After a win in Dallas on Thursday, the Pacers were back in second place in the Eastern Conference by half a game. Then New York beat Charlotte last night and re-took the lead.
This could be a familiar back-and-forth for the rest of the season.
If both teams — not to mention a Nets team that is 4-2 so far on an eight-game road trip — continue to play well, this position jockeying isn’t likely to end soon. It will probably go down to the final few games of the season. And since the Pacers face both the Knicks and the Nets again before the postseason, those matchups may have an out-sized saying on the final seeding.
Really, this is more like musical chairs than it is horse racing.
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The True Goal: Avoiding the #4 Seed
There are two prizes (the number two and three seeds) with three teams. When the music stops, one squad is going to be standing — with its ass out in the wind. The four lower-level East playoff teams (Chicago, Atlanta, Boston and Milwaukee) are all beatable in the first round.
While the Celtics have the pedigree to upset one of the top four seeds, no lower seeds are likely to advance to the second round. Chicago and Atlanta are more than capable of taking advantage of some opportune circumstances (an injury, a stretch of poor execution, a shooting slump), but I, for one, will be surprised if any of Miami, Indiana, New York or Brooklyn fails to win a series.
(For the record, I realize it’s possible that either Chicago or Atlanta moves up a few games to take the four seed — or possibly even better. I just don’t see it happening, so I am not spending much time entertaining that scenario.)
Thus, if they want to advance as far a possible, Indiana, New York and Brooklyn’s main goal should be ensuring they don’t land in fourth place, which would include a second-round date with Miami. Now, sure, you could argue that “if you want to get to the Finals, you have to beat the Heat at some point, so why not get it out of the way?” OK. That’s fine. But whether they admit it or not, a good goal for each of the second-tier East teams is the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Pacers, for example, have gone further in the playoffs each of the past two seasons. They lost a competitive, five-game first-round series in 2011 to Derrick Rose and the Bulls. They followed that up in 2012 by losing to the Heat in a competitive, second-round six-game series — which included a 2-1 Pacers lead after three games. About a decade ago, this was a franchise that regularly played in the Eastern Conference Finals (going to six in an 11-year span). While a ring is still a pipe dream, returning to an expectation of consistent high-level play would be an excellent end to this season.
(Not to mention the financial windfall the small-market Pacers would get from hosting a few more home playoff games and convincing a few more locals to buy season tickets next season.)
The Knicks, meanwhile, have won one playoff game since 2001 — when Jeff Van Gundy was still coaching the team. After that stretch of futility, being one of the last four NBA teams standing would be a big step forward. As for the Nets, this is their first season in Brooklyn. Even getting swept by Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals would be a better ending than not making it there. They were a laughingstock last season. That is all they need to make the league take them seriously.
These Gotham teams will benefit greatly, both financially and in terms of media attention, by keeping their season going as long as possible (and advancing further than their crosstown rival).
All this introductory rationale aside, and presuming the benefits of avoiding the four seed are self evident …
Who should the Pacers want to face in the first round?
The Bucks appear to be out. Two-and-a-half games back right now, they could conceivably catch the Celtics for the seventh spot. But before a recent win over the hilarious Lakers, they had lost four straight. They seem unlikely to out-play Boston down the stretch. Not when they play Oklahoma City (twice), Miami, New York, Denver and Atlanta in six of their final 11 games.
That leaves Chicago, Atlanta and Boston.
Facing the Chicago Bulls
The Matchups This Year: Pacers 3, Bulls 1
Pacers 80, Bulls 76 (12/4) | Box Score | 8p9s Recap
Pacers 111, Bulls 101 (2/4) | Box Score | 8p9s Recap
Pacers 97, Bulls 92 (3/3) | Box Score | 8p9s Recap
Bulls 87, Pacers 84 (3/23) | Box Score | 8p9s Recap
The Pacers went 3-1 against Bulls during the regular season, and Joakim Noah has been suffering late-season injury issues while Rip Hamilton looks to be a potential non-factor in the first round. Derrick Rose, of course, is also perhaps not going to play at all this year. If he does suit up, that quickly changes the equation. Otherwise, Indiana has a huge advantage in the back court. George Hill and Lance Stephenson should handle any other Chicago perimeter players on both sides of the ball. On the interior, David West had a field day against this team in the regular season.
With the seventh-best defense in the NBA and a bad offense, the Bulls rely on stopping their opponents just as much as the Pacers do, so any playoff games between the two are likely to be low-scoring, grind-it-out affairs. That could be trouble for Indiana if it has trouble executing on offense for any extended stretches late in games (a virtual certainty). Luol Deng is the individual matchup among these three teams most likely to make Paul George’s life difficult on both ends of the floor. Joakim Noah can disrupt Indiana’s paint-focused offense. Bulls fans could infect The Fieldhouse and negate Indiana’s home-court advantage.
