The Indiana Pacers, coming into Tuesday’s matchup (which as this goes to press Indiana leads 63-43 at the half in Cleveland), are riding a 13-3 record in their last 16 games, a two-game losing streak in mid-December and a loss to Toronto punctuating a 7-game and 6-game winning streak for the 13 victories.
Standing at 26-13, the Pacers own the third-best record in the East and the fourth-best (Denver is third overall) in the entire league, trailing Toronto and Milwaukee. Halfway through the season, they’re on pace (if the Cleveland score holds) for 55 wins.
As if that weren’t enough, their 5.8 point differential equates to an expected won-lost record of 57-25. Put simply, it is way too late in the season to chalk the Pacers’ success up to a fluke.
But on the other hand, they play in the Dumpster fire that is the Central Division; except for Milwaukee, they have no serious competition. Detroit is mediocre at best, the Cavs are complete garbage, and Chicago is still a year or two away from actually being good.
Looking at their 13 losses, they’ve lost to (in order) Milwaukee, Minnesota, Portland, Houston, Philadelphia, Houston again, Charlotte, San Antonio, the Lakers, Sacramento, Cleveland, Toronto, and Toronto again.
That’s 10 losses to teams that would make the playoffs if the season ended today, two more to Western Conference teams that would be in the hunt if they played in the East, and the one bad loss, aided by the refs, against Cleveland.
That’s not to say they don’t have big wins. Among the 26 wins stand Brooklyn, San Antonio, Boston, Miami, Miami again, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia.
So they’re 7-10 against current playoff teams and 19-3 against non-playoff teams.
That’s…not good. Especially when you consider that the Pacers are 3-4 against the teams they’d be most likely to see in the second round of the playoffs.
As long as the Pacers keep beating the teams they’re supposed to beat, this won’t be a problem. They’ll post a solid record, but it will look like smoke and mirrors when you stack it up against losses to bad teams.
But trouble is on the horizon. The Pacers’ next few games are mostly cupcakes (in the rest of January, there are games against Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia, and Golden State, but 6-4 is totally doable as a minimum for the rest of the month.)
But a stretch is coming after the All-Star Game where the Pacers play at Milwaukee, at Philadelphia, home to the Knicks and Thunder, a West Coast road trip to Denver, Portland, the Clippers, and Oklahoma City, a pit stop against the Nuggets at home, then at Oklahoma City and Boston. That’s 10 out of 11 games against playoff teams, eight of them on the road.
That is a brutal schedule from March 7 through the 29th, that will be the true measure of the Pacers as a team. They could come into that stretch in first place and leave in fifth.
If there’s a bright side, it’s that they have a soft schedule in April, with 5 out of 6 opponents (only the Celtics are the exception) who will be thinking more about draft position than winning games.
Criticisms of the Pacers’ schedule are perfectly valid. They haven’t beaten anyone. They’re 7-10 against playoff teams. And the worst is yet to come.