This is the time of year where every NBA fan, player, coach, and writer is checking the standings every day. In both conferences, the playoff races are insanely tight. Seeds three through eight are separated by three games in the east and seeds three through ten are separated by 3.5 games in the west. You might have noticed the 3rd seed in the east right now belongs to the Indiana Pacers with a 40-28 record. The Pacers have been the surprise of the season; I put them down for 32 wins at the start of the season. Whoops!
Now the question is, are the Pacers just a fun story and a team that will be happy to make the playoffs, but lose immediately when they get there or are they something more? Is Indian more ready to win now than people think? Most experts have Indiana and Miami as the weakest playoff team in the east, despite the fact that the Pacers are currently third.
There is a lot to like about this Pacers team, and then their things that give you pause about their playoff readiness. Let’s start with the positives. The roster on this team is balanced with everything you want. The Pacers have a star entering his prime in Victor Oladipo, veterans who can help you win now like Darren Collison and Thaddeus Young and young guys who are good now but have even higher potential in Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis.
What does that group get you this year? The 3rd best record in the conference, the fourth best point differential in the conference and the ninth-ranked offense and 11th ranked defense. Pretty good for a team that was pegged for the lottery, but with 15 games left where will the Pacers end up? ESPN’s playoff odds have them at the sixth seed with a 45-37 record, which would mean a 6-9 finish. That could be fair as the Pacers have the toughest schedule in the league down the stretch. Yikes
The Pacers have two games left against the Raptors and Warriors, plus road games at playoff contenders like Philadelphia, Washington, New Orleans, Denver and the Clippers. A brutal stretch indeed and if they go 7-8, that would probably be a win. That record would put them at 46-36. So even though they are 3rd now, they are unlikely to have home court advantage in the first round. Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Washinton all have better odds than Indiana.
Indiana’s most likely landing spot is the sixth seed. Who do they want to face most? Well here is how they have fared against other eastern playoff contenders this season
Philadelphia 1-1, with one game left at Philadelphia
Washington 1-1 with one game left at Washington
Miami 1-2 with one game left at home
Based on simulations it is doubtful the Pacers play the Heat or the Bucks, so can the Pacers beat the Cavs, Sixers or Wizards in a playoff series lets examine!
Indiana had their way with Cleveland this season, scoring at will but we all know playoff LeBron James is a different animal. They also haven’t played Cleveland with their new additions yet. The good news is Indiana should be able to score against the Cavs.
The Pacers are eight in points per possession this year and effective field goal percentage and fifth in three-point percentage. They are also the second best transition team in the league according to cleaningtheglass.com. All of those things bode well against Cleveland’s 28th ranked defense. Cleveland is 28th in points per possession allowed and 29th in effective field goal percentage allowed. They have only been slightly better with the new additions by the way. The Cavs are also 28th in three-point percentage allowed and 28th against transition. There is a lot to like about this matchup besides the whole LeBron thing.
In the playoffs, the pace slows down a bit, but that shouldn’t bother the Pacers who play at the 20th slowest pace. The concern for their offense in ball movement. The Pacers are only 21st in assists per game, and often stand around and wait for Oladipo to do something amazing. Still, in this series they should be able to score the problem will come at the opposite end.
Indiana started off the season poorly on defense, but they have been good as of late climbing all the way up to 11th. Oladipo is a terrific defender, so is Young and the return of Glenn Robinson has helped a lot. Trevor Booker was also a good pickup. Young and Robinson will have LeBron duty in this series. Bogdanovich has been better than expected this year on defense as he is third on the team in defensive rating, but putting him on LeBron is just cruel.
Cleveland will surround LeBron with four shooters at points likely Love, Korver, Hill and maybe Rodney Hood. The good news is Indiana is 3rd in three-point percentage allowed, the bad news is they bleed points at the rim. Teams shoot 65 percent at the rim against Indiana, that is the sixth work mark in the league. Turner gets blocked shots, but he also chases a lot he shouldn’t. The extra shooting will allow LeBron more driving lanes, and this is where the Pacers will be in trouble.
Indiana’s best defensive lineup this season has been Collison with Cory Joesph, Oladipo, Young, and Sabonis. They could also move Young to the five and bring in Robinson. The Pacers have some good small ball lineup counters, but the lack of rim protection hurts. Nobody finished better at the rim than Cleveland. If the Pacers protect the paint than they open themselves up to Cleveland’s snipers; so its a pick your poison dilemma. Bottom line is the Pacers have the offense to keep up with the Cavs, but won’t be able to stop them, but don’t be surprised if it goes six.
