or New York, they would then play the winner of a playoff series between the fourth seeded Bulls and fifth seeded Brooklyn Nets. Although the Bulls lead the regular season series with the Nets 2-1, Brooklyn (12-4 post All-Star break), still feels they can match-up with anyone in the Eastern Conference. Given that the Pacers ruled their regular season series with the Nets 4-0, most would likely presuppose that the Pacers would prefer a second round series with the Nets over the defensive-minded Bulls. That being said, to quote a cliche, both potential opponents are showing a lot of heart in their late season push toward the playoffs. In fact, according to NBA Champion Paul Pierce via the New York Post, "Come playoff time, we feel like we can compete with the best of them, and we feel like we can be one of  the better teams in the East, if not come out of the East, and we'll be able to surprise a couple teams."

No matter the postseason opponent(s), the Pacers are going to need to come together and find better consistency if they want to avoid an earlier than expected playoff exit. That being said, Indiana's Jekyll and Hyde problems should be kept somewhat in perspective given that, with only four losses, no team in the league has a better home record than the Indiana Pacers.

***

What do you think is the cause of the Pacers recent up and down play? Do you expect the Pacers to still have control of the East's top seed at the end of the week? How important is the top seed for the team with the league's best home record? Would you prefer to see the Pacers fall to the second seed if it would mean playing the Bobcats and, possibly, the winner of a series between Toronto and Washington?

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