It took awhile, but the Indiana Pacers finally got out of their own way Saturday night to close out the Philadelphia 76ers, 115-102, on the road. Head coach Frank Vogel's move to replace Myles Turner in the starting lineup with Lavoy Allen brought mixed results. The all-bench unit, boosted by C.J. Miles and Rodney Stuckey's combined 71.4 percent shooting, played with an improved rhythm, but the starters got outscored by 30 points. Appearing disjointed for large portions of the game and still struggling to defend the three-point line, it took a monstrous 41-point fourth-quarter for the Pacers to avoid losing their third straight game.
"I mean, we're satisfied with winning. We're not satisfied with how we won. But we knew this team would come play hard," Paul George told the Indy Star's Candace Buckner, with reference to the Sixers.
While Indiana was playing mostly not to lose in Philadelphia, the Pistons were earning a key victory over the Bulls in Chicago. Which made for a bittersweet close to the evening for Indiana, who now lead the Bulls by 2.0 games for the eighth seed but trail Detroit by 0.5 game for seventh.
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 4-2 the rest of the way, only dropping games against opponents above .500, they would finish the season 44-38. In that scenario, the Pistons would need to win four of their remaining five 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 0-6 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. Over the last five games, the Blue & Gold's defense has given up 105.5 points per 100 possessions.
"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, ranked 19th in the league in rebounding percentage during the month of March. The Cavaliers averaged 15.7 second chance points per game over that same span of time, trailing only the Oklahoma City Thunder and Boston Celtics.
Be all of this as it may, if the Pacers continue to be their own worst enemy, any further discussion of match-ups will be needless. 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 (54-22) vs. (8) Indiana Pacers (40-36)
(2) Toronto Raptors (51-25) vs. (7) Detroit Pistons (41-36)
(4) Atlanta Hawks (45-32) vs. (5) Boston Celtics (44-32)
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 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 Washington Wizards: The Pacers (2-1) 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 (6-8) would currently be outside playoff contention, behind Chicago (8-6) and Detroit (8-6).
Some odds and ends...
Among Indiana, Detroit, and Chicago, ESPN's BPI Playoff Index now gives the Pistons (92.7%) the best chance of making the playoffs. However, it projects both the Pacers and Pistons to finish the season at 43-39. If that estimate proves out, Indiana, holding the head-to-head tiebreaker, would finish above Detroit in the standings.
But the Pacers can't afford to get caught up in likelihoods, when they still don't really resemble a team taking charge of their own destiny. Stringing together more quarters in the vein of last night's final frame, wherein they scored 41 points (14 more points than their prior two fourth quarters combined) and forced eight turnovers, would be more demonstrative of a team fighting for their playoff lives.
"The biggest thing for us right now is to go on a streak, go on a run. We've yet to do that throughout our whole season," Paul George told the Indy Star's Candace Buckner. "For us we've got to build on this one and get ready for the Knicks (Sunday)."
If the Pacers sweep the weekend tonight, they will regain control of the No. 7 seed in the East.