Now that Kyrie Irving has been officially ruled out for the postseason in the aftermath of left knee surgery, it appears that to the winner of third place will go the spoils.
In that regard, Indiana’s two bad losses immediately following the All-Star break against the Hawks and Mavericks are definitely coming back to haunt. The Pacers would be in a tie for the third seed — in position to trap Cleveland and Philly on the other side of the bracket with Toronto — if both those contests had gone the other way.
Instead, the Cavs extended their win streak to five with a win over Washington last night, which gives them a magic number of two to lock the Pacers out of home-court advantage.
Meanwhile, the Sixers are right on their heels with a magic number of three for a top-four seed after having last night off.
Given that the Pacers will need some help from teams with losing records to finish better than fifth, tonight’s marquee game between the two teams immediately ahead of them in the standings will play a significant role in determining who they match-up with in the first round.
With a head-to-head victory over the Cavs, the Sixers can move into third place by a half-game while tying the regular season series.
If Cleveland wins the critical match-up, they’ll secure the tiebreaker with Philly, take a one and a half-game lead for third, and be in position to clinch home-court advantage by the end of the night if the Pacers fall on the second night of a back-to-back in Toronto.
Either way, appearing destined to open the playoffs on the road against one of the two hottest teams in the Eastern Conference doesn’t seem like much of a reward for being 15 games above .500.
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.
Presuming that Joel Embiid is available after undergoing surgery to repair a fractured orbital bone in his left eye, these teams have the potential to bring out the best and worst aspects of each other.
The Pacers are 21-25 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 ranks among the top five teams in the league in points scored off turnovers per 100 possessions as well as fast break points per 100 possessions.
According to basketball reference, the Pacers are 25-14 when their opponent commits at least 15 turnovers and 22-18 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.
Over their twelve consecutive wins since that loss, however, Philly has cut their turnover rate significantly from 16.9 (30th) to 13.3 (13th). Of course, it begs mentioning that eight of those games came against bottom-10 defenses.
That being said, if the Sixers taking better care of the ball turns out to be a real thing in the playoffs, then it will be more of a challenge for the Pacers to create the same easy transition opportunities that allowed them to compensate for the above mentioned shortcomings in the prior two meetings.
(4) Philadelphia 76ers (48-30) vs. (5) Indiana Pacers (47-32)
Some odds and ends...
Obviously, the third seed is still very much up for grabs, but it seems like the slight edge should go to the Cavs.
Tonight’s game is the second night of a back-to-back for Cleveland, and it’s on the road. The Sixers have only lost one game (versus the Pacers on March 13) at Wells Fargo Center since the start of the calendar year, and they’ll be playing host for three of their last four games.
Even so, Cleveland has a two-game lead on the Central Division, which means they’re still in position to win out in the event of a tie regardless of whether the Sixers even the season series this evening.
In that scenario, if the Cavs sweep their two games against the Knicks, Philly will have to go 3-0 against the Hawks, Mavericks, and Bucks to clinch third place.
The Sixers will be on the second night of a back-to-back when they close the season at home against Milwaukee, and the race for the seventh seed between the Heat, Wizards, and Bucks to face Boston without Irving could still be alive.
In the event of a tie....
Between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Philadelphia 76ers: Cleveland leads the regular season series (2-1), with the last regular season meeting scheduled for tonight. If Philadelphia ties it up with a win, the next tiebreaker is division winner. Cleveland has a two game lead over the Pacers for the Central Division crown.
With the Cleveland Cavaliers: 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.