Last night was not good. Not only did Jimmy Butler hit a game-clinching basket to lift the Chicago Bulls over the Indiana Pacers for the second time this season. His big shot, along with Nikola Mirotic's seven made three-pointers, kept Chicago's playoff hopes alive and well. Had the Pacers won, they would have built a four-game cushion over their Central Division rival in the playoff standings. Instead, the Bulls (37-37) currently sit two games back of Indiana (39-35) and now hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. Adding insult to injury, Paul George, who has been playing through a lower right leg contusion, took another hard hit driving to the basket late in the third-quarter.
Meanwhile, the Detroit Pistons took care of business against the Oklahoma City Thunder, who elected to rest Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, which pushes the Pacers (39-35) to the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference.
When it rains, it pours.
"It's painful," Ian Mahinmi said of the Pacers disheartening loss to Chicago. "It's one of those games that we feel like we should have took, but there's plenty to learn. And tomorrow we need to have a quick turnaround and bounce back because Orlando's coming into this building and they've been playing hard."
Standings should have Pacers checking their six...
Since the Pacers can't erase past losses as they make a go of swapping places with Detroit, adding wins is imperative to avoid being leapfrogged by 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 6-2 the rest of the way, only dropping games against opponents at or above .500, they would finish the season 45-37. In that scenario, the Pistons would need to win six of their remaining seven games to secure the seventh seed, since the Blue & Gold hold the head-to-head tiebreaker. This, of course, is dependent upon Indiana actually taking care of business against, supposedly, inferior opponents. In other words, the only team standing in the way of the Pacers continues to be 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 go 1-7 over their last eight games for the Blue & Gold to wrestle away control of the No. 6 spot.
If the season ended today...
The Indiana Pacers would face the Cleveland Cavaliers, otherwise known as the Eastern Conference's prohibitive favorite. An unfortunate turn of events, given a recent report from the Toronto Sun's Ryan Wolstot which indicates that All-Star point guard Kyle Lowry's elbow is a "major concern" and DeMarre Carroll's return this season is "very much in doubt." Facing a team with solid rim protection and an elite wing scorer would likely prove to be a tough test for a potentially shorthanded Toronto team with a history of first-round playoff exits.
Yet, entirely by their own doing, the Pacers are currently slated to face the East's top seed. The Cavaliers have swept Indiana three games to none this season with one final meeting scheduled for April 6. Still, with 60 lead changes across the three contests, the Pacers have played Cleveland close.
Beyond game planning for LeBron James, the biggest area of concern in a hypothetical match-up between the two teams is arguably Indiana's sputtering defense, which continues to be too indecisive when deciding whether to switch or hard show against pick-and-roll ball-handlers when the floor is spaced with capable shooters.
"We've got to get better with our defense," George pinpointed to NBA-TV's Arena Link as an area that still needs improvement following Sunday'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."
Another concern is that the Pacers have been struggling to keep opponents off the glass, ranking 19th in the league in rebounding percentage over the last month. The Cavaliers have averaged 16.1 second chance points per game over that same span of time, second only to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
(1) Cleveland Cavaliers (52-21) vs. (8) Indiana Pacers (39-35)
(2) Toronto Raptors (49-24) vs. (7) Detroit Pistons (40-35)
(3) Atlanta Hawks (45-30) vs. (6) Charlotte Hornets (43-31)
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 (0.587) 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 Bulls hold the head-to-head tiebreakers, having won the season series, 3-1.
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...
Despite Tuesday's results, ESPN's BPI Playoff Index still gives the Indiana Pacers (94.9%) a greater chance of making the playoffs than the Detroit Pistons (82.1%), which is likely due to the strength of schedule disparity.
Be that as it may, settling for perimeter jump shots and only attempting two free throws in the final frame of last night's contest, in which they only scored 12 points on 21.7 percent shooting, is not indicative of the type of mental focus the Pacers are going to need to earn a playoff berth.
So what's the key to regaining the No. 7 seed from Detroit and holding off Chicago?
"Finding the desperation the Chicago Bulls played with tonight," Solomon Hill explained following Tuesday's loss.