It was another productive night off for the Indiana Pacers, as the Chicago Bulls fell to the Miami Heat, 106-98. Thursday night's loss pushes Chicago 3.5 games back of seventh position. In order for the two Central Division rivals to swap places in the standings, the Bulls would have to finish 3-0 and the Pacers would have to go 0-4. Which means that Indiana could wrap up earning a playoff berth early with a win tonight over the Toronto Raptors, who regained elite perimeter defender, DeMarre Carroll. In what could be a potential first round preview between the two teams, the Pacers are hopeful that the confidence they displayed Wednesday against the Cleveland Cavaliers can be the catalyst they need to finish the season strong.
"I think that last night's game got us going," Paul George explained following Thursday's practice. "Again, it was a lot of us just feeling at ease. There was no tension. Everybody felt comfortable. We were confident. I think that's the feeling you'd want you're team to have coming into the late part of the season. You want everybody to be relaxed, and that's how we played last night, and that's how the mood is in the locker room right now."
With only a 0.5 game lead for the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference, the Pacers need to capitalize on this Era of Good Feelings if they want to avoid being leapfrogged by the Detroit Pistons.
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, who played 13 minutes against the Atlanta Hawks last night, may still need to shake off some rust after having not seen any game action since early-January. 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 (52-26) vs. (7) Indiana Pacers (42-36)
(4) Boston Celtics (46-32) vs. (5) Miami Heat (46-32)
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 Friday 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 greater than 99.9 percent chance of making the playoffs, while Chicago's likelihood is less than a tenth of a 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 on Wednesday night, 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."
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."
Given the potential for the Pacers to face the Raptors in the first round of the playoffs, strengthening the productivity of the second unit makes logical sense because Toronto's bench scores 107.3 points per 100 possessions, which ranks third-best in the league among reserve units. 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.