The Indiana Pacers (38-33) have already clinched their 27th consecutive winning season at home, but they still have some work left to do to secure a playoff berth. Particularly since the Detroit Pistons (39-34) earned a key home victory over the Charlotte Hornets on Friday night, while the Pacers were idle. That win coupled with an Indiana loss in Brooklyn this evening would cause the two Central Division rivals to swap places in the Eastern Conference playoff standings.
With the No. 7 spot far from guaranteed, Paul George's day-to-day status with a lower right leg contusion becomes all the more important.
"I tell myself regardless that if nothing is broke, I'll play through it," George told the Indy Star's Nate Taylor. "But, at the same time, you've just got to be smart. I know we have a back-to-back and this a real serious point in our season right now. Hopefully I can remain healthy enough tomorrow to play and we'll evaluate it day-to-day."
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 avoiding being leapfrogged by Detroit or Chicago.
"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."
If the Pacers go 8-3 the rest of the way, only dropping games against opponents above .500, they would finish the season 46-36. The Pistons would then need to win eight of their last nine remaining games to bump Indiana out of seventh, since the Blue & Gold hold the head-to-head tie breaker.
Take a look at the four-team race for the No. 7 and 8 spots.
If the Pacers finish 46-36, the Hornets would need to lose six of their 10 remaining games for the Blue & Gold to wrestle away control of the No. 6 spot.
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 (73.7%), 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.
Such a match-up becomes less likely now that Charlotte is 1.5 games back of Atlanta for the No. 3 seed, but if the Hornets did 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.
(1) Cleveland Cavaliers (51-21) vs. (8) Detroit Pistons (39-34)
(2) Toronto Raptors (48-23) vs. (7) Indiana Pacers (38-33)
(3) Atlanta Hawks (43-30) vs. (6) Charlotte Hornets (41-31)
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 (9-5) with two 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 Saturday morning, ESPN's BPI Playoff Index gives the Pacers a solid 97 percent chance of making the playoffs. Conversely, the Washington Wizards home double-overtime loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves dropped their estimated likelihood to a measly five percent. Jake Whitacre of SB Nation's Bullets Forever has more on Washington's slim chances. 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.
"We talked about it some a couple of days ago, but it is not something we mention everyday," said head coach Frank Vogel of the Eastern Conference playoff standings. "We know that every game matters. We know that we missed the playoffs by one game last year, and any one of these nights could be the game that is a difference maker. So we're playing with great urgency."