The Indiana Pacers (38-33) have already clinched their 27th consecutive winning season at home, but they still have plenty of work to do to secure a playoff berth. Thursday's action brought mixed results for the Blue & Gold. On the upside, Indiana's lackadaisical play was enough to overcome the injury-riddled New Orleans Pelicans while the Chicago Bulls (36-35) lost to the New York Knicks for the second time in two days. On the downside, Paul George left last night's game with a lower right leg contusion, and the Pacers failed to earn a commanding win against a grossly undermanned lottery team.
With the No. 7 spot far from guaranteed, ignoring the standings and George's day-to-day status in order to maintain focus on the next game is easier said than done.
"Obviously, every time you pick up your phone it's there," Vogel told the Indy Star's Nate Taylor of the Eastern Conference's playoff picture. "We know where we stand and it just comes down to taking care of our business."
Standings have Pacers checking their six (in more ways than one)...
Since Indiana can't erase past losses as they make a go of climbing the standings, adding wins is imperative to avoid being leapfrogged by Detroit, Chicago, or Washington.
"Chicago has a pretty favorable schedule; Detroit has a pretty favorable schedule," George told the Indy Star. "We don't have the feeling right now that our spot is guaranteed. We should have a little pressure and hopefully that helps us perform better."
Take a look at the four-team race for the No. 7 and 8 spots.
And here's the four-team logjam for spots 3-6.
Keeping an eye out for the surging Charlotte Hornets (No. 6), who boast the East's best winning percentage post All-Star break, would behoove the Pacers if they want to give themselves a fighting chance in the playoffs. Buzz City presents a nightmarish match-up for Indiana's hybrid starting lineup.
The Hornets won all three meetings with the Pacers this season, as the Blue & Gold appeared indecisive with their coverage of the 1-5 pick-and-roll and were slow to recover to Charlotte's slew of stretch shooters. Still struggling to defend spread lineups, such a hypothetical match-up would likely necessitate relying more on Solomon Hill and less on the starting lineup with which the team has experienced the most success this season.
Put simply, if the Hornets happen to surge to No. 3 in the standings, staying at No. 7 would probably be just fine with the Indiana Pacers.
If the season ended today...
The Pacers, coincidentally, would be opening the playoffs at the same arena where they tipped off the regular season: the Air Canada Centre. The Raptors (2-1) currently lead the season series between the two teams; however, with 27 lead changes across the three meetings, gaining the edge over Indiana has not been easy.
Thus far, both teams have shown themselves to be equally capable of building and surrendering double-digit leads. Toronto fought its way out of a 16-point hole back on October 28, and the Pacers transformed a 21-point deficit into a 16-point victory on December 14. The most recent game (3/17) in the series was ultimately determined at the free throw line, where the Raptors connected on 30-of-38 free throw attempts and Indiana missed seven gimmes including a go-ahead freebie on the team's final possession of regulation, resulting in a seven-point overtime loss for the Pacers.
(2) Toronto Raptors (48-22) vs. (7) Indiana Pacers (38-33)
(3) Atlanta Hawks (42-30) vs. (6) Charlotte Hornets (41-30)
In the event of a tie....
With the Miami Heat: The season series between the Heat and Pacers is tied at 2-2. Moving on to the next tiebreaker, Miami (8-5) with three Southeast Division games remaining has the advantage over Indiana (6-7) with three games left against the Central Division.
With the Charlotte Hornets: Winning the season series 3-0, the Hornets hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.
With the Detroit Pistons: The Pacers hold the head-to-head win-loss percentage tiebreak having beaten the Pistons 3-1 this season.
With the Chicago Bulls: The Pacers have one game remaining with the Bulls to determine the head-to-head win-loss percentage tiebreak on March 29 with the opportunity to tie the series at 2-2. If Indiana wins, then the tie would be determined by division record. Chicago (7-5) with four division games remaining currently edges Indiana (6-7) with three.
With the Washington Wizards: The Pacers hold the head-to-head win-loss percentage tiebreak having beaten the Wizards 2-1 this season.
Some odds and ends...
As of Friday morning, ESPN's BPI Playoff Index gives the Pacers a solid 97.4 percent chance of making the playoffs. Conversely, Chicago's second consecutive loss to the New York Knicks dropped the Bulls' playoff odds nearly 10 percentage points from 30.3 percent to 20.8 percent. Still, the Pacers need to avoid being lulled into a false sense of complacency as they look to build momentum over the final eleven games of the season. Avoiding the trap the Cleveland Cavaliers fell into against the Brooklyn Nets last night is necessary if the Blue & Gold hope to achieve that goal.