Paul George, listed as questionable during the third frame, had to remove the ice wrap from his sore left ankle to close out the undermanned New York Knicks on the road. This is the current state of the Indiana Pacers, who solely by virtue of their soft weekend schedule were able to swap places with the Detroit Pistons in the playoff standings. They only scored 33 points in the second half, gave up 18 offensive rebounds, and surrendered an 18-point lead. It took Ian Mahinmi making two free throws to tie the game at 87-87, George making a clutch step-back jumper, and Monta Ellis drilling two more free throws to seal the game.
They closed out an opponent, but getting there was more than a little uncomfortable.
"We've given up a lot of leads this year already," Rodney Stuckey told the Indy Star's Candace Buckner. "Last night we're up 15-plus, tonight we're up 15 plus and geez, just let them come right back. We can't keep doing that. If we do that again, maybe we might not win the next game. All these games are crucial and we just got to come out with a sense of urgency."
With the Detroit Pistons idle, Indiana regained control of the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, the Chicago Bulls held on against the Milwaukee Bucks, pulling them to 2.0 games back of seventh position.
How things currently stand...
If the Pacers go 3-2 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 is the Pacers.
Take a look at the race for the No. 7 and 8 spots.
If the season ended today...
Despite some of Indiana's seemingly best efforts to the contrary, the Pacers are back in position to face the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs.
Though no match-up should be projected as favorable with the Blue & Gold still fighting for a playoff berth, Toronto 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, a report from Ryan Wolstot of the Toronto Sun 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." 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.
As it stands now, the Raptors currently lead the season series between the two teams, 2-1, with one game remaining on April 8.
Thus far, both teams have shown themselves to be equally capable of building and surrendering double-digit leads. 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. The most recent game (3/17) in the 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.
Even so, if the Blue & Gold continue to be their own worst enemy, any further discussion of match-ups will be needless.
(1) Cleveland Cavaliers (55-22) vs. (8) Detroit Pistons (41-36)
(2) Toronto Raptors (51-25) vs. (7) Indiana Pacers (41-36)
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: The Hornets (3-0) hold the head-to-head win-loss percentage tiebreaker.
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 (9-6) and Detroit (9-6).
Some odds and ends...
As of Monday morning, ESPN's BPI Playoff Index projects the Pacers (44-38) to finish 1.0 game ahead of the Pistons (43-39).
Yet, with the bench outperforming Indiana's starters for the second straight game, the Pacers should be far from satisfied.
Vogel's decision to move Lavoy Allen back to the starting lineup over the weekend brought mixed results. By surrounding Ty Lawson with speed, the second unit appeared to be in-sync as the most-used all-bench unit outscored opponents by 38 points per 100 possessions. On the downside, the starters looked slow and disjointed. Struggling to guard spread lineups and languishing in the half-court on offense, the "new" first unit got outscored by 18.2 points per 100 possessions. Which means Indiana's head coach, at a time of the season when a team's rotation should already be well-established, may still need to do some tinkering.
"Obviously, you want to step on a team's throat when you're up 18 and put them away. We failed to do that the last two nights but we got two Ws," Frank Vogel told ESPN.com. "So we've got to continue to work on what we need to do to put a team away, but I'll be happy with the win."
Strengthening the bench at expense of the starters will likely prove to be problematic when rotations shorten in the postseason, when or if the Pacers get there.