With a magic number of one, a win over the Heat tonight will officially punch Indiana’s ticket to the playoffs while tying the regular season series and adding another full game to the already existing three-game cushion between the two teams in the standings. A loss, however, will clinch the head-to-head tiebreaker for Miami and pull them to within two games of the Pacers.
In addition to the high stakes involved, this evening’s contest also has the potential to serve as a litmus test for both teams.
Whereas Indiana’s defensive rating has skyrocketed into the top five of the league since the All-Star break after languishing in the bottom third over the first half of the season, Miami’s surge in offensive efficiency has been equally dramatic.
Consider this, post-break the Heat have the league’s ninth-ranked offensive rating, which is up from 25th. They’ve cut their turnover rate from 15.3 percent (26th) to 12.0 percent (3rd), and they’ve improved their three-point shooting from 35.9 percent to 38.0 percent while pushing the pace from 28th (96.99) to 17th (99.53).
Some of the credit is due to significant jumps in scoring average and field goal percentage from individuals like Justise Winslow (6.2 points per game on 39.7 percent shooting to 11.1 on 46.8), Tyler Johnson (10.5 on 48.6 to 11.4 on 55.7), and James Johnson (11.5 on 41.7 to 13.8 on 49.3), but their bench has been absolutely killer.
Not only has the combination of Wayne Ellington’s neon flashing green-light from behind the arc (7.6 three-point attempts per game) paired alongisde Kelly Olynyk’s playmaking from the five position made for some nifty dribble hand-off actions, Miami’s reserves have an aggregate bench net rating of plus-8.7 points per 100 possessions since the break, a mark which is second to only Toronto’s lethal bench mob.
That’s a problem for the Pacers, at least of late.
Since Darren Collison rejoined the starting lineup, Indiana’s bench has been outscored by 6.4 points per 100 possessions. Shooting a putrid 11-of-41 from the field and 1-of-13 from three in the 18 minutes of action that Cory Joseph, Lance Stephenson, Glenn Robinson III, and Trevor Booker have been on the floor together, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that the disjointed second unit’s best stretch of offense came against the New Orleans Pelicans when they relented to allow Booker to bully Nikola Mirotic to the basket.
It’s been brutal, and might need to be reconsidered if the return of Domantas Sabonis doesn’t move the needle in a hurry. Especially since the Pacers have been 10.6 points per 100 possessions better in point differential with Joseph playing with the starters than Collison.
Either way, with the Heat slated to play three of four games at home against teams with losing records while the Pacers head out on a four-game west coast road trip, Indiana’s stingier defense will likely need to prove more real than Miami’s microwaved offense to avoid a slide in the standings.
How things currently stand...
If the season ended today...
There would be endless narratives treating a first-round meeting between the diametrically opposed rebuilding styles of the Pacers and Sixers as a referendum on tanking.
To a certain extent, these teams bring out the best and worst aspects of each other. The Pacers are 20-24 when they get outrebounded, and the Sixers have the league’s top rebounding rate. On the flip side, Philly also has the league’s highest turnover rate, and Indiana leads the Eastern Conference in points scored off turnovers per 100 possessions as well as fast break points per 100 possessions.
According to basketball reference, the Pacers are 22-13 when their opponent commits at least 15 turnovers and 20-18 when they don’t.
Back in February, Indiana caused 18 turnovers and won by eight points in Embiid’s first back-to-back despite getting crushed in second chance points, 16-2.
And that was with Philly’s unicorn center basically rendering Myles Turner nonexistent, as Indiana’s 21-year-old shot-blocker with the feathery mid-range jump shot picked up two fouls in the first three minutes and 10 seconds of the game and finished with zero points in 15 minutes of action.
When they clinched the tiebreaker, the Pacers scored 29 points off 21 turnovers and won by three despite shooting 5-of-24 from three, losing Domantas Sabonis to a sprained left ankle in the third quarter, enduring Victor Oladipo and Bojan Bogdanovic going a combined 5-of-32 from the field, and needing to play Al Jefferson some minutes during crunch time when Myles Turner picked up his fifth foul with over five minutes remaining.
Assuming their frontcourt depth is fully restocked before the playoffs, Indiana can win getting out-muscled on the glass as long as they can create easy transition opportunities and dare to allow Thaddeus Young to zero-in on checking the length and playmaking of Ben Simmons in order to conserve the energy of Oladipo.
(2) Boston Celtics (49-23) vs. (7) Miami Heat (39-34)
(4) Philadelphia 76ers (42-30) vs. (5) Indiana Pacers (42-31)
Some odds and ends...
As of the latest simulation, ESPN’s BPI playoff odds are projecting the Pacers to go 4-5 over their final nine games, a win-loss percentage which would drop them to the sixth seed.
In that scenario, the Pacers would hold off the Miami Heat and the Milwaukee Bucks but still end up taking to the road to face the Sixers in the first round.
Joel Embiid shot 6-of-23 on the second night of a back-to-back against Brooklyn’s thin frontline last week, and he along with the rest of the starters had to be reinserted into the game during the fourth quarter against Minnesota last night to avoid staying in character by blowing another huge lead. Nevertheless, they’ve strung together a six-game win streak and seven of their final 10 games are against teams who are likely to miss the playoffs. So, unless they prioritize rest over seeding, expecting them to open the postseason at home seems nearly inevitable as long as they continue to take care of business against their soft remaining schedule.
On the flip side, projecting Miami to finish 5-4 appears conservative. After facing the Cavaliers on Tuesday, they have five consecutive games against teams with losing records and they close the season against the Toronto Raptors, who are likely to be in rest mode.
It’s a tall order, but...if Miami grabs the head-to-head tiebreaker against the Pacers tonight and sweeps those aforementioned six games (finishing 7-2), then Indiana will have to go 5-4 to stave them off.
Then again, with Daniel Theis out for the season, Marcus Smart sidelined indefinitely, and Kyrie Irving expected to miss 3-6 weeks after undergoing a procedure to clean up his left knee, there might be more of a race to fall down the standings than to climb up them if teams interpret what Boston has been doing in reserve this season as the team’s top gear.
Enter Washington, John Wall will need repetitions once he is cleared to return to arguably the best roster with which he has ever played, but his team still has three games to play on zero days rest. As such, dropping into a rematch with a team that has the potential to be reliant upon multiple players with two or fewer years of experience might be palatable.
In the event of a tie...
With the Cleveland Cavaliers: The Pacers (3-1) hold the head-to-head win-loss percentage tiebreaker.
With the Detroit Pistons: The Pistons (3-1) hold the head-to-head win-loss percentage tiebreaker.
With the Milwaukee Bucks: The Pacers (3-1) hold the head-to-head win-loss percentage tiebreaker.
With the Philadelphia 76ers: The Pacers (2-1) hold the head-to-head win-loss percentage tiebreaker.
With the Washington Wizards: The Wizards (2-1) hold the head-to-head win-loss percentage tiebreaker.
With the Miami Heat: The Heat lead the season series (2-1) with the final meeting between the two teams slated for tonight. If the Pacers tie it up at 2-2, the next tiebreaker is division winner. Both Indiana and Miami trail their division’s respective leaders by 1.5 games. Assuming the Cavs win the Central and the Wizards take the Southeast, then it comes down to conference record. Indiana (30-18) currently tops Miami (26-18) in this category, but the Heat still have eight games remaining against the East (six of which are against the Bulls, Nets, Hawks (X2), and Knicks) whereas the Pacers only have four.