It was easy to tell which team was playing with more desperation Thursday night, and it wasn't the one playing at home with a playoff berth at stake. No, it was the Orlando Magic, already mathematically eliminated from playoff contention, who scored 56 points in the paint, forced 19 turnovers, and held the Pacers to 15 fourth quarter points.
"Motivated," head coach Frank Vogel categorically responded when asked if he was frustrated or confused with the way things have turned lately. "Because we have aspirations to have a strong finish with this club, and what we're doing right now isn't good enough in any way. I'm motivated to move the pieces around, keep them inspired, keep them believing, and make this work."
With the Detroit Pistons (40-35) idle, Indiana had an opportunity to regain control of the No. 7 seed with a win. Instead, the Pacers handed Detroit a one-game lead. Meanwhile, the Chicago Bulls overcame a 14-point deficit in Houston to pull themselves to within one game of Indiana for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Leaving Indiana in search of answers with only seven games remaining.
"We've got to figure out what pieces fit with each other," Vogel said following Thursday's lopsided loss. "We've got to make some adjustments to the rotation that we're using, and I think the effort we'll be there. And, if the effort's they're with the right combinations, hopefully the execution will come."
A likely adjustment will be moving to get Solomon Hill more playing time. With Myles Turner beginning to show signs of hitting the proverbial rookie wall, Indiana has outscored opponents by 39.5 points per 100 possessions with the youngest Hill sharing the floor with George Hill, Monta Ellis, Paul George, and Ian Mahinmi over the last three games.
He saw two minutes of action against the Orlando Magic.
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 5-2 the rest of the way, only dropping games against opponents at or above .500, they would finish the season 44-38. In that scenario, the Pistons would need to win five 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 44-38, the Boston Celtics would have to finish 1-6 to slip below Indiana in the standings.
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 last 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 during the month of March. The Cavaliers are averaging 15.7 second chance points per game over that same span of time, second only to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Be all of this as it may, if the Pacers persist with being their own worst enemy, any further discussion of match-ups will be to little or no consequence. Especially if Paul George continues to be hampered by injury, grimacing nearly every time he drives to basket or tries to fight over the top of a screen.
(1) Cleveland Cavaliers (53-22) vs. (8) Indiana Pacers (39-36)
(2) Toronto Raptors (50-24) vs. (7) Detroit Pistons (40-35)
(3) Atlanta Hawks (45-31) vs. (6) Boston Celtics (43-32)
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 (6-8) with two 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 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 Wednesday's unnecessary blowout, ESPN's BPI Playoff Index still gives the Pacers (94.9%) a greater chance of making the playoffs than the Detroit Pistons (82.1%).
Yet, getting outscored by 14.7 points per 100 possessions during the fourth quarter of the last three games does not bode particularly well for a strong finish to the season.
So what's the key to regaining the No. 7 seed from Detroit and holding off Chicago?
"I don't know what Chicago did tonight," Lavoy Allen said immediately following last night's loss. "But they were only two games behind us before tonight, so it's very close. We've got seven games left, so we've got to try to win them all. Don't try to put it in Chicago's hands to come catch us, just worry about ourselves, do our job, and forget about everything else."