The Cleveland Cavaliers, otherwise known as the Eastern Conference's top seed and prohibitive favorite, have the rare late season opportunity to directly impact the order of the final two spots in the playoff standings, thus having a hand in who they will face in the first round of the postseason. Whether or not they choose to rest any of their key players on the second night of a back-to-back tonight against the Pacers will say a lot about which of the two teams they prefer to be matched up against. With only four games remaining, the Cavaliers may want to use Wednesday's game to ensure they are firing on all cylinders at the right time. However, if none of Cleveland's All-Stars sit out, it may also be a sign that they project the interior strength of Andre Drummond and coaching acumen of Stan Van Gundy to be more of a first round inconvenience than Indiana's prolonged identity crisis.
With a 3.5 game cushion for the No. 1 seed, the Cavaliers have earned the privilege of weighing the pros and cons of potential match-ups. As for the Pacers, it is too soon for a team that barely eked out wins against the Sixers and Knicks to be thinking about anything other than how to get back on track.
"It's just important to win," Paul George explained following Tuesday's practice. "We're not going to make this thing (tonight's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers) about a playoff race yet. It's important to for us to come out and play well. A great opportunity against a good team."
With the Detroit Pistons coming up short against the Miami Heat, the Pacers retain control of the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference by a 0.5 game. Meanwhile, the Chicago Bulls took care of business against the injury-riddled Memphis Grizzlies, pushing themselves to 2.5 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 win all four of their remaining 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. Especially if Paul George continues to be nagged by various injuries.
"I've been pretty banged up the past couple days," George explained yesterday. "But I still feel fine enough to guard. There's going to be some things I can and cannot do, some limitations, but I feel fine otherwise."
(1) Cleveland Cavaliers (56-22) vs. (8) Detroit Pistons (41-37)
(2) Toronto Raptors (52-25) vs. (7) Indiana Pacers (41-36)
(4) Boston Celtics (45-32) vs. (5) Miami Heat (45-32)
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 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 Wednesday morning, ESPN's BPI Playoff Index projects the Pacers (44-38) to finish 1.0 game ahead of the Pistons (43-39). Solid odds aside, with Indiana's second unit outperforming the starters the last two games, the Pacers are still searching for answers at a time of the season when a team's rotation should already be well-established.
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 more 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. The "new" first unit got outscored by 18.2 points per 100 possessions, struggling to guard spread lineups and languishing in the half-court on offense.
"That group didn't have great numbers, but they've had great numbers all year," head coach Frank Vogel said of the changes to the starting lineup. "What I liked more than anything was the adjustment made to the bench."
Strengthening the bench at expense of the starters could prove problematic when rotations shorten in the postseason, when or if the Pacers get there.