On top of being held scoreless for nearly seven minutes as the Oklahoma City Thunder rattled off the most consecutive unanswered points scored by a team this season, the Pacers are currently on the wrong side of another lopsided run:
They’ve lost nine straight road games and 7 of 10 overall with the three wins all coming at home against teams with rest disadvantages. (The Knicks were playing their third game in four days as a team that had already been mathematically eliminated from the postseason. Oklahoma City was on the second night of a back-to-back set, and the Nuggets were playing their final game of a four-game opposite coast road trip and their third game in four nights.)
With both teams from each match-up being on the same schedule in the playoffs, catching opponents when they’re tired is about to no longer be an option — especially since the Celtics have been banking rest while the Pacers have prioritized the 4-seed over load management.
That gamble, in and of itself, means that a lot will be on the line tomorrow night when Indiana takes to TD Garden to face a tinkering Boston team in a crucial battle for homecourt advantage. Just a game up on the fifth-place Celtics, a loss for Indiana will result in the two teams flipping places in the standings with Boston taking a 2-1 edge in the regular season series ahead of next Friday’s final head-to-head.
And, as if there weren’t already enough high-stakes drama, both games will likely serve as a playoff preview in a way that the first two meetings between the two squads really did not.
Back in early November, Victor Oladipo was available and pulled-up from three with his team down two to bury a Boston team that had yet to insert Marcus Smart and Marcus Morris into the starting lineup. Two months later, the Pacers got trounced on the second night of a back-to-back with the Celtics waltzing their way down the lane for easy paint points and drive-and-kick threes in the absence of Myles Turner’s anti-gravity.
Since then, Wesley Matthews has been added as a makeshift replacement for Oladipo while Boston has continued to search for answers.
Such was the case on Tuesday night against the Cleveland Cavaliers, when Brad Stevens changed his team’s fledgling starting lineup and went big with Aron Baynes up front alongside Al Horford. Whether matching size with size or gearing up for the playoffs by throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks, the move highlighted an important distinction between these two teams with only seven games left to play.
The Pacers have a better sense of who they are, but what you see with them is what you get. Indiana could very well be in for a match-up against a relatively unknown enemy with a distinct advantage in opposition research.
And yet, with Boston having lost four of five and Indiana laboring for points over prolonged stretches, neither team is exactly in the position to be focused on much else besides themselves.
How things currently stand...
If the playoffs started today...
(4) Indiana Pacers (45-30) vs. (5) Boston Celtics (44-31)
Some odds and ends...
As of this morning, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index projects the Pacers to go 5-2 over their final seven games, an outcome which would result in them securing a 50-win season by razor-thin margins.
In that scenario, the Pacers would open the playoffs against the Celtics at home, where they are 10-3 since Oladipo’s season-ending injury with a net rating of over nine, a top-five mark (thanks, Denver!), compared to 3-12 on the road with a net rating of minus-7.6.
That’s quite the disparity, and even more so when considering that the Celtics have amassed a menacing 6-1 combined home record against the four teams currently atop them in the standings.
Per Tankathon.com, Boston’s remaining strength of schedule is technically tougher than that of the Pacers, but a closer look reveals them to be near neck-and-neck in terms of makeup and structure. Outside of the two head-to-heads, each team has four remaining games against teams currently in hot pursuit of seeds 6-8 in the East as well as a season finale versus a team mathematically eliminated from the playoffs (alright, so, the Wizards haven’t actually been eliminated yet, but they will be soon enough).
Over the next week, they’ll match each other step-for-step, playing games on 0 days rest on Saturday before hosting home and homes on Monday and Wednesday and then reuniting once again on Friday.
Notably, neither team has any games left to play against the Western Conference.
Why does that matter? Both teams are 30-15 versus the East. If the two teams split the season series, and Boston manages to pull even with Indiana in the standings, that would mean that the Celtics finished with a superior conference record, thereby netting them the tiebreaker.
In the event of a tie...
With the Philadelphia 76ers: The Sixers own the head-to-head win-loss percentage tiebreaker, 3-1.
With the Boston Celtics: The regular season series is currently tied 1-1 with the final two meetings slated for tomorrow night (at TD Garden) and April 5 (at Bankers Life Fieldhouse). In the event that the series ends up being split, the Pacers and Celtics are both currently 30-15 versus the East with each having seven games left to play.
With the Philadelphia 76ers and Boston Celtics: Since none of the teams involved are leading their respective divisions, Boston (4-2) would have the edge based off winning percentage against Philadelphia (4-4) and Indiana (2-4) with two additional head-to-heads left to play on March 29 (Pacers vs. Celtics) and April 3 (Celtics vs. Pacers).
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 (30-15) have a comfortable lead over the Nets in terms of conference winning-percentage (25-20).
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 (9-5) than the Pistons (8-6).