Opportunity Knocking

 

What I’m about to point out may have seemed fairly obvious to some of you for a few weeks now, but it has only become more apparent in the past couple of days. The Indiana Pacers have a great opportunity to hold on to the three seed in the East standings and potentially play a reeling and discombobulated Orlando Magic team.

The Pacers have a three-game lead over the Celtics with only six games left to play and only three of those games against +.500 teams. Unless my weak math skills have betrayed me that means that if the Pacers can manage to win four of their remaining games then they will lock up the third seed.

But why is the third seed all of a sudden so very important? Because many signs are pointing towards Orlando remaining in the sixth seed. And this Orlando team is currently going in the exact opposite direction as the Pacers. The Pacers have won eight of their last ten, while the Magic have lost seven of their last ten.

But it’s more than that. The Pacers have seemingly grown closer as a team all season. They have remained an unselfish team and by all accounts seem to be learning from the natural mistakes that are a part of becoming a winning team. The Magic on the other hand, have been dragged through a season by an indecisive superstar who demanded to be traded only to do a complete 360. This was followed up only a couple weeks later with their head coach, Stan Van Gundy, telling the press that Dwight Howard wanted him fired only to have Dwight Howard enter the room moments later. Oh and by the way, Stan Van Gundy will be their coach for the playoffs. I started to feel awkward just writing those last two sentences and I’m not a player in the locker room trying to play through all of this. And we wonder why Jameer Nelson is having a bad season?

But perhaps the scariest news for Magic fans came recently when it was announced that Dwight Howard will take the next two weeks off with a herniated disc in his lower back. Sure, it’s good news that the disc is supposedly “not fully-herniated,” but it’s never good news when, “surgery remains a possibility” according to ESPN.

All of this adds up to Orlando most likely remaining as the sixth seed and being the ideal matchup for Indiana. They are currently only one game behind Atlanta, but without Dwight Howard they will be less likely to catch them and their three game lead over Philadelphia and New York may be just enough to hold them off.

Indiana has gotten better and better as a team all season. They also have become more of what I often refer to as “professionals.” They are not flawless, but they have recently taken care of what they need to take care of because they all show up for work prepared and ready. Due to all the distractions, the Magic are not in that same state of mind and you can’t win in the playoffs distracted. And if Howard is not fully healthy then the Pacers will simply be a significantly more talented team. Of course, a less than 100% Dwight Howard will still give any team trouble, but the Pacers have an All-Star center of their own and Howard will have a lot to handle with a bad back.

I am also in the small group of people who refuses to disrespect the Atlanta Hawks. Especially in a first round series. The running joke for the Hawks during the Joe Johnson era is that they will perennially lose in the second round. Well, they have to beat someone in the first round to get there. Joe Johnson’s contract prevents them from improving their roster, but it doesn’t mean Joe Johnson can’t ball. The Pacers wouldn’t have to guard his contract they would have to guard him. What happens when Josh Smith shuts down Danny Granger, Joe Johnson catches fire, their athletic team smothers Hibbert and Jeff Teague plays at a higher level than Darren Collison? Will all those things happen? Probably not. But could any one of them happen in any game of a series against the Hawks? Absolutely. Plus, they have the ghost of Tracy McGrady, which for some reason terrifies me.

The Pacers haven’t been to the second round of the playoffs since 2005. Before any other ambitions come into play, that should be the only goal. I don’t think I’m alone in believing that the Pacers would have a great opportunity of beating the Orlando Magic in the first round. Not to say that it would be easy, but I don’t think there is Pacer on the roster that expects it to be.

I look at the next two weeks as taking hold of an opportunity. Losing four of the next six games and being jumped by the Celtics seems unlikely, but crazier things have happened. The Miami Heat have been described as having an “off/on-switch” for the playoffs. Maybe that’s true for them. I’m not sure if the Pacers have that same switch. And with the best possible first round matchup on the line, I’m not sure they can afford to find out.

