Sitting in the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference, the Indiana Pacers are in an interesting situation. At 38-33 and with 11 games left on the schedule, there is a wide range of outcomes left on the table for the Pacers. Conceivably, they could fall out of the playoff picture, getting leapfrogged by the Chicago Bulls (two games back of Indiana) and the Detroit Pistons (half a game back of Indiana). But that’s the worst-case scenario for Indiana. They want to catch the pack ahead of them, including the Charlotte Hornets and Miami HEAT (three games up on Indiana) with the Atlanta Hawks and Boston Celtics a half-game ahead of those squads.
The Pacers are aware of where they stand.
“We have aspirations of pushing ahead of the seventh spot, where we’re at, but have to understand what’s in the rear-view mirror too,” head coach Frank Vogel said. “Right behind us is Detroit with an easy schedule, Chicago getting healthy… We’ve got to take care of our business.”
And they do need to take care of business. They have a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way. They only have one game left against the Western Conference (Rockets) and only three games against teams currently in the playoffs (Rockets, Raptors, Cavaliers) with seven games against sub-par East teams (Nets and Knicks twice along with the Bulls, Magic and Bucks). They should be able to capitalize against these worse clubs as they haven’t dropped a game to a lesser opponent since the Sacramento Kings back on January 23rd.
It’s still going to be a battle for the Pacers. They need to continue to win to keep Chicago and Detroit at bay and need to move up in the standings if they are going to have a chance at making the second round. Barring some crazy occurrence, the Cavaliers and Raptors are the one and two seeds in the Eastern Conference in some order (Cleveland currently leads Toronto by two games). Indiana doesn’t really stand a chance in a series against either team as the Pacers are 1-2 against the Raptors and 0-3 against the Cavaliers with one more game against each team this season. By the time the playoffs arrive, Indiana will probably only have one regular season win against either Cleveland or Toronto and would need to avoid them both if they want to advance.
Fortunately, as a whole, the Pacers are jelling and getting healthy at the perfect time.
C.J. Miles had missed a bunch of games recently but had 19 points off the bench Thursday against New Orleans. After being waived by Houston, Ty Lawson joined the Pacers but was only on the court for five minutes before injuring himself and missing five games. Now that he’s healthy, he just needs to get his rhythm back, then he’ll be a boost to the offensive flow for the second unit. Back on March 16th, Paul George also noted, “Even Rodney [Stuckey] is just coming back. He’s played a couple games, but rhythm-wise he’s still trying to find it.”
But the team is starting to get healthy at the right time.
“We’ve yet to really jell, I feel like, due to injuries,” George said in the same interview. “If we can stay healthy, I think, this last stretch of games, it’s perfect timing for us – if we can stay healthy and continue to improve going into the postseason.”
When asked about the potential of this team as they gain chemistry and momentum as the season ends, George said, “We’ve yet to find out. We can be pretty good. We’ve shown signs with guys in and out of jersey, we can beat some of the best teams in this league and we can compete with some of the best teams in this league. That’s the positive that we have to look forward to. We’ve yet to be full strength, that’s a lot of optimism to look forward to.”
Though they’ve lost to some playoff teams, they’ve also beaten others including the Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, Oklahoma City Thunder and the Atlanta Hawks in the last two months along with other wins over lesser squads.
As Lawson gets assimilated into the offense, Indiana will benefit from his expertise in the open court and helping keep the second unit offense going. Once Stuckey gets his rhythm, he can help the offense as well. Miles is already showing what he can do as he gets his stroke back. This season, he is hitting 34.7 percent from deep. Of course the bigs like Ian Mahinmi, Jordan Hill and rookie Myles Turner help with their rebounding and rolling to the basket, with Mahinmi and Turner also adding rim protection. Against New Orleans, Turner had 24 points and a career-high 16 rebounds on his 20th birthday.
The captain of this ship is Paul George, who returned to be an All-Star starter for the East in February after missing nearly all of last season after breaking his leg during a Team USA scrimmage in the summer of 2014. George is an underrated superstar. Before the injury, he was one of only a handful of MVP candidates and now is 10th in the league in scoring at 23.5 points per game. He also has the 14th-highest plus/minus in the league. During their victory Thursday over the Anthony Davis-less New Orleans Pelicans, George left after getting kneed in the thigh, and didn’t return, but Vogel said after the game he was “moving around [and] he’ll be okay.” George was playing well before the injury, scoring 15 points in 20 minutes and going 6-9 from the field.
With a pretty easy schedule and a team starting to get healthy and gain chemistry on the court, the Pacers may have the winning formula to not just stay in the seventh seed, but even potentially get home-court in the first round. But nothing is guaranteed. They could still fall out of it completely – but momentum is on their side.
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