Grab some popcorn and get settled in, because there’s only three and a half games separating the teams currently seeded 3-8 in the East and the Pacers are slated to be in action every other night until they face the Kings on March 29.
After last night’s third consecutive hard-fought victory over a playoff team, Indiana pulled even with the Cleveland Cavaliers in the win column, which positions them just a half of a game back of the third seed.
With such a small margin for error, the Pacers need to avoid repeating last week’s mistakes when the Hawks come to town on Friday because from then on 12 of their final 16 games are against opponents with winning records, including meetings with three of the league’s top four teams before the end of month.
Yep, March is about to be madness.
How things currently stand...
If the season ended today...
In the Wizards, Indiana would potentially face a team which they have yet to play this season. John Wall isn’t expected to return to action for another 2-4 weeks, which means he could potentially miss all three of his team’s meetings with the Pacers. Washington’s scoring 109.3 points per 100 possessions and averaging more passes per game since he went down, but it’s more likely that he’ll be rejoining the best team he’s ever played with when he comes back than it is that they are actually better without his next level playmaking.
Consider the defensive match-ups from Sunday’s game, for instance. Whereas Victor Oladipo defended more possessions against Tomas Satoransky (26) than Bradley Beal (22), Washington’s first-time All-Star spent the majority of the time guarding Oladipo on 53 energy-draining possessions and ended up logging 43 minutes of action.
On the other end of the floor, Beal only produced 11 points on 4-of-14 shooting when Cory Joseph was harassing him, and he missed his final five shots.
If the Wizards have two All-Star guards on the floor, that sort of fatigue factor has the potential to be equally pronounced only in the reverse.
(4) Indiana Pacers (37-27) vs. (5) Washington Wizards (36-28)
Some odds and ends...
As of this morning, ESPN’s BPI playoff index gives the Pacers a 98.8 percent chance of making the playoffs but projects them to go 8-10 over their final 18 games, a win-loss percentage which would drop them to the sixth seed and into a first round match-up with Cleveland.
In that scenario, Philadelphia and Washington would move ahead of the Pacers while the Cavaliers would hold steady.
The three seed still looks like it could be very much up for grabs, though. Cleveland bounced back after a two-game slide with a commanding win over the languishing Pistons last night, but their refreshed roster has hemorrhaged 112.8 points per 100 possessions over the last four games.
Speaking of old habits dying hard. The Sixers stayed in character by blowing two huge leads in the same game against the Bucks on Sunday.
Even so, their defense has been the nastiest in the East since the start of February, their lineup with Ben Simmons, J.J. Redick, Robert Covington, Dario Saric, and Joel Embiid is an absolute beast (seriously, they’ve outscored opponents by 18.8 points per 100 possessions, a mark which tops the league among five-man units that have played at least 350 minutes), and their closing schedule is incredibly soft.
By comparison, Philly has nine more games remaining against opponents with losing records than the Pacers.
On the bright side, Indiana only has one game left to play with 0 days rest (a doozy in Toronto the night after facing off against the Warriors at Bankers Life Fieldhouse), whereas the Sixers have four. Thus far, Embiid has logged 30-plus minutes in each of his team’s last four games played on the second night of a back-to-back. Still, the decision of whether to push for home court advantage or prioritize rest seems like a delicate balance worth monitoring.
As for the Wizards, they’ve dropped three straight games against teams with winning records since jumping out to an impressive 10-4 record without John Wall, so maybe the scouting report and strength of their remaining schedule is finally starting to catch up to them.
Either way, go ahead and circle, highlight, and underscore Indiana’s final head-to-head, tiebreak-deciding games with the Sixers (Mar. 13), Wizards (Mar. 17) and Heat (Mar. 25).
Detroit and Charlotte are technically still alive, but the Pistons have gone a putrid 2-8 over their last 10 games and the Hornets are on a three-game losing streak. If the Pacers go 8-10 to close the season as projected, then the Hornets would have to win 16 of their final 18 games and grab the tiebreaker to pass them in the standings.
That’s a tall, tall order.
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.