Topics: 2012 Playoffs

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  • Todd Greeson

    Great article Jonathon. I agree with your sentiments regarding potential first round match-ups. With the news that Glen Davis is scheduled for an MRI today, and if in fact Howard is still trying to get back to game speed, that provides us with a huge advantage down low with the tandem of Roy and Lou (whom I have grown to love this second half when Roy has struggled). Also, the Hawks sheer athleticism has always scared me, and you can go back to Mike Woodson’s early days as coach of the Hawks, and the Hawks have ALWAYS scared me, no matter their record. The talent on that team, starting five especially, to me, can rival any team in the league at times, especially if Josh Smith is hitting shots. The Magic, with all of their turmoil on and off the court, is definitely the preferred match-up in this household…dogs included. Thanks again Jonathon!!!

  • Realist

    Hollinger mentioned that hawks might tank to try and draw us, magic too, to avoid boston. I’d prefer Orlando as I’ve said, even with the teams at full strength. I’m still terrified of a first round loss though. Even with home court, we won’t start any more than very slight favourites over either atl or orl. Bring it on though.

  • Ian

    I’m more worried Orlando will end up losing the 6 spot than anything else.

    I think the Pacers beat the Hawks in a full series but I’d much rather face the hurting Magic. Frankly, it’d be pretty stupid of Howard’s agent to let him play in the playoffs unless he was %100 healthy and I’m not sure how that would be possible.

  • Mike

    No one is worried about us playing the Magic when they’ve owned us this year? I don’t care if D12 is hurt. We are 1-3 against them with a couple losses being absolute blowouts. Not saying we can’t compete and win a series, but Orlando is not a team I would WANT us to play. Especially over Atlanta. Don’t forget Horford is out. So saying their starting 5 can rival anyone in the league is a stretch at best.

  • Ben

    “The Magic on the other hand, have been dragged through a season by an indecisive superstar who demanded to be traded only to do a complete 360.”

    Johnathan, wouldn’t a 360 degree turn leave Howard exactly where he was when he demanded a trade?

  • Joe B

    Excellent post, and reading the byline I have to say I mis St. Louis–I nabbed a MFA from UMSL and teach English in Indiana now. To make a quick comment, though, if the Pacers get the Magic, they are almost a lock to win that first round matchup, barring some Ryan Anderson three-point fever. My favorite development to see over the season: Paul George. He can go 0 for some nights and make some bone-head plays, but who can’t. At least he has the excuse of youth, and his increase in production makes up for any lapse here or there. I’ll take the defense of Granger and George as the two biggest plusses for the Pacers entering the playoffs.

  • poot

    Magic are a scary team because of their nature as a streaky 3 point heavy team.
    If they get hot and hit 12 3′s in one game… nearly unbeatable.

    This season when the Magic have hit 12+ 3pts… 17-1.
    17-1. That’s .944 winning percentage

    The fact that they always put themselves into position to do this (min 3PA this season = 16) shows why this happens in 30% of their games. 30%! This is TWO games in a 7 game series.

    Assuming the worst – these two happen in Indiana – the question becomes:
    “Can the Pacers win 4 of 5 against the Magic? 3 are in Orlando, but chances of Magic catching fire in any of these games is slim.”

    I agree… it’s a scary proposition on paper. But as the article described well, we should not really be afraid of Orlando the 70% of the time their 3 point shots aren’t falling (18-24 when making 11 or fewer 3′s)

  • Mike

    Joe B – A lock? Really? Are you assuming D12 is not playing? And giving up the three ball (to Anderson, Turk, Redick, etc) is exactly why Orl has beaten us. In the three losses we gave up 13, 9 and 10 from downtown. Did you watch any of these games? We were pummeled inside and out in each. They even made 10 threes in the loss to us. And I think what kept them out of that game is the fact they missed 16 of their 29 Fts. Don’t count on that happening every night.

