Even with the Chicago Bulls hanging on against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Indiana Pacers can still clinch a playoff berth tonight with a win over the Brooklyn Nets. However, given the Blue & Gold's recent struggles with winning their way in against star-less teams, that may be easier said than done.
"...It's kind of harder to play against the teams that don't have the starting lineups with All-Stars in them or big time names in them because you're playing against guys that are hungrier and are playing at ease," Paul George explained about his team's loss to shorthanded Toronto Raptors following Saturday's practice. "They're just out there playing."
While teams like Brooklyn, Orlando, and Toronto's second string play free and easy with everything to gain, Indiana has largely been playing not to lose. It is in these instances when the Pacers, though they've shown themselves capable of competing with the league's best, start to resemble someone who can't swim trying to do so in the shallow end of a pool.
"I almost felt like out guys kind of had a nervousness to them like, 'Ok, we should definitely win now.'" head coach Frank Vogel said of his team's reaction when they learned that four of Toronto's starters would be sitting out Friday night's game. "And they probably felt a little pressure. A unique kind of pressure, like, 'Those guys are out, and we don't want to miss this opportunity.' And they probably pressed a little bit."
Which means it may be an oversimplification to assume that the Pacers are suffering from crises of overconfidence.
"It's going to be another situation like us paying Philly or playing against Toronto, where it's a lot of guys trying to make a name in this league and trying to fill roster spots in this league that's going to come out and play hard," George said of tonight's match-up with the Brooklyn Nets. "What they lack in talent, is what they have in energy. They play hard. As a team, we have to match that."
They're proven themselves capable of swimming against San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and Cleveland. Over these last three games with Brooklyn, New York, and Milwaukee, the Pacers need to stop thrashing in the shallow water and finally just stand up. If they do that, then the No. 7 seed will likely be their's.
How things currently stand...
With a magic number of one, Indiana only needs to go 1-2 to clinch a playoff berth, if the Bulls finish the season 2-0. If the Pacers go 3-0 the rest of the way, they would finish the season 45-37. In that scenario, it would be mathematically impossible for the Detroit Pistons to pass Indiana in the playoff standings, 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 is the Pacers.
Take a look at the race for the No. 7 and 8 spots.
If the season ended today...
The Indiana Pacers would face the Cleveland Cavaliers, otherwise known as the Eastern Conference's prohibitive favorite.
Considering that it may take DeMarre Carroll some time to shake off the rust after sitting out since mid-January following arthroscopic knee surgery, matching-up against a team with solid rim protection and an elite wing scorer could prove to be a tougher than expected test for a Toronto team with a history of first-round playoff exits. However, given Indiana's propensity for inconsistency, no match-up should be projected as particularly favorable.
Yet, after failing to match their opponent's energy Friday night, the Pacers are slated to face the East's top seed. With LeBron James in the lineup, the Cavaliers swept the Pacers three games to none. Still, with 60 lead changes across those three contests, Indiana played Cleveland close. With James resting on Wednesday, the Pacers came up with what seemed to be a momentum building win against the Cavaliers, scoring a season-high 70 first half points.
Beyond game planning for LeBron James, the biggest area of concern in a hypothetical match-up between the two teams is Indiana's defense, which continues to be bogged down by whichever traditional power forward is too slow to recover to opposing stretch-shooters after blitzing the pick-and-roll ball-handler.
"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 his team'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."
If the standings hold, head coach Frank Vogel is going to have to give starting Solomon Hill opposite Kevin Love, as was the case during the second half of Wednesday's match-up, more serious consideration.
(1) Cleveland Cavaliers (56-24) vs. (8) Indiana Pacers (42-37)
(2) Toronto Raptors (53-26) vs. (7) Detroit Pistons (43-37)
(3) Atlanta Hawks (48-32) vs. (6) Charlotte Hornets (46-33)
(4) Boston Celtics (47-33) vs. (5) Miami Heat (46-33)
In the event of a tie....
With the Detroit Pistons: The Pacers (3-1) hold the head-to-head win-loss percentage tiebreaker.
With the Chicago Bulls: The Bulls (3-1) hold the head-to-head win-loss percentage tiebreaker.
With the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls: With all three teams having gone 4-4 against each other. A three-way tie for seventh would be decided by division record. In this scenario, Indiana (7-8) would currently be outside playoff contention, behind Chicago (10-6) and Detroit (9-6).
Some odds and ends...
As of Sunday morning, ESPN's BPI Playoff Index projects both Indiana and Detroit to finish the season 44-38. Should this happen, Indiana holds the head-to-head tiebreaker.
Solid odds of winning the No. 7 seed aside, the Pacers are still struggling to defend against spread lineups when Solomon Hill is not on the floor. With Lavoy Allen starting at the four-spot on Wednesday, the Cleveland Cavaliers used Kevin Love as a pick-and-pop threat early and often. It wasn't until he had scored his fourteenth point in the first quarter that head coach Frank Vogel swapped in the more agile Hill to cover Love out beyond the three-point arc.
"When Kevin Love got hot in the first half, Lavoy (Allen) was doing a good job; but, to guard his pick-and-rolls with Kyrie (Irving), it's a lot of chasing," head coach Frank Vogel explained. "And Lavoy wasn't doing a bad job, but it just is that Solo (Solomon Hill) was a better match-up in that situation. So, when he got hot early, we decided to just be proactive in the second half and take that away right away."
That Jason Thompson splashed in two of Toronto's 10 made three-pointers Friday night, is further evidence that opponents are getting too comfy beyond the arc against Indiana's traditional starting lineup. Still, the idea behind the lineup adjustments Vogel made last weekend was to surround Ty Lawson with speed and fortify the bench.
"We're definitely hoping that's going to be a strength of ours going into the playoffs," Vogel said of the second unit's improved play. "We've had some teams where the bench was a weakness, and I think that's going to be the opposite this year. This year's bench is going to carry us through stretches. Not just in these closing games; but, hopefully, if we clinch a playoff spot, into the playoffs."
Given the potential for the Pacers to face the Raptors in the first round of the playoffs, strengthening the productivity of the second unit makes logical sense. Toronto's bench scores 107.0 points per 100 possessions, which ranks first in the Eastern Conference among reserve units. However, if opponents are going to continue to target Indiana's slower traditional power forwards from the tip, then Vogel may need to reconsider how he staggers his playing rotation moving forward.