Rather than playing not to lose against a team with nothing for which to play, the Indiana Pacers punched their ticket for the postseason with authority. Despite their history of struggling in contests of the "should-win" variety, the Blue & Gold's win over the Brooklyn Nets was also a victory over past mistakes.
Instead of losing a double-digit lead like they did in New York, they expanded on it. Instead of playing back on their heals like they did against Orlando, they took the fight to their opponent. Instead of playing tight against a shorthanded opponent like they did in Toronto, they played with ease and determination.
With the opportunity to eliminate the Chicago Bulls from playoff contention looming, the Pacers' collective energy at long last matched their level of talent against a star-less opponent.
"I think our guys were very motivated after the Toronto game," Frank Vogel responded when asked what he would credit for his team's strong performance against the Brooklyn Nets. "We played a team that had some guys out, and played poorly. We all knew we played poorly, and our guys came out with...honestly, it started yesterday. We came out with great energy in practice. The first unit and the second unit came out and played with great energy tonight. I remember at one point writing on the board, 'We've got 10 guys playing extremely hard.' We had guys asking to come out because they were playing so hard, so that was a good sign."
Even with a playoff berth wrapped up, head coach Frank Vogel indicated that he did not anticipate resting anyone with the No. 7 seed still up for grabs and his team still in search of consistency. If the Pacers can replicate last night's approach against New York and Milwaukee, then the seventh spot will belong to Indiana.
How things currently stand...
If the Pacers go 2-0 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 Pacers would face the Toronto Raptors, whose bench thoroughly outplayed Indiana's full-complement of players Friday night. Even so, while no match-up should be projected as particularly favorable, especially when considering Indiana's lack of consistency, Toronto still does appear to be the path of least resistance.
First of all, it does not include LeBron James, who has appeared in five consecutive Eastern Conference Finals series. Secondly, it may take DeMarre Carroll some time to shake off the rust after sitting out since mid-January following arthroscopic knee surgery. Should this prove out, facing a team with solid rim protection (Ian Mahinmi, Myles Turner) and an elite wing scorer (Paul George) could prove to be a tougher than expected test for a potentially shorthanded Toronto team with a history of first-round playoff exits.
Although the Raptors won the season series between the two teams, 3-1, both teams showed themselves to be equally capable of building and surrendering double-digit leads over the first three games. 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. However, the third game in the season 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.
Indiana's ability to play defense without fouling has been a sticking point in all four head-to-head meetings
(1) Cleveland Cavaliers (56-24) vs. (8) Detroit Pistons (43-37)
(2) Toronto Raptors (54-26) vs. (7) Indiana Pacers (43-37)
In the event of a tie....
With the Detroit Pistons: The Pacers (3-1) hold the head-to-head win-loss percentage tiebreaker.
Some odds and ends...
As of Monday 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 last 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 two days later, 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.