And so it begins. Starting tonight against the Bucks, the Pacers are embarking on an incredibly difficult stretch from now until the end of March that will see them play 10 of their next 12 games against current playoff teams from coast-to-coast. Of those match-ups, eight are on the road, including a brutal four-game west coast swing which will feature three of the West’s top-five teams (Denver, Portland, and Golden State).
Here’s a closer look at their gauntlet schedule (seriously, they also have two sets of back-to-backs) as well as some notes on where they might find rest advantages:
- Thursday, March 7 @ Milwaukee Bucks
- Sunday, March 10 @ Philadelphia 76ers
- Tuesday, March 12 vs. New York Knicks
The Knicks are Indiana’s penultimate opponent with a below .500 record in the month of March. New York will also be playing their third game in four nights as a team that has already been mathematically eliminated from the playoffs.
The Pacers can’t let this one slip through their fingers.
- Thursday, March 14 vs. Oklahoma City Thunder
After facing the Nets the night before in a nationally televised game, the Thunder will set course for a (likely) hostile environment in Indy. There, they will go to battle with a Pacers team that will be fresh off one-day rest. This will also be OKC’s third game in four nights. Something says Paul George will be able to fight through tired for this one, though. Just a hunch.
- Saturday, March 16 @ Denver Nuggets
- Monday, March 18 @ Portland Trail Blazers
For the Blazers, this will be their first game home following a three-game road trip that will conclude in San Antonio on Central Standard Time, March 16. Both squads will enter the game off one-day rest, but each team will also be playing their third game in four nights.
The Pacers have lost 8-straight games in Portland.
- Tuesday, March 19 @ Los Angeles Clippers
- Thursday, March 21 @ Golden State Warriors
- Sunday, March 24 vs. Denver Nuggets
Ouch. Not only is this Denver’s fourth game of a four-game east coast road trip, it will mark their third game in four days. They’ll have a day off to travel from New York to Indy, but the game at Bankers Life Fieldhouse tips early at 5:00 PM EST against a Pacers team that will have returned home for two days of much-needed R&R following their own extended roadie.
The Nuggets are 16-15 on the road.
- Wednesday, March 27 @ Oklahoma City Thunder
- Friday, March 29 @ Boston Celtics
- Saturday, March 30 vs. Orlando Magic
On top of being confronted with a murderer’s row, Indiana’s already tough strength of schedule got tougher this week with the suddenly scorching Pistons moving to 32-31 on the season. With there still being two head-to-head meetings left to play between the two Central Division rivals (Apr. 1 and 3), the Pacers’ remaining games against teams with losing records just got abruptly slashed from five to three — the fewest of any current Eastern Conference playoff team.
Buckle up. March has been and will continue to be madness, perhaps even into the start of April.
How things currently stand...
With Zach LaVine slicing and dicing the Embiid-less Sixers to the tune of 39 points, the Oladipo-less Pacers had a productive off day, increasing their cushion over Philadelphia for third-place to a full game:
If the playoffs started today...
(1) Milwaukee Bucks (48-16) vs. (8) Miami Heat (30-34)
(4) Philadelphia 76ers (41-24) vs. (5) Boston Celtics (40-26)
(2) Toronto Raptors (46-19) vs. (7) Brooklyn Nets (34-33)
(3) Indiana Pacers (42-23) vs. (6) Detroit Pistons (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 9-8 over their final 17 games, a win-loss percentage which would drop them into the 4-5 match-up with Philadelphia by virtue of a three-way tie.
In that scenario, Boston would bump up to third while the Pacers would 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.
Given what lies ahead for the Pacers, holding off the Sixers seems generous. Per Tankathon.com, Philly has the NBA’s fifth-easiest remaining schedule, whereas Indiana owns the fourth-toughest.
For this reason, Sunday’s final game in the regular season series between the two teams looms large. If the Sixers come out ahead, they’ll secure the head-to-head tiebreaker and wipe away Indiana’s current one-game lead over them for third-place.
Keep an eye on the health statuses of the men in the middle from both squads. Domantas Sabonis didn’t travel with the Pacers for tonight’s game against Milwaukee, and Joel Embiid has been out since the All-Star break with left knee soreness, though he returned to practice on Monday.
If Sabonis remains sidelined, the Pacers will be down by a big body in the event that the Cameroonian big man is on hand to try to force them into foul trouble (as he so often does), and they’ll be less equipped to navigate against Philadelphia’s switches and wrench-throwing cross-matches.
Downsizing out of necessity with Thaddeus Young at nominal five worked in small bursts against Dallas and Minnesota, but things could get dicey with Ben Simmons out there exploding off rub screens and faking dribble hand-offs surrounded by the size, athleticism, and shooting of Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris, JJ Redick, and Mike Scott — especially if the Pacers continue to struggle on the glass.
Philadelphia’s small-ball lineup however remains susceptible to giving up easy baskets against downhill attackers in the absence of their franchise center’s elite-level rim protection (see: Zach LaVine).
Meanwhile, the Celtics are starting to perform more like a team with the third-best net rating in the league. They’ve won three of four after losing six of eight, following up their impressive blowout victory over the Warriors with a gutsy nail-biter versus the Kings on the second night of a back-to-back. Notably, both of those potentially season-defining games were on the road, where they have the worst record among the top five teams in the East and could be opening the playoffs if the current standings remain unchanged.
If Boston’s roster versatility starts to consistently compete together with Gordon Hayward rounding into form, lookout below.
As for the bottom three teams, with Reggie Jackson and Andre Drummond rolling along side Blake Griffin, Detroit has climbed into sixth behind improved 3-point shooting (39.9 percent in February, up from a league-worst 33.1 percent over the months prior). If the Pacers win nine of their last 17 games as projected, the Pistons would have to go a perfect 19-0 the rest of the way just to tie them. As such, the Pacers aren’t likely to fall below fifth, but they could end up finding themselves in a tougher than expected first-round series with plenty of beef history should the current standings remain unchanged.
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 (29-13) have a 4-game lead over the Sixers (23-15) 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, only a half-game separates the Pacers (29-13) from the Celtics (28-13) in terms of conference winning-percentage.
With the Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics: Since none of the teams involved are leading their respective divisions, Boston (4-1) would have the edge based off winning percentage against Indiana (2-3) and Philadelphia (2-4) with four additional head-to-head meetings slated for March 10 (Pacers vs. Sixers), March 20 (Celtics vs. Sixers), March 29 (Pacers vs. Celtics), and April 3 (Celtics vs. Pacers).
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 (29-13) currently have a comfortable lead over the Nets in terms of conference winning-percentage (22-20).
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 (9-4) than the Pistons (6-5).
With the Charlotte Hornets: The Pacers (2-1) hold the head-to-head win-loss percentage tiebreaker.