When basketball’s best players in the world come together for the all-star weekend it is not just a celebration of talent... it’s a coronation.
Victor Oladipo made his first appearance in the all-star game but he was one of the least accomplished players to make it to Los Angeles. Hopefully, the opportunity motivated him to try and capture his first playoff berth as the leader of a team.
But now, as soon as the all-star weekend is over the real NBA season begin. The Indiana Pacers have 24 games left in the regular season. They are competing against nine teams for eight playoff spots. So this is your guide to what’s the most important things to know as the Pacers playoff push begins.
50 is the Magic Number
If the Pacers can win 17 more games they will reach 50 wins on the season. Just four months ago no one thought this was possible.
This was ESPN preseason predictions for the Eastern Conference.
50 wins puts the Pacers on a trajectory towards the number four seed in the Eastern Conference.
Six four-seeds have made the conference finals since 2006; zero five through eight-seeds have made it. The 2012 Celtics are the only team to make the conference finals when winning less than 50 games. Although that season was shortened to 66 games because of the lock out, but based on win percentage Boston was on pace to win almost 50.
At this point in the playoff race, Boston and Toronto are securely at the top of the conference. The Cavaliers are currently the third seed and since the trade deadline they have won three in a row to stop their falling within the conference standings. It’s important to note the Pacers do own the tiebreaker with Cleveland.
The rest of the Eastern Conference is up for grabs. Right now it seems like a five-team race for the four seed between Indiana, Miami, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Washington with Detroit on the outside looking in.
The Schedule isn’t Favorable
According to teamrankings.com, based on the current records heading the Pacers have the second-hardest schedule left in the league. 16 of their remaining 24 games are against teams in playoff contention including four games against the best team in both conferences.
Only 10 of Indiana’s last 24 games will be played at home - along with six of their last eight games in the regular season on the road - which also includes a four-game west coast road trip.
The good news is that the Pacers only play one back-to-back game and can win tiebreakers against three of the teams they’re in close competition with. They play Washington and Milwaukee twice and Philadelphia one more time.
Indiana also has a weird quirk in their schedule where they play every other day from March 5 to March 29 because they had to reschedule the rained-out Pelicans game.
Who will emerge as the Pacers’ number two scorer?
Over the past two weeks, Bojan Bogdanovic has stolen Myles Turner’s title as Oladipo’s offensive wingman. Since January 31 Bogdanovic has averaged 19.1 points on 48 percent shooting from three. Despite that, it’s important to remember for a stretch of the season from Thanksgiving until late January Bogdanovic averaged only 11.6 points.
Turner could reemerge after the break, but Thaddeus Young is my dark horse candidate. The 11-year veteran is the most reliable third option on offense averaging just over 12 points. Although he might have to continue to knock down his mid-range jumper in the lucky way this one dropped in:
The future lineup?
Glenn Robinson III is expected to make his season debut on Friday against the Hawks. Robinson’s unrestricted free agency is already looming over his recovery as he tries to prove himself worthy of a second contract.
If Robinson can return to pre-injury form or more likely just show flashes of the player he was last season, he’s likely to get a commitment by the Pacers, both monetary compensation and with words that he’s their long-term answer at small forward. That would give the Pacers four players under the age of 25 who will be the cornerstones as they try to build a championship contender.
I’m interested to see if the Pacers try a lineup of Cory Joseph, Oladipo, Robinson, Domantas Sabonis and Turner. Joseph is only 26 years old and could be ready to become a starting point guard. He’s a natural fit long-term fit if Indiana is trying to build a starting lineup that can remain together for the next three seasons.
McMillan already started playing Turner and Sabonis together before the All-Star break to learn how the two of them might fit together in the future. A lineup of those five guys could be a test of what the 2018-19 Pacers and beyond might look like.