    I’m not saying we can’t beat them in a series, but Orlando is a beast. And we are 1-3 vs. that beast. D12 may be hurt but come playoff-time, anything is possible.

  • little B

    Magic’s games left: vs PHI, @BOS, @UTH, @DEN, vs CHA, @ MEM. I only see 1 win in there for this team with how they have been playing and also since they are w/o Dwight and possibly baby shaq.

    NYK games left: vs BOS, @ NJN, @ CLE, @ATL, vs LAC, @ CHA. The way New York (well Melo) has been playing they could win all of these, but definately win 3.

    PHI games left:@ ORL, vs IND, @ CLE, @IND, @ NJN, @ MIL, @ DET. PHI hasn’t been what they were at the begining of the schedule but I see them spliting with IND and potentially wining the rest, but thats alot of road games.

    All in all I don’t see ORL getting the 6th seed. My guess is that the Pacers and Knicks will be at it again in the playoffs, just in the first round. Maybe I am thinking that because I rewatched Reggie Miller vs the New York Knicks this weekend. Where is Reggie Miller when we need him? That’s OK. We have DG now. Not as good as a shooter as Reggie was, but DG will D up Melo and hold him to under 40 points. Knicks can’t win a best of 7 series if they only rely on Melo. Not sure with Amare or Lin get back though. Maybe the Pacers will get the attention they deserve come this series. That would be classic.

  • Chris D.

    Part of earning the respect of being a 3-seed is being able to beat any 6-seed, Outside of Dwight and Hibbert wants big bucks to resign next year. This will be his chance to show he’s worth it either way.

  • Chris D.

    Oops. I meant to say that outside of Dwight or Joe Johnson, we should match up well against the rest of both teams.

  • Matt S

    I’m much more concerned about playing the Magic than Atlanta. The way the Magic runs their offense (I believe Cleveland runs the same scheme – I think Vogel called it the Spread Power Forward Offense?) has been a huge problem for the Pacers.

    Good team or bad, that type of offense has been a major headache for this Pacers squad. Cleveland, a below average team, runs it, and they’ve given the Pacers stiff resistance in all but one game. On the bright side, the Pacers blew out Cleveland in their last matchup together, so that may mean they’ve figured out how to defend that particular offensive scheme.

    Atlanta’s starters may be on par with Indiana’s, but the Pacers have a much better bench than the Hawks. In a 7-game series, I’d take the Pacers over the Hawks every time – Ghost of T-Mac or no.

  • Zach Winningham

    Man. I totally disagree that the Magic are a preferable matchup. Dwight will be back for the playoffs, with both he and SVG with something to prove. Why would we want to play the ONE TEAM in the entire conference that has a huge advantage at the center position?? Roy is a favorite or on par with every other center in the east. Plus, can you guys honestly not picture Reddick (best looking player in the league) and Turkaglu (worst looking player in the league) lighting it up from three. Anderson murders us from deep. Semi-healthy Dwight is still better than Hibbert (slowest player in the league). That team has a ton of playoff experience and would expect to win. And I honestly think they will. They’ll split in Indiana after we inevitably go down 32-11 in the first quarter one game. They’ll take both in Orlando and that’s all she wrote folks. I’d rather play Atlanta any day, which I just think we match up better with. ATL has a few scary scenarios, like Joe Johnson literally closing his eyes and making everything he throws up. But seriously…Anderson, Reddick, Hedo, Dwight, SVG?!

  • Zach Winningham

    Did I mention how hot Reddick is?

  • Matt S

    Hey Zach, is JJ Reddick hot? I’m still unclear on that.

  • Mike

    Magic were also most people’s preseason pick as #3 come playoff time. Obviously they’ve underachieved, but not by much (3 games back from #3). I agree that if we earn a three seed, we should be able to beat a six but these East teams are tough this year. And look at last year. We matched up well with the Bulls and were a few defensive stops away from taking that series.

