After returning from some much-needed downtime following a bumpy close to the unofficial “first-half” of the season, the Pacers are gearing up for the final stretch of 2019-2020 with a clear objective in mind:
“The goal is to try to get up and get homecourt advantage,” said Nate McMillan.
With 27 games left to play, Indiana currently sits threes games behind the Miami Heat for the No. 4 seed in the East with a 6.5-game cushion over the No. 7 Brooklyn Nets, who are four games below .500 and will be without Kyrie Irving for the rest of the season.
Since the wheels would basically have to fall the rest of the way off for the Pacers to drop below sixth (i.e. if the Nets were to hold steady at their current win-pace, Indiana would only have to finish 6-21 to stay ahead of them in the standings), here’s what being a top-four seed would mean: 1) Opening the playoffs at home against, in all likelihood, the Heat or Sixers, both of whom have losing records on the road, and 2) Being on the same side of the bracket as the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks.
In view of this, let’s take a closer look at what it would take for the Pacers to shimmy up the standings.
How things currently stand...
If the season ended today...
(1) Milwaukee Bucks (47-8) vs. (8) Orlando Magic (24-31)
(4) Miami Heat (35-20) vs. (5) Philadelphia 76ers (35-21)
(2) Toronto Raptors (40-15) vs. (7) Brooklyn Nets (25-29)
(3) Boston Celtics (38-16) vs. (6) Indiana Pacers (32-23)
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 but projects them to go 15-12 over their final 27 games, a record which would result in them staying put at sixth.
According to Tankathon, two of the top-six easiest remaining schedules in the NBA belong to Philadelphia and Miami, so the fact that the Pacers will be playing 16 of their last 27 games against teams with losing records doesn’t exactly give them a leg up on their competition — especially since they’ll be playing more games on the road (15) than at home (12).
Atlanta handed Miami an upset loss fresh out of the All-Star break amid some continued defensive issues, but the Heat still have 16 games left at American Airlines Arena, where they’re 22-3, and 10 of their next 12 games are against teams that are below .500. More importantly, Miami will enter the next meeting against the Pacers (you know, the one Jimmy Butler circled on his calendar) with a 2-0 season-series lead, which means the Heat can’t lose out on the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The Pacers can of course still even up the series and make up ground in the standings with wins over the Heat on March 20 and April 7, but the fact that they play in the Central Division with the East-leading Milwaukee Bucks will work against them in the event of tie. Should that happen, the Heat will own the tiebreaker by virtue of being a division winner, seeing as how they’re currently in cruise control to clinch the Southeast Division with a sizable lead over the Orlando Magic.
Consequently, if the Pacers are going to climb ahead of the Heat, they’re going to have to actually climb ahead of the Heat — not tie them. Miami has 27 games left. If they play out those 27 games at their current pace, they’ll finish at 52-30. If they finish at 52-30, the Pacers will have to go 21-6 to pass them, with games still remaining against the Raptors, Bucks, Celtics (twice), Sixers, Rockets, Lakers, and Clippers.
Philadelphia, meanwhile, trails Indiana 2-1 in the regular season-series, and they were without Ben Simmons (back soreness) for last night’s overtime win over the Nets, but there arguably isn’t going to be much of an incentive to press for seeding unless the end result is leapfrogging from No. 6 to No. 4. Otherwise, opening the playoffs on the road in the same bracket as Milwaukee doesn’t seem all that appealing in comparison to settling in at sixth and perhaps prioritizing late-season rest while ironing out their rotation.
Granted, a potential rematch with Boston’s bevy of blossoming wing threats (and Kemba Walker’s rabbit-like speed) isn’t necessarily ideal for the Turner-Sabonis pairing (i.e. they only logged 13 minutes of action together versus the Celtics in December), but it seems notable that Philadelphia (26-2) and Miami (22-3) have both been downright dominant at home.
After losing six of their last seven games, the Pacers need to enter the playoffs playing their best basketball and at full-strength. If, at long odds, the fourth-seed would happen to come into being as a natural byproduct of those goals, then so be it. But their attention, first and foremost, needs to be on getting themselves right rather than righting the standings.
In the event of a tie...
With Philadelphia 76ers: The Pacers currently have a 2-1 series lead, with one game remaining on March 14. Being in different divisions, and neither currently in position as a division winner, the next tiebreaker would be in-conference record. Philly currently holds a slight edge there with three more wins against the East.
With the Miami Heat: Miami can’t lose out on the head-to-head tiebreaker with a 2-0 series lead and would own the second tiebreaker as the probable Southeast Division winner.
With the Toronto Raptors: Toronto can’t lose out on the head-to-head tiebreaker with a 2-1 series lead and is currently in position to win the Atlantic Division.
With the Boston Celtics: Indiana leads the season series 1-0, with two games left to play on March 10 and April 8.