Indiana handles a Rose-less Bulls team without much difficulty: Indiana 4, Chicago 2
Facing the Atlanta Hawks
The Matchups This Year: Pacers 2, Hawks 2
Hawks 89, Pacers 86 (11/7) | Box Score | 8p9s Recap
Hawks 109, Pacers 100 (12/29) | Box Score | 8p9s Recap
Pacers 114, Hawks 103 (2/5) | Box Score | 8p9s Recap
Pacers 100, Hawks 94 (3/25) | Box Score | 8p9s Recap
The Pacers have taken the past two meetings against the Hawks, and they have scored at least 100 points against them in all but the first matchup. Considering that Indiana only puts up 94.7 points per game on the season, it shows just how well the offense has been able to perform against Atlanta. Lou Williams is done for the year. Devin Harris is missing games. Zaza is hurt. (UPDATE: Zaza’s done for the year, too.) The whole team seems banged up. Anthony Tolliver is a train wreck. DeShawn Stevenson is DeShawn Stevenson. The Hawks are just 18-19 on the road this season as well as 15-17 against the West. Playing in Atlanta can feel like playing on a neutral court.
If they play at their best, even the Pacers’ defense will struggle to stop Al Horford and Josh Smith. Horford could be the best player in the series, as he is averaging 20.7 points and 11.4 boards per game since the All-Star break. In the teams’ last meeting, Jeff Teague was able to get into the paint too easily. Kyle Korver destroyed this franchise in the playoffs two years ago while playing for the Bulls, and the Hawks are the fifth-most-accurate team overall (and second best in the East) from behind the arc (a 37.9%). That could spell problems for an Indiana team that isn’t used to seeing the opposition light up the scoreboard with three-pointers.
Indiana struggles in at least three games but comes through: Pacers 4, Hawks 2
Facing the Boston Celtics
The Matchups This Year: Celtics 2, Pacers 0
The Pacers (with the NBA’s second-best defensive rebounding rate at 74.9%) should dominate the glass against the worst offensive-rebounding team in the league. (Boston is at 20.0% offensive rebounding rate). Kevin Garnett isn’t healthy. As good a defender as Avery Bradley is, the Pacers perimeter players will be a tough cover for any combination of Bradley, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Terrance Williams. Roy Hibbert has a huge size advantage against an undersized Boston roster. The Celtics are a below-average three-point-shooting team.
Boston handed Indiana arguably its worse loss of the season (on 1/4), a disappointing result that was compounded by the fact that I rushed home from a happy hour on a Friday night to watch it. (That may not be relevant. Still … jerks.) The Celtics also completely out-classed the Pacers in fourth quarter (23-13) to come back and steal their second meeting. Regular season results aren’t the end-all, be-all, but if Indy goes 0-3 to this team, it can’t bode well psychologically. You can believe that Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett would think they have the two best players in this series. Even if that isn’t true anymore (though it could be), what matters is their muscle-memory-ingrained confidence — something no Pacers’ players outside of David West definitely have. This Boston team is really, really not going to want to fade into the night in the first round, especially with the no-Rajon-Rondo factor. In short, Boston is a super playoff-tested team and has a really good crowd. That’s dangerous.
Pacers survive by winning game seven on their home court: Pacers 4, Celtics 3.
Who Should the Pacers Want to Face?
For various reasons — experience and Hall-of-Fame talent reigning supreme — the Pacers should not want to face the Celtics. As mentioned above, it is hard to picture Boston losing in the first round, even though I sort of expect it. (If that makes any sense.)
The Hawks, lacking a tough home-court advantage, seem like a optimal foe. They are also very banged up, so players who no coach would want in a playoff rotation may be forced to contribute if the regulars don’t get healthier quickly. But the combination of Horford and Smith inside — on top of Teague’s potential for a big series and Korver, the X-factor — could prove troublesome for an Indiana team that dominates due to length and interior strength.
For these reasons, I’d say the Bulls, without a productive Rose, are the best matchup.
George Hill and David West weren’t with the team when it lost to the Bulls in the first round two years ago, but I feel like those who were (Paul George, Roy Hibbert, Tyler Hansbrough and even Danny Granger cheering from the bench) will want to avenge a lop-sided outcome in what was actually a rather close series. Without Rose, Chicago also lacks a single player who can take over a game — or really even a quarter — in a way that can solve Indiana’s rugged defensive attack. Indiana should be able to impose its will on Chicago to keep its scoring in check, and the players on the Pacers roster have evolved to the point that they will likely be able to execute well down the stretch. That was the biggest difference between the two teams in 2011.
Ultimately, the Pacers should want to finish second in the conference and avoid the four seed at all costs.
But as far as a best-case, non-Milwaukee scenario, they should hope to see the Bulls.
(Unless Rose shows up and starts scorching the Earth again in April. Then it’s Atlanta. No question.)
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