These teams play tonight in Philly, and boy it’s a big one. Winner gets the tiebreaker. The tiebreaker would be huge for Indiana, because as much as Indiana doesn’t want to face LeBron, the Sixers may be worth a matchup. Philadelphia with the additions of Marco Belinelli and Ersan Ilyasova are clicking at the right time. They have the third-best point differential in the east, and their fifth-ranked defense should be able to slow down the Pacers attack.
Philadelphia does an excellent job of protecting the rim and the three-point line. They are 8th in field goal percentage allowed at the rim and 3rd in three-point percentage allowed. The Sixers are also 11th in defensive rebounding. They are fifth against transition as well.
Indiana’s best chance at easy points is to get to the line. Philadelphia’s is second to last in free throws allowed; the problem is that is not the Pacers strength. The Pacers are 27th in free throws attempted per game. It is hard to find a weakness the Pacers can exploit. Oladipo will need to be amazing on offense, and the Pacers are going to have to hit some midrange jumpers.
The Pacers best chance is to force a lot of turnovers. The Sixers lead the league in turnovers per game. The bad news is they do an excellent job of getting back when they do turn it over. Still, Indiana’s best chance is to push it off steals and live rebounds.
Good news is Indiana is fifth in turnovers forced. Indiana needs to attack this and be aggressive in hopes Philly slops some games away. When Philly is on offense, they present a similar problem to Cleveland in that they can finish at the rim. Indiana will have to stay home and give up some three-point attempts. If Covington and Bellinelli beat you, you live with it. You cant have Embiid and Simmons living at the rim. They also must keep Philadelphia off the glass; they are 3rd in offensive rebounding and Indiana is 24th in defensive rebounding.
Honestly, this is a tough matchup for the Pacers. They will have to force lots of turnovers to stay competitive, and Oladipo may need to get 30 a game. If they play, the Sixers will win in six. Indiana should want to play Cleveland instead at least they can score against the Cavs and make it a track meet.
This one is interesting and remember John Wall is coming back for the Wizards. The Pacers should be able to score in this matchup as the Wizards are only 14th in defense. Indiana should feast at the rim and Oladipo should have a big series if these teams play. Washington is 25th in defending the rim. This series will come down to threes. Indiana makes them, and Washington doesn’t give up a lot. If the Pacers can get some solid looks from deep and hit a few tough ones, they can win this series.
Washington is 11th in transition defense, good but not great. The Pacers will have transition opportunities they just need to capitalize when they get them. The Wizards do not rebound well, but again that’s not the Pacers game to exploit that. I would expect lots of Oladipo drives, Sabonis post-ups, and some Young touches to try to dominate the Wizards inside. The Wizards kill people with Morris at the five, Indiana needs to find a way to counter that lineup. Hurting them inside is a start.
Like the other two teams, the Wiz can finish at the rim, but they don’t get there a lot. Part of that is their attempts at the rim have been down with Wall out. The scary part is the Wizards are also eight in three-point percentage. In the playoffs you can expect the Wall, Beal, Oubre, Porter and Morris lineup, that will stretch the Pacers thin, and the Pacers need to respond by hurting the Wizards inside.
Turnovers will be massive. Washington forces them, and the Pacers protect the ball. Its a strength vs strength battle. The Pacers can’t afford a sloppy game or two. Washington is middle of the pack in protecting the ball, but they are fourth in assists. They can play Wall with Tomas Sotranksy in some deadly passing lineups. The Satoranksy, Beal, Porter, Oubre, Morris lineup is an absurd + 42 this season. Indiana will likely have to go to the Young at center lineup, something they have not played a ton of this season. Oladipo will spend a lot of time on Wall, as they don’t want him running through a ton of screens chasing Beal, but he will still time on him as well.
Bogdanovich being able to hold his own against Porter is huge. He can’t let Porter get hot from three. The other one on one game is Myles Turner being able to draw Gortat away from the basket to open up driving lanes and then on the other end staying out of foul trouble and protecting the paint against Wall drives.
These teams are relatively similar and the games should be close, but the Wizards are a little better and a little more experienced. If the Pacers get homecourt advantage they have a shot but assuming they don’t the Wizards should win in six.
The Pacers are the surprise of the season and are in line with future success. If they get homecourt advantage and somehow play the Heat or the Bucks they can win a series. Oladiop can win a series he is that good and by the way, has a shot at first-team all-NBA. Likely the schedule down the stretch will be too tough and the Pacers will have to start the playoffs on the road. The Sixers are a bad matchup, but the Pacers should keep things competitive against Cleveland or Washington. Even if they don’t win, they won’t be an easy first-round exit. They are better than you think, they are just a year or two away.