"We've been in this rut for a month," said the Pacers' All-Star center, "You take one step forward, three steps back." With these remarks, Roy Hibbert could not be more accurate. Each time it appears that the Blue and Gold are going to pull themselves up out of their apathetic abyss, they follow up a hard fought win with a stretch of basketball that can, typically, only best be described as uninspired.
Take for instance their stretch of games from March 11-17, during that time period, the Pacers followed up arguably their worst stretch of the season by stringing together four straight victories. Although these wins all came against teams below .500, it seemed that the Pacers would finally be able to build on their momentum moving forward. Instead, they dropped a game to an inconsistent, and oftentimes, maddening Knicks squad. Following that offensively challenged match-up, the Pacers, once again, looked like they may have regained their mojo when they earned a gritty win over the Chicago Bulls at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Not so fast, this time they took three steps back by failing to even score 80 points in consecutive losses to the Memphis Grizzlies and Chicago Bulls. Then, seemingly taking one gargantuan step forward, the Pacers got a statement win over their Conference rivals - only to follow it up with lackadaisical losses to the Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers.
For his part, David West attributes the Pacers', oftentimes, inconsistent effort to lack of focus. Telling the media, "We get up for the Miami's, get up for the Chicago's, then come out and lay donuts against the Wizards and these other teams." Whatever the causation, the Pacers are going to have to find a way to eradicate their seemingly indifferent approach against non-rivals if they want to hang on to the East's top seed.
Following Sunday's poor showing against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Pacers' lead in the East has now dwindled to just one game. In order to earn home court advantage in the Eastern Conference, the Pacers' magic number is eight. The Pacers currently have just eight games remaining (4 home; 4 away), and four of those games are against teams above .500 (3/31 vs. San Antonio, 4/4 @ Toronto, 4/11 @ Miami, and 4/13 vs. OKC). Indiana is 20-15 against teams above .500 this season.
Comparatively, Miami has ten games left to play (7 home; 4 away), and six of those match-ups are against squads above .500 (3/31 vs. Toronto, 4/4 vs. Minnesota, 4/8 vs. Brooklyn, 4/9 @ Memphis, 4/11 vs. Indiana, and 4/14 @ Washington). Miami is 22-12 against teams above .500 this season.
Heading into the stretch run of the season, John Hollinger's odds percentage for the No. 1 seed now favors Miami with a mark of 51.4% over Indiana at 48.6%. This slide in probability just goes to show that the Pacers' lead atop the Eastern Conference is extremely vulnerable. Indiana has a tougher remaining strength of schedule (0.5211) than Miami (0.4377), and, adding insult to injury, there is still one more head-to-head match-up looming in April. Of course, this time the crucial heavy weight battle will take place in South Beach (aka the anti-Verticality capital of the world).
Favorably for the Blue and Gold, if Miami earns a victory against the Pacers, knotting the regular season series at 2-2, the next tiebreaker in place to decide seeding is Eastern Conference record. In conference win-loss percentage, the Pacers sit comfortably at .760 compared to the Heat at .681. Even so, the Pacers still need to break out of their month long slump sooner rather later.
Unfortunately, if the Pacers want to take that next step forward, they will have to do so against the league's hottest team. On Monday, Indiana (8-9 in the month of March), will play the rested San Antonio Spurs, (undefeated in the month of March), at home on the second night of a back-to-back. On the year, the Pacers (10-9) are barely over .500 in games they play with zero days of rest. After facing off with the best of the West, the Pacers will then play the Pistons (4/2), Raptors (4/4), and Hawks (4/6). Meanwhile, the Heat will be facing off against the Raptors (3/31), Bucks (4/2), Timberwolves (4/4), and Knicks (4/6). Indiana is 7-3 against their four upcoming opponents, while Miami is 9-1.
Speculation on seeding aside, if the playoffs started tomorrow, the Pacers would be facing off against the eighth seeded Atlanta Hawks (Note: The Hawks have lost five straight games, and sit just 1.5 games ahead of the Knicks and 3.0 games ahead of the Cavs). Indiana is 2-1 in head-to-head meetings with the Hawks this season.
If the Pacers manage to advance to the semi-finals, they would then play the winner of a playoff series between the Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets. The Bulls lead the regular season series over Brooklyn, 2-1. Trailing Brooklyn by just one game, the Wizards (Note: According to NBA.com/stats, Washington is the league's only team to beat OKC, Miami, and Indiana by a margin of 13 points or greater) still have the opportunity to grab the East's fifth seed.
What is clear from all of this playoff uncertainty is that the No. 1 seed is still very much alive, and, with the improved play of the Nets, Raptors, and Bulls, a return trip to the ECF is far from inevitable. With their gritty win over Miami last Wednesday, the Pacers clinched the Central Division and, at the very least, grabbed the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference, but that one victory alone does not guarantee sustained success in the postseason. Therefore, if the Pacers still want their season to be defined by the word "championship" and not the term "bust," it is imperative that their erratic output stop being the new norm. As Frank Vogel stated after their second consecutive loss on Sunday, "I think we're playing against ourselves right now... We're not close to where we need to be."