Both the Houston Rockets and Indiana Pacers entered last night's match-up with control of the No. 7 seed on the line in each team's respective conference. After squandering a winnable game in Brooklyn the night before, key fourth-quarter contributions from Solomon Hill and an all-around strong game from Ian Mahinmi kept the Pacers from succumbing to their recurrent end-of-game demons. With the Bulls and Pistons both idle, Indiana was able to gain a little breathing room over Detroit in the playoff standings ahead of Tuesday's final head-to-head meeting with Chicago.
Seeding aside, the team's heightened sense of urgency in the waning moments of Sunday's game was a step in the right direction. However, surrendering a 16-point third-quarter lead to Houston's small lineup and giving up 110.5 points per contest over the last two games is still something that the Pacers need to rectify before the end of the season.
"We've got to get better with our defense," Paul George pinpointed to NBA-TV's Arena Link as an area that needs improvement, following last night's win over the Houston Rockets. "When it comes to the playoffs we're going to play a lot of spread teams. That's where we are really struggling at, guarding teams that spread us out. We've just got to get our rotations down. We have to learn how to play at that pace, how to play faster, and we'll be alright. But again, it's going to be these stretch-fours and stretch-five teams that we've really got to dial-in on."
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 6-3 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 (39-34)
(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 Monday morning, ESPN's BPI Playoff Index still gives the Pacers a solid 98 percent chance of making the playoffs. This number is a slight increase over Sunday's projection (96.3%). Meanwhile, the Wizards' slim chance continues to trend upwards, from five percent to 8.7 percent to 12.4 percent, due to Washington's victory over the Los Angeles Lakers.
Still, the Pacers should not overlook Tuesday's final meeting with the Chicago Bulls, which presents them with the opportunity to tie the season series (2-2) and build a comfortable 3.5 game cushion over their Central Division rival.
"It's a big game," Paul George said of the match-up. "(It's) probably the biggest game of the season for us right now. With the chance to put a team away (and) give ourselves one more game up in the win-column that can maybe push us forward."