On a night when LeBron James rested, the Indiana Pacers didn't. They scored a season-high 70 first half points, shot 56.3 percent from the field, recorded nine steals, and scored 46 points in the paint. Victimized early by the pick-and-pop, Solomon Hill's energy picked up the Pacers on both ends of the floor as he, uncharacteristically, knocked down three three-pointers while using his strength and defensive versatility to make things tougher for Kevin Love on the block and behind the three-point line.
Though the Cavaliers indirectly moved to push Indiana toward the No. 7 seed, the Pacers were focused and efficient.
"We've got to keep playing with desperation," head coach Frank Vogel said of his team's upcoming meeting with the Toronto Raptors. "We said all along whether LeBron played or not, or if they rested other guys, it didn't really matter what the Cavs were doing tonight. We had to worry about us and playing to a standard and do whatever it took to get a 'W.' And that's got to be the mindset going into Toronto."
With the Detroit Pistons holding on against the Orlando Magic, the Pacers still have only a 0.5 game lead for No. 7 in the Eastern Conference. Meanwhile, the Chicago Bulls are now 3.0 games back of seventh position.
How things currently stand...
If the Pacers go 3-1 the rest of the way, only losing to the above .500 Toronto Raptors, 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...
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 (56-23) vs. (8) Detroit Pistons (42-37)
(2) Toronto Raptors (52-25) vs. (7) Indiana Pacers (42-36)
(3) Atlanta Hawks (46-32) vs. (6) Charlotte Hornets (45-33)
(4) Boston Celtics (46-32) 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 Thursday morning, ESPN's BPI Playoff Index projects the Pacers (44-38) to finish 1.0 game ahead of the Pistons (43-39). Indiana now also has a better than 99 percent chance of making the playoffs, with both Washington and Chicago's likelihoods dipping below two percent.
Solid odds 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, 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," 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."
The idea behind the lineup adjustments made over the 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."
However, if opponents are going to target Indiana's slower traditional power forwards from the tip, then Indiana's head coach may need to reconsider how he staggers his playing rotation moving forward. Strengthening the bench at the expense of the starters could prove costly in the postseason.