The Indiana Pacers (38-33) squandered more than just a winnable game in Brooklyn on Saturday. There was no and, now, will likely not be any, rest for the weary Paul George. And while they were getting outscored 35-17 in the fourth quarter against the Nets, the Detroit Pistons were trailing the Atlanta Hawks and the Chicago Bulls were in the process of losing their third straight game. With the two teams nipping at Indiana's heals failing to add to their own respective win columns, the Pacers tossed away an opportunity to create greater separation in the playoff standings. Had the Blue & Gold won last night, they could have moved a full-game ahead of the Pistons. Instead, Indiana is left using the head-to-head tiebreaker to barely cling onto seventh position.
Seeding aside, the team's lack of urgency and organization in the waning moments of games continues to be inscrutable for a team seeking a playoff berth and absolutely must be rectified for their potential place in the playoffs to hold any meaning beyond a quick exit.
"You've got to improve somewhere or we'll be watching the playoffs in April," George Hill told the Indy Star's Candace Buckner. "That's not acceptable at all, but it's going to take all 15 of us. It's not solely on one person. It's not solely on the coaching staff, it's not solely on the players. It's all of us and we've all got to look ourselves in the mirror, come to work, do our job and do the best we can."
Standings have Pacers checking their six (in more ways than one)...
Since the Pacers can't erase past losses as they make a long-shot go of climbing the standings, adding wins is imperative to avoid 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 7-3 the rest of the way, only dropping games against opponents at or above .500, they would finish the season 45-37. The Pistons would then need to win seven of their last eight remaining games to bump Indiana out of seventh, since the Blue & Gold hold the head-to-head tie breaker. This, of course, is dependent upon Indiana actually taking care of business against, supposedly, inferior opponents. In other words, the only team potentially standing in the way of the Pacers is the Pacers.
Take a look at the race for the No. 7 and 8 spots.
If the Pacers finish 45-37, the Hornets would need to lose seven of their last nine games for the Blue & Gold to wrestle away control of the No. 6 spot.
Here's the four-team logjam for spots 3-6.
A potential first-round match-up with the Hornets, who boast the East's best winning percentage post All-Star break (75%), has become far less likely now that Atlanta has a 1.5 game lead on Charlotte for the No. 3 seed. This is a lucky break, since 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.
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 (52-21) vs. (8) Detroit Pistons (39-35)
(2) Toronto Raptors (49-23) vs. (7) Indiana Pacers (38-34)
(3) Atlanta Hawks (44-30) vs. (6) Charlotte Hornets (42-31)
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. If the Heat lose both of those games against the Orlando Magic and the Pacers sweep the Bulls, Cavaliers, and Bucks, then the third tiebreaker measuring conference win-loss percentage would need to be employed. Miami (0.577) edges Indiana (0.558) here slightly, too.
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 leader. 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 Sunday morning, ESPN's BPI Playoff Index still gives the Pacers a solid 96.3 percent chance of making the playoffs. This number, rightfully so, is a slight dip from Saturday's projection (97%). The Pistons and Bulls each saw their odds reduced as well. Meanwhile, Washington's slim chance was increased from five percent to 8.7 percent due to the Wizards productive night off. Still, the Pacers need to be more dialed-in if they are going to build momentum over the final 10 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 ahead of Saturday's meeting with the Nets. "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."
After Saturday's result, the Pacers need to avoid letting Sunday's game against the Houston Rockets be that game.