A lot will be on the line tomorrow afternoon when Indiana takes to the Wells Fargo Center to face an angry Philadelphia team in a crucial battle for playoff seeding. Leading the fourth-place Sixers by only one-game with a 1-2 deficit in the regular season series, a loss for the Pacers will secure the head-to-head tiebreaker for Philadelphia and result in the two teams swapping places in the standings.
The Sixers have been vulnerable of late without Joel Embiid, but the Pacers are better poised to take advantage of those vulnerabilities with Domantas Sabonis in the lineup.
Since the All-Star break, Philadelphia has ranked 28th in paint points allowed and 15th in defensive rebounding rate while continuing to struggle with downhill pressure, bench production and bouts of low energy in the absence of their franchise center — weaknesses which Indiana’s hyper-productive, Sixth Man of the Year candidate is well-suited to exploit.
Without Sabonis over the last five games, the Pacers have been the worst team in the NBA in terms of paint scoring and their aggregate bench net rating has tumbled from first on the season (+3.2) to 20th (-3.1).
“It doesn’t feel as sore,” the 22-year-old back-up center said of his ankle when asked how close he is to feeling back to normal. “Just honestly you don’t feel as fast or explosive.”
The Lithuanian big man went through practice and is being listed as questionable after not traveling with the team to Milwaukee, and there is reportedly “some optimism” that Embiid could return to action as soon as tomorrow.
If Sabonis remains sidelined, the Pacers will be less equipped to navigate against Philadelphia’s switches and awkward cross-matches, and they’ll be down by a big body in the event that Embiid is on hand to try to force them into foul trouble (as he so often does).
That being said, a repeat of last night’s putrid 3-point shooting (3-of-27) and poor pass selection (18 turnovers) against the Rockets could create a mess for the Sixers in a match-up with the the league’s leader in points scored off turnovers, regardless of injury reports.
How things currently stand...
If the playoffs started today...
(3) Indiana Pacers (42-24) vs. (6) Detroit Pistons (33-31)
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 9-7 over their final 16 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 1-5 on the road.
Given what lies ahead for the Pacers, though, holding off the Sixers seems generous. Per Tankathon.com, Philly has the NBA’s fifth-easiest remaining schedule, whereas Indiana owns the eighth-toughest.
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 three back-to-backs left to play and they’re 3-7 on 0 days rest.
Then again, given some of their blatant miscommunications on defense and recent shooting struggles (i.e. J.J. Redick’s shooting 29 percent from distance since Embiid went down! Jimmy Butler has missed 19 of his last 23 threes!!) they may need to take advantage of every opportunity they can get for their remade roster to jell.
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.
If Boston’s roster versatility starts to consistently compete together with Gordon Hayward rounding into form, lookout below. In the event that their good vibes continue tonight against the undermanned Lakers with LeBron on a minutes restriction, they’ll only be 1.5 games back of the Pacers with two head-to-heads left to play.
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 (40.5 percent since February 1, up from a league-worst 33.1 percent over the months prior). If the Pacers win nine of their last 16 games as projected, the Pistons would have to go a perfect 18-0 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 (29-14) have a 4-game lead over the Sixers (23-16) 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, mere percentage points separate the Celtics (28-13) from the Pacers (29-14) in terms of conference record.
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 (29-14) currently have a comfortable lead over the Nets in terms of conference winning-percentage (23-20).
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 (7-5).
With the Charlotte Hornets: The Pacers (2-1) hold the head-to-head win-loss percentage tiebreaker.