    ATL has owned us the past few years as Mike Wells pointed out on Twitter, but I’m leaning more towards a series with them than Orl and their inside-out game.

  • Mike

    Oh. And what do we think about Philly in a series? With Dwight out, it won’t take much for Orl to crap themselves and Phi to move up. Good thing we’ll get a run with them here this next week.

  • dwain

    while i think it is quite possible that the Pacers can beat Orlando, i don’t think they can hang their hats on who they end up facing. i think they better come together as a team, have someone call them all out(West?) and beat the crap outa whomever they face, then suck up the fact that they are dead dog tired(the other team is too) and call themselves out to battle the next team. truth is they can beat anyone in the playoffs, they have already proven that, they just have to prove to themselves that they can come hot to every game, and if the jumpers aren’t falling right dive to the rim….everytime. look until someone on this team starts forcing the defense out of place by driving to the rim and dishing to the suddenly open interior player…they aren’t going to beat anyone, and until they come to see that man in the mirror and kick his azz into gear for every second of every playoff game…they aren’t going to beat anyone either. if the playoffs against no one they haven’t beaten can’t get these guys motivated us fans may as well hang it up till next year
    that said….
    GO PACERS!!!!!

  • IY

    Even if the Magic are banged up, their experience and a healthy Dwight Howard might push them over the edge against Indy in the first round. I know the Pacers are a tough bunch and they put up a helluva fight last year against the Bulls, but I’ve seen this team go down to Orlando 3 times this season. Indy is not a lock just because they’re a 3 seed.

  • poot

    Magic are a scary team because of their nature as a streaky 3 point heavy team.
    If they get hot and hit 12 3′s in one game… nearly unbeatable.

    This season when the Magic have hit 12+ 3pts… 17-1.
    17-1. That’s .944 winning percentage

    The fact that they always put themselves into position to do this (min 3PA this season = 16) shows why this happens in 30% of their games. 30%! This is TWO games in a 7 game series.

    Assuming the worst – these two happen in Indiana – the question becomes:
    “Can the Pacers win 4 of 5 against the Magic? 3 are in Orlando, but chances of Magic catching fire in any of these games is slim.”

    I agree… it’s a scary proposition on paper. But as the article described well, we should not really be afraid of Orlando the 70% of the time their 3 point shots aren’t falling (18-24 when making 11 or fewer 3′s)

  • NoLookPass

    Here is some free advice to Frank, If its a blowout take Hansbrough out since refs tend to swallow their whistles and start calling everything for the losing team. Under those conditions he has absolutely no shot at being effective since his aggressiveness with be called fouls against him and he will not get any calls going his way whatsoever.

    He played 23:20 and took 10 shots but somehow got to the line zero times drawing just one foul total despite being one of the most fouled players PER36 in the NBA. Overall in his career when playing 12 or MIN and not getting any FT he’s shooting 31% from the field on 116 shots and that only gets up to 33.7% when its 1 FT attempts or less over the same time on 163 FG attempts.

    The starters played 122.06 with the bench in for 119.54 and in just under half the game the bench was allowed to shoot just 6 total FT and as result they shot terrible after Barbosa’s hot 3-for-5 start up until the dogs got called off officially.

  • JRC

    “…Dwight Howard does… a complete 360…” It took me a minute to digest that, but you are spot on. :D The only worrisome part would be how the Pacers have been hot and cold against the Magic this season. If Howard is out for the playoffs, however, I can’t see Orlando knocking the Pacers out.

  • Joe B

    @Mike

    I am assuming Howard won’t be playing, or he at least will not be 100%. I saw the Pacers losses to the Magic as a result of bad 3 point close-outs due to a focus on Howard. Having to hit 10 threes to beat a team each time is not something I see the Magic sustaining in a series.

  • Matt S

    It should be remembered that the first Magic/Pacers game, Dwight was in foul trouble the entire way, and didn’t play much. That Howard-less Magic team still handed the Pacers their first home loss of the season.