Can the Indiana Pacers Sneak Into the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals?

Even after a heartbreaking loss to the Celtics Monday night on a SEGABABA, the Indiana Pacers stand at 17-14, locked in a three-way tie for fifth in the East, and if they’d won that game against Boston, they’d be solidly in fourth.

Not only do they have the record to play fifth-place ball, they’re also fifth in point differential; this team projects as a 45-win team on points and on record alike. They’re armed with the fourth-best conference record in case of tiebreakers, they’re 7-7 on the road, and they have the early favorite for Most Improved Player, a seemingly surefire All-Star, and quite possibly a second-team All-NBA guard in Victor Oladipo.

Put simply, the Pacers look an awful lot like not just a playoff team, but possibly a team that can shock the world come spring.

But are they really that good? Or is 31 games out of an 82 game schedule still not enough to put this team into genuine contender status?

Let’s break things down one step at a time, shall we?

The Playoff Seed

Once again, it is critical to examine just how good the team is relative to the rest of the Eastern Conference. If we assume that Philadelphia losing back-to-back games against the Bulls and Kings reflects on how the team is still too young and immature to make a serious playoff run, figure the Bucks’ negative point differential is telling of a young core that beyond Giannis Antetokounmpo isn’t as good as people think, and treat Detroit as more a product of its 7-10 run in its last 17 than the 10-3 they started the season at, then sure, the Pacers are as plausible a team as any.

If you go by point difference, the East is Toronto, Boston, Cleveland, Washington, and Indiana. In that order.

So let’s say that 45-37 is good for the fifth it would’ve been last year and not the seventh it was when Indiana posted that record in 2016 and finished behind the four-way car crash at 48-34 that defined 3 through 6.

So Can They Win A First-Round Series?

The Pacers have beaten Cleveland twice (including the only game the Cavs lost in an 18-1 stretch before losing to Milwaukee on Tuesday), but they’re 0-2 against Boston, 1-2 against Detroit, 1-1 against Toronto, only beat the Knicks when New York didn’t have Kristaps Porzingis, and have otherwise been one of those “beat the bad teams, lose to the good ones” sorts of mediocre squads who make the playoffs and then get stomped.

But let’s say for the sake of wild argument that Oladipo somehow has LeBron’s number, the Pacers get the six or seven seed, and they get past the Cavaliers. Or Detroit overachieves all year and somehow Indiana overcomes the rebounding deficit that inevitably comes from matching Myles Turner against a truly solid NBA center like Andre Drummond and beats them with a crazy run of those 56 percent from the floor games the Pacers put up surprisingly often.

And the Pacers haven’t even played the Wizards yet. If they can lock down John Wall and Bradley Beal defensively, or at least harass them into shooting poorly the way both are prone to do when they have Dark Ages nights in getting good counting stats, Indiana might just be able to sneak past them.

It’s not terribly likely, but nor is it wildly implausible to imagine.

Can They Win A Second-Round Series?

Well…it depends. Where in the bracket are they being drawn? If their second-round series is against Boston the way it would be if the season ended today, they’re toast. This goes double if the Celtics get Gordon Hayward back for the playoffs.

If they beat one or the other of Toronto and Cleveland, they get the one they didn’t face in the first round. Do they win that second-round series?

Put simply, no. Because the Pacers this season have relied on catching fire for short stretches of play in order to beat teams better than they are; they’re not going to shoot 56 percent from the floor in two straight playoff series, not even if they only have to do it four times out of seven in each instance. Especially if seasoned teams with playoff experience like the Raptors or Cavs get a few games to feel out the Pacers and figure a good way to stop them.

THE VERDICT!

In point of fact, it’s pie-in-the-sky dreaming to imagine this team even making the second round of the playoffs. Their chances of shocking the world, beating the Raptors, Cavaliers, or Celtics in a second-round matchup?

Well, as the old saying goes, it’s between slim and none and Slim just left town.

But you clicked on that headline. The thought had to have at least crossed your mind, right? Man, it’s good to be a Pacers fan.