After coming together in an overtime victory in San Antonio, Indiana returns to Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday with the second-easiest remaining strength of schedule in the Eastern Conference (.472), per Tankathon. Of course, it’s probably worth pondering what exactly the word “easy” means during a compacted schedule, as well as for this particular Pacers team, which is an abysmal 8-14 at home and somehow worse with two or more days of rest (2-7) than on back-to-backs (6-4).
To that point, just this past week, Indiana dropped a game to the Wizards, sans Bradley Beal, despite having two days off, before later securing a short-handed, road-win over the Spurs on the second night of a back-to-back. Granted, some of that can be explained by differences in scheme and opponent (i.e. going overboard with overs against Russell Westbrook and appearing lethargic in transition vs. laying waste to San Antonio’s bench units with Rudy Gay at nominal five and attacking Jakob Poertl in a drop rather than getting stymied on the perimeter by switches with only one isolation scorer available, as was the case against Charlotte), but it also leaves to question whether it will be an advantage for the Pacers to have 14 games remaining against teams that are currently below .500 or all that harmful for them to have seven back-to-backs left on the schedule.
To answer the former portion of that musing, we turn our attention to tomorrow night, when the Pacers, on extra rest (albeit possibly hampered), face the recently remade Chicago Bulls — a team with a losing record. With a win, Indiana will secure the head-to-head tiebreaker and potentially climb within two games of the sixth-seed for a guaranteed playoff spot.
One number to keep an eye on: Last week, the Pacers surrendered the highest average of paint-points in the league, giving up 74 to Washington, 42 against Miami, 56 versus Charlotte, and 62 while in San Antonio. Chicago, meanwhile, ranks first in paint scoring, with 57 points per game, since acquiring Nikola Vucevic, despite posting just a 1-5 record.
Assuming the Pacers can shore up some of the issues that have contributed to that recent problem, including miscues in transition and long-standing troubles on the glass, they’ll have a chance to build momentum with “easy” games versus Minnesota (April 7) and Orlando (April 9) up next on deck.
How things currently stand...
If the season ended today...
(2) Brooklyn Nets (34-16) vs. (7) Winner of Knicks/Celtics
Some odds and ends...
As of this morning, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index gives the Pacers a 65 percent chance of making the playoffs but projects them to go 13-11 over their final 24 games, a record which would result in them (supposedly) playing a play-in game as the No. 8 seed against the surging Atlanta Hawks.
First of all, that doesn’t sound fun. Seriously, picture this: The Pacers playing box-and-one against Trae Young as the Hawks fire away from three in what becomes a one-game referendum of Old Nate’s past rigidity with regard to prioritizing open shots versus New Nate’s bold tactics only for the prize to be a first-round match-up with the Nets. Worse still, if the Pacers drop that game, they would then play the winner of the the 9-10 match-up, which might just mean a date with attempting to outmaneuver Nick Nurse with Nick Nurse’s system for the chance to play against the Sixers with Dan Burke on the opposite sideline.
Fortunately, all of that seems a little far-fetched, at least with regard to the potential play-in match-ups. The Hawks are 12-4 since McMillan took over, and although their defense struggled to hold up in losses to the Clippers, Suns, Kings, and Nuggets, they only play five more game against current top-10 offenses the rest of the way. Plus, even with De’Andre Hunter in and out of the lineup, one of McMillan’s greatest attributes is his ability to coach the heck out of effort and steady a team through adversity.
Still, even if the Pacers dodge that narrative bullet, the play-in tournament as a whole doesn’t seem all that appealing. After all, Indiana is 0-4 against Brooklyn and Philadelphia, and have yet to even face the Nets with Kevin Durant. To be fair, from going over against Ben Simmons to rotating poorly out of double-teams, there’s probably an argument to be made that the Pacers handicapped themselves a bit in both losses to the Sixers, but the only time they’ve beat Philadelphia with Joel Embiid available in the last two seasons was when T.J. Warren, who is out for the season, scored 53 points inside the bubble.
All of which is to say that, if the goal is to be competitive in the first-round, then Indiana is going to need to start stringing together the wins they should win while also getting some help from the Hornets, who are expected to be without Gordon Hayward for the next four weeks, as well as New York’s bearish schedule while attempting to gain ground on a Miami team playing stifling defense and Boston with the addition of Evan Fournier’s shooting.
Again, as recent losses to the short-handed Wizards and Hornets go to show, just because the schedule appears “easy” doesn’t mean the Pacers have any room to take it easy.
In the event of a tie...
With the Miami Heat: The Pacers have secured the head-to-head tiebreaker, 2-1.
With the Charlotte Hornets: The Hornets have secured the head-to-head tiebreaker, 2-1.
With the Chicago Bulls: The season series is currently tied 1-1 with one game remaining on Tuesday, April 6.
With the Boston Celtics: The Celtics have secured the head-to-head tiebreaker, 2-1.
With the New York Knicks: The Knicks have secured the head-to-head tiebreaker, 2-1.
With the Toronto Raptors: The season series is currently tied 1-1 with one game remaining on Sunday, May 16.
With the Atlanta Hawks: The Pacers lead the season series 1-0, with two games left to play on Sunday, April 18 and Thursday, May 6 — the latter of which is a back-to-back for both teams.