They didn't build a 40-point lead, but the Indiana Pacers, led by George Hill's aggression and Ty Lawson's assisting, no longer need to prioritize seeding over rest. By taking care of business against the New York Knicks while the eighth-seeded Detroit Pistons were coming up short against the Miami Heat, Indiana won out in the two-team race for the No. 7 seed.
"Just putting it in perspective from last year," Paul George told the Indy Star's Candace Buckner. "Last year we had a different feeling on this night because we had one more game ahead of us to get to the playoffs going into Memphis. So it's a huge difference in how we feel now from last year."
With Paul George still bothered by a bone bruise, it is fortuitous that the race for seventh turned out to be a one-game sprint instead of a back-to-back marathon. Now that the Pacers know who they will be facing in the first round, they have the option to sit their three-time All-Star for the final game of the season after having him log the fourth-most total on-court miles in the NBA this season.
In the immediate aftermath of last night's victory, head coach Frank Vogel was non-committal regarding the possibility of resting key players in Milwaukee; instead, telling the assembled media, "We'll let you know tomorrow."
Even if George does get a well-deserved night off, the Pacers need to utilize game 82 of 82 against the Milwaukee Bucks, as well as the days ahead, to shore up their coverage of the three-point line. During the month of April, opponents are shooting 36.7 percent from the beyond the arc against Indiana, which ranks fifth-worst among potential playoff teams. An obvious problem in need of a quick fix, considering that the Raptors have been the league's fourth-best shooting team from range this season.
"...Teams hit their stride at different points of the season," Vogel said of his team's confidence following Tuesday's victory over the New York Knicks. "Even though we had some struggles, we haven't put together a stretch where we won 7, 8, 9 games in a row or 9 out of 10 or anything like that; there's always kind of a setback in there, we had that in Toronto again. But, at the same time, we've got an opportunity, if we win tomorrow, to go into the playoffs having won 6 out of 7 and with some momentum and, hopefully, having hit our stride at the right time."
How things currently stand...
(1) Cleveland Cavaliers (57-24) vs. (8) Detroit Pistons (43-38)
(2) Toronto Raptors (55-26) vs. (7) Indiana Pacers (44-37)
(3) Miami Heat (48-33) vs. (6) Charlotte Hornets (47-34)
When the season ends...
The Pacers will face the Toronto Raptors, whose bench thoroughly outplayed Indiana's full-complement of players last Friday. While no match-up should be projected as particularly favorable, especially when considering Indiana's lack of consistency, Toronto appears to be the path of least resistance.
First of all, it does not include LeBron James, who is averaging 28 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 7.8 assists on 66.6 percent shooting in April. 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 meetings. 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.
Some odds and ends...
The odds may forever be in Indiana's favor when it comes to the No. 7 seed, but 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. To his credit, Indiana's second-unit is scoring 112.9 points per 100 possessions during the month of April, second to only the San Antonio Spurs over that span of time.
"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."
Strengthening the productivity of the second unit makes logical sense, given that Toronto's bench, scoring 107.0 points per 100 possessions, ranks first in the Eastern Conference among reserve units this season. 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.