So much for momentum. The Indiana Pacers followed up Wednesday's strong offensive performance against the East-leading Cleveland Cavaliers by surrendering 111 points to the second-seeded Toronto Raptors, who were without Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Luis Scola, and DeMarre Carroll. The third quarter, in which Toronto's fill-ins outscored the Pacers 32 to 19 while shooting better than 60 percent from the three-point line, epitomized Indiana's tendency this season to backslide.
"(Toronto) came out and just played harder than us," Paul George told the Indy Star's Candace Buckner. "When we think as a group that we're progressing as a team then have a letdown like tonight, it's frustrating."
Meanwhile, by taking care of business against the John Wall-less Washington Wizards, the Detroit Pistons clinched a playoff berth and regained control of the No. 7 seed. Since the Chicago Bulls would have to finish 3-0 and the Pacers would have to go 0-3 for the two Central Division rivals to swap places in the playoff standings, a Bulls' loss tonight against the Cleveland Cavaliers would guarantee the Blue & Gold the last remaining playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
How things currently stand...
If the Pacers go 3-0 the rest of the way, capitalizing against lottery bound opponents, 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...
The Indiana Pacers would face the Cleveland Cavaliers, otherwise known as the Eastern Conference's prohibitive favorite.
Considering that it may take DeMarre Carroll some time to shake off the rust after sitting out since mid-January following arthroscopic knee surgery, matching-up against a team with solid rim protection and an elite wing scorer seemed like it could prove to be a tougher than expected test for a Toronto team with a history of first-round playoff exits. Of course, that was before the Raptors' bench thoroughly outplayed Indiana's starters, effectively throwing (at least some) water on that notion. Given their propensity for inconsistency, no match-up should be projected as particularly favorable for the Pacers.
After failing to respect their opponent last night, the Pacers are slated to face the East's top seed. With LeBron James in the lineup, the Cavaliers swept the Pacers three games to none. Still, with 60 lead changes across those three contests, Indiana played Cleveland close. With James resting on Wednesday, the Pacers came up with what seemed to be a momentum building win against the Cavaliers, scoring a season-high 70 first half points.
Beyond game planning for LeBron James, the biggest area of concern in a hypothetical match-up between the two teams is Indiana's defense, which continues to be bogged down by whichever traditional power forward is too slow to recover to opposing stretch-shooters after blitzing the pick-and-roll ball-handler.
"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 his team'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."
If the standings hold, head coach Frank Vogel is going to have to give starting Solomon Hill opposite Kevin Love, as was the case during the second half of Wednesday's match-up, more serious consideration.
(1) Cleveland Cavaliers (56-23) vs. (8) Indiana Pacers (42-37)
(2) Toronto Raptors (52-26) vs. (7) Detroit Pistons (43-37)
In the event of a tie....
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 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 (7-8) would currently be outside playoff contention, behind Chicago (9-6) and Detroit (9-6).
Some odds and ends...
As of Saturday morning, ESPN's BPI Playoff Index projects both Indiana and Detroit to finish the season 44-38. Should this happen, Indiana holds the head-to-head tiebreaker (as was explained above).
Solid odds of winning the No. 7 seed 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 three nights ago, 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."
That Jason Thompson splashed in two of Toronto's 10 made three-pointers last night, is further evidence that opponents are getting too comfy beyond the arc against Indiana's traditional starting lineup. Still, the idea behind the lineup adjustments Vogel made last 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. Toronto's bench scores 107.0 points per 100 possessions, which ranks first in the Eastern Conference among reserve units. However, if opponents are going to continue to target Indiana's slower traditional power forwards from the tip, then Vogel may need to reconsider how he staggers his playing rotation moving forward.