After scraping together a gutsy, undermanned win over the Minnesota Timberwolves on the second night of a back-to-back behind a yeoman’s effort at nominal five from Thaddeus Young and big scoring outings from Bojan Bogdanovic (35 points) and TJ Leaf (18 points), the Pacers have lived to fight another day as the third-seed in the Eastern Conference.
But, the question is for how long.
If the Pacers had managed to survive separate 3-point barrages from the Pistons and Mavericks earlier this week, they’d have increased their cushion on the fourth-place Sixers to 1.5 games. Instead, with both of those outings going the other way and Philly picking up a win over the Paul George-less Thunder, they’re clinging to a half-game lead.
Zoom out for a moment though and consider that last statement: Myles Turner (bruised hip), Domantas Sabonis (sprained ankle), Tyreke Evans (food poisoning), and Doug McDermott (rib injury) missed 11 combined games in February on top of Oladipo being out for the season, and they’re STILL clinging to a half-game lead.
And oh by the way, they were backed into trotting out four different starting lineups over the last month while also incorporating Wesley Matthews into the fold.
This is bonkers!
All of which sets the stage for Saturday to be ripe with opportunity, again.
Orlando’s defense-fueled momentum is rolling into town fresh off a win over the Warriors, who are headed to the Wells Fargo Center for a primetime meeting with the Sixers. Assuming Myles Turner can get back on track from the field against Nikola Vucevic’s drop coverage without once again getting into foul trouble, the 22-year-old shot-blocker could end up playing a major role in determining whether the Pacers maintain their standing through the weekend in the event that Philly earns their second win of the season over Golden State.
Adding to the night-to-night drama down the stretch is that neither the Pacers nor the Sixers have incentive to go down quietly. All of the teams currently in the mosh to finish in spots six through eight have negative net ratings, and until the Sixers can solve Al Horford, there’s potential there for them to struggle in a first-round series with the down-but-not-out fifth-seeded Celtics.
Stay tuned, but also sit back and enjoy what the Pacers are doing.
How things currently stand...
If the season ended today...
(1) Milwaukee Bucks (47-14) vs. (8) Orlando Magic (29-34)
(4) Philadelphia 76ers (40-22) vs. (5) Boston Celtics (37-25)
(3) Indiana Pacers (41-22) vs. (6) Brooklyn Nets (32-31)
Some odds and ends...
As of this morning, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gives the Pacers a better than 99.9 percent chance of making the playoffs and projects them to go 11-8 over their final 19 games, a win-loss percentage which would drop them into the 4-5 match-up with Boston.
In that scenario, Indiana would swap places with the Sixers but still open the playoffs at home, where they are a combined 3-2 against the Bucks, Raptors, Sixers, and Celtics, compared to just 1-4 on the road.
At first glance, slippage seems reasonable. Per Tankathon.com, the Pacers have the NBA’s fourth-toughest remaining schedule (including a brutal 11-game stretch beginning on March 7 which features a near-to-constant stream of playoff contenders from coast-to-coast), whereas the Sixers own the seventh-easiest.
Joel Embiid’s health status could however bridge some of that disparity in difficulty if the Sixers proceed with a load management approach once he’s back in the lineup, particularly since they still have four back-to-backs left to play and they’re 3-6 on 0 days rest. Philadelphia announced on February 20 (the Wednesday following the All-Star break) that their franchise center would be sidelined at least a week with left knee soreness. He has since eclipsed that approximated timeline with his team going 3-1 in his stead, though he is expected to return for Saturday’s game with the Warriors.
The balletic big man’s absence was most noticeable on the defensive end in their lone loss. With Embiid on the floor, Philadelphia is more miserly (at 102.5 points allowed per 100 possessions) than even the league’s stingiest team (103.7). But when their elite-level rim protector is on the bench, they’re the equivalent of a middling team defense (108.7).
