It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the Pacers' late season slump actually began, but a fairly decent guess would be February 9th. On that particular date, the Blue and Gold squandered a 17-point lead to an Orlando Magic squad that, at the time, was just 16-37:
Today was the first time I've heard any Pacer say problems started before All-Star break. George Hill said 2wks before (probably loss @ ORL)— Scott Agness (@ScottAgness) March 25, 2014
Whether or not this game can accurately be identified as the moment the Pacers' season changed is, of course, indeterminate. What is known is that, after that date, the Blue and Gold most definitely experienced their share of ups and downs. Nonetheless, even while limping to the finish line with a 14-14 record post All-Star break, Indiana managed to find a way to punctuate all of their lows with just enough highs to position themselves within striking distance of the Eastern Conference's best record.
With a magic number of just one, the Pacers are now officially in control of their own destiny. If they can go back down to Orlando and close the deal this go-around, the goal they eyed all season will be realized. As it stands now, Indiana has secured the Eastern Conference record tiebreaker over the Miami Heat, 37-14 to 34-16. Meaning that the only way the Heat could possibly regain control of the East's top spot would be for them to win their final two remaining games against the Wizards and Sixers, while also banking on the Pacers coming up short against the Magic. At this point, it is anyone's guess as to exactly how interested the team that hails from South Beach is in continuing their push for the No. 1 seed. After their loss to the Atlanta Hawks, LeBron James alluded to the Sun-Sentinel that there is a chance he may not be in uniform again until the start of the playoffs.
Therefore, assuming the Pacers do, in fact, clinch the East's best record, there first round playoff opponent would be the Atlanta Hawks. On the year, the Pacers' split their regular season series with Atlanta, 2-2. The Hawks' spacing, pace, and long-range shooting has given the Blue and Gold fits this season. Certainly, few, if any, need a reminder of the Pacers' horrific game against Atlanta last Sunday. Unfortunately, what is also of concern with this match-up is that Phillips Arena continues to be a house of horrors for the Blue and Gold. In fact, before their victory there on February 4, the Pacers had lost 12 straight regular season games in Atlanta.
If the Pacers play to their strengths and advance to the Eastern Conference semi-finals, their next opponent, as it currently stands, would be the winner of a series between the Chicago Bulls and Brooklyn Nets. The Bulls lead the regular season series with the Nets, 2-1. Of course, with the continuing fluidity of playoff seeding, this particular match-up is still subject to change. Especially, given that the Raptors, currently the third seed, only lead the Bulls by percentage points, and the Nets lead the sixth seeded Wizards by two games. Interestingly, an Eastern Conference executive told Sheridan Hoops that the Nets, "...don't want to see Chicago." Their supposed reluctance to go head-to-head with the defensive juggernaut stems from the fact that Brooklyn's success has largely been the result of playing small-ball with Paul Pierce at the power forward position. If they continue to utilize that particular line-up, Pierce would be tasked with the tall order of guarding Carlos Boozer and/or Taj Gibson, a significant cross-match. The Eastern Conference executive also added that, "Noah is a game-changer. Toronto doesn't have a game changer."
Regardless of which teams actually finish fourth and fifth in the East, the Pacers won the regular season series against Brooklyn, 4-0, and split the series with Chicago, 2-2.
Due to all of the uncertainty in the standings, it is somewhat difficult to look ahead at possible match-ups. Instead, it seems like a decent time to reflect back on the regular season. The Pacers have gone full-circle this year. They opened the NBA's 2013-2014 schedule against the Orlando Magic. They, quite possibly, hit a major bump in the road against the Orlando Magic, and, now, despite all of the adversity they faced during the second half of the season, still have the opportunity to clinch the East's top seed against the Orlando Magic. With their long-awaited goal all but locked-up, it will be interesting to see how the Blue and Gold follow-up their latest contest with the Southeast Division team. Will they trip over another stumbling block as they did on February 9th, or will they hit their stride headed into the postseason as they did after their home opener?