Looking Ahead to the Playoffs for the Indiana Pacers

The Indiana Pacers are 18-10 in the absence of Victor Oladipo, including wins over Atlanta and Toronto in which Oladipo left the game with an injury. They are 22-11 without him, which would seem to suggest that, if not “just as good in his absence”, at the very least the Pacers are deep enough to have earned the fifth-best record in the NBA that they presently hold.

The emergence of Myles Turner as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and Domantas Sabonis as an honest-to-gods Sixth Man of the Year choice certainly help, as has the addition of rent-a-guard Wesley Matthews to fill the gap left behind by the loss of Oladipo’s scoring at the 2 spot.

Matthews is scorching the nets so far in Indiana, hitting 44.1 percent of his three-point shots, and while that seems a tad unsustainable for a guy whose career mark is 38.3 (and who, when you count his stints in Dallas and New York, is hitting 38.1 percent this year), that’s still a lot better than Oladipo’s below-average long-range shooting (34.3 percent this year, 35.2 career.)

The point is that even though Indiana might be careening toward a stretch in March where they lose 10 out of 11 with their brutal schedule on the road, the simple fact is that a top-5 seed is all but assured, especially with the massive gulf between the top 5 (Boston, at 37-23, stands in fifth, two and a half back of Indiana) and the slots from sixth on down (Brooklyn is 32-30; if they stay on their pace, they’ll win 42 or 43 games, which means the Pacers have all but clinched no worse than the fifth seed with 20 games or so left in the season per team.)

Catching Milwaukee or Toronto for the top two spots is all but impossible and would be even if Oladipo were healthy, so that leaves three teams Indiana might face in the first round. Besides Boston and Brooklyn, the Philadelphia 76ers are 39-22, one game back of the Pacers and sitting in fourth.

Man, remember when the Atlantic Division was a disaster movie on the basketball court? Now four of the top six teams in the conference come out of the Atlantic, with only the chew-toy Knicks stinking out the joint.

Brooklyn Nets

The Nets are 6th, and if the season ended today they’d be the Pacers’ first-round opponent, so let’s tackle them first.

The Pacers have played the Nets twice this season; they beat them by 20 at home in October and beat them 114-106 in Brooklyn in December.

Part of the problem for the Nets is that their center, Jarrett Allen, doesn’t match up well against the Pacers’ frontcourt. Both Turner and Sabonis seem well able to keep him under wraps, off the boards, and away from the basket.

Plus, Nate McMillan seems to have the upper hand on Nets coach Kenny Atkinson; it’s telling that the game on the road, against a Nets team that plays at a 14th-in-the-league 100.2 pace, got slowed all the way down to 92.8 possessions.

The Nets are in many ways Rockets Lite, but not in the free-fire exercise that Houston or Milwaukee have both used to give the Pacers fits.

This is an easy series win for the Pacers and illustrates the value in hoping that the team plays out of their minds in that March horror show part of the schedule; the path to the second round and possibly—you never know—catching Toronto in the midst of a poor shooting stretch at the worst possible time in order to sneak into the conference finals—is best executed against Brooklyn.

Philadelphia 76ers

The Sixers give the Pacers fits, as Joel Embiid is the anti-Allen as far as winning the big man matchup goes. He’s too good a rebounder to lose positional battles with Turner and too strong a scorer for Sabonis, the weaker of the two man-to-man defenders at the center position, to contain him.

Back in November, the Sixers got their first road win of the season in Indianapolis after starting the season 0-5 away from home, and Philly sits at 2-1 against Indiana this year with one more game—part of the aforementioned brutal stretch, on March 10—in Philadelphia with tiebreaker implications all over it.

If the Sixers win that game, they’ll have the advantage over Indiana in both seeding and potentially determining who gets home court should the teams finish 4-5.

The thought of Jimmy Butler shredding the Pacers’ defense without Oladipo to check him is scary. The thought of Embiid dunking on Sabonis or beating Turner to the boards for putbacks is scary. And Indiana’s nasty habit of losing shooters on failed rotations or on screens means J.J. Redick is never far from ripping the Pacers’ throats out.

If Philly gets home court, they win in five. If Indiana gets home court, Philly wins in six. This is a legit panic-mode matchup unless the Pacers pull a rabbit out of their hats on March 10.

Boston Celtics

It’s hard to get a read on the Celtics. Sometimes they look like a team that could make the Finals; other times they don’t look like a team that even belongs in the playoffs.

The Pacers beat Boston on Nov. 3 thanks to a miracle Oladipo buzzer-beating three, but in the revenge game on Jan. 9, the Celtics just took the Pacers out behind the woodshed and beat them 135-108, that latter coming as part of the stretch where Indiana didn’t have Turner and forgot how to play defense.

The Celtics and Pacers play twice late in the season, once in Boston on Mar. 29 and the second time in Indianapolis on Apr. 5. Will the Celtics be rounding into playoff form then? Or will the ongoing locker room problems with Kyrie Irving and his leadership have the Celtics trying to fend off the Nets for the 6 seed?

The game in Boston should give Pacers fans cause for alarm, but Matthews is just as capable of hitting hero-ball game winners, statistically speaking, as is Oladipo, so if Turner’s ability to contain guys like Al Horford comes back to the fore and that game in Boston just shows how valuable Turner is to the Pacers, this is a winnable series, albeit a likely 4-5 where the Pacers have home court, a perfect setup to become sacrificial lambs to Giannis Antetokounmpo‘s coronation as the new King in the East after LeBron’s departure from Cleveland.

Roundup

The Nets don’t scare me at all. Boston is beatable. Philly is legit scary. Home court matters. And there’s no way under purview of the basketball gods that the Pacers are getting out of the second round no matter what happens.

But neither are things as bad as some Pacer Nation doomsayers are saying, where we’re doomed to a first-round exit, everyone says how great a job McMillan did as coach, and we rot in Mediocrity Hell until what might have been a deep playoff run window (it’s the East; anyone can make the Finals if they get hot at the right time now that LeBron’s gone) closes with just a whimper.

And, of course, all of this might be irrelevant in three weeks when the Pacers lose 10 out of 11, show they can’t beat playoff teams on the road, and fans and players alike just meekly surrender to the team lucky enough to draw a squad with its confidence completely shot.

The horrors on the schedule are coming…and for now, we wait.