That disparity showed up big time against the Trail Blazers last Saturday. Portland’s prolific pick-and-roll efficiency left head coach Brett Brown searching for answers — first replacing Boban Marjanovic’s struggles to defend away from the rim with Amir Johnson’s general struggles before finally resorting to switching everything with Mike Scott at center.
The Sixers ended up losing by 15 and gave up 130 points.
Meanwhile, the Celtics have dropped six of their last eight games, including dispirited double-digit losses to Chicago and Toronto. Notably, both of those games were on the road, where Boston has the worst record among the top five teams in the East and could be opening the playoffs if the current standings remain unchanged.
Incentive exists for them to push for homecourt advantage, though Kyrie Irving has expressed confidence in their ability to flip the switch no matter where they finish while also making it clear that he’s ready to move on from the “BS” of the regular season and fast forward to the playoffs.
Given that the Pacers’ next two games are at home against below .500 opponents, now is the time to focus on creating further separation — especially with head-to-head meetings with Philadelphia (Mar. 10) and Boston (Mar. 29) looming later this month.
Also, feel free to keep at least one eye on the bottom three seeds. If the Pacers go 11-8 as projected, the currently sixth-seeded Nets wouldn’t be able to pass them in the standings even if they swept the rest of their 19 games. As such, Indiana is unlikely to fall below fifth, but the race for sixth could end up impacting who they play in the first round.
Brooklyn and Charlotte have the two most difficult remaining schedules among the teams with records ranging from losing to mediocre who are fighting to make the playoffs (i.e. Nets, Pistons, Hornets, Magic, Heat, and..I guess the Wizards), which could open the door for Detroit and Orlando to keep climbing.
Both squads have won seven of their last 10 games, and only six of the Magic’s final 19 games are against teams with winning records.
Plus, take a look at the league’s top six teams by net rating in February:
Toronto Raptors, +8.2
Trail Blazers, +6.7
Detroit Pistons, +6.6
In addition to highlighting potential risers in the standings, this should serve as a reminder that not all below .500 teams are created equal. The Pacers still have seven games remaining against teams with losing records, but over half of them are against Orlando (Mar. 2 and Mar. 30) and Detroit (Apr. 1 and Apr. 3) and another is against the suddenly scorching Bulls — who have scored over 115 points per 100 possessions over their last five games while posting a 4-1 record.
Easy wins may not be so easy to come by.
In the event of a tie...
With the Philadelphia 76ers: The Sixers lead the regular season series 2-1 with the final meeting scheduled for Sunday, March 10 at 3:30 PM at Wells Fargo Center. If the Pacers manage to knot it up at 2-2, the next tiebreaker would be conference record since neither team is currently winning their respective divisions. The Pacers (28-12) have a 4.5-game lead over the Sixers (22-15) against Eastern Conference teams.
With the Boston Celtics: The regular season series is currently tied 1-1 with the final two meetings slated for March 29 (at TD Garden) and April 3 (at Bankers Life Fieldhouse). In the event that the series ends up being split, one game is currently separating the Pacers (28-12) from the Celtics (27-13) in terms of conference winning-percentage.
With the Toronto Raptors: The Raptors (2-1) hold the head-to-head win-loss percentage tiebreaker.
With the Milwaukee Bucks: The Bucks lead the regular season series 2-1 with the final meeting scheduled for March 7 at Fiserv Forum. If the Pacers tie the series at 2-2, the Bucks would still be in the driver’s seat as the Central Division leader.
With the Brooklyn Nets: The Pacers lead the regular season series 2-1 with the final meeting scheduled for April 7 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. If Brooklyn manages to tie the series at 2-2, the Pacers (28-12) have a comfortable lead over the Nets in terms of conference winning-percentage (22-18).
With the Detroit Pistons: The regular season series is currently tied 1-1 with the final two meeting slated for April 1 and 3. Within the Central Division, the Pacers currently have a better record (8-4) than the Pistons (5-5).
With the Charlotte Hornets: The Pacers (2-1) hold the head-to-head win-loss percentage tiebreaker.