The Pacers’ Tough Schedule Is Their Best Hope

Tuesday night, the Indiana Pacers beat the Philadelphia 76ers on the road 101-98, doing this despite the referee crew being composed of Rocky Balboa, Benjamin Franklin, and the Phillie Phanatic.

This follows a win Sunday night in Boston that brings the Pacers’ record against current would-be Eastern Conference playoff teams to 13-9. They are 17-7 against non-playoff teams in the East; those splits in the West are 2-9 for playoff teams and 8-3 for non-playoff teams.

The Pacers also have a brutal schedule remaining; they play nine of their remaining 14 games against current playoff teams, including two against the Warriors, and three of the five games against non-playoff teams are on the road (at the Nuggets, Hornets, and Kings.) Only the Kings are undeniably tanking; the Lakers are clearly trying to build up their young core (and do not in any instance own their draft pick), while the Hornets, as the home-and-home to close the season, will very likely be playing for pride rather than draft position.

That’s vicious.

But at the same time, this is a Pacers outfit with losses to the Hawks, Mavericks (twice!), and Bulls. That 25-10 record against bad teams is decent, but they’re 3-0 combined against Denver and San Antonio, two teams that could easily be in the other column but for tiebreakers (and in the Spurs’ case, a monumental slump induced by injuries to key players.) Push that 3-0 into the other column and move the Jazz (who secured a spot in the top eight by being the only team in the last seven games to beat Indiana) into the other column and the split becomes 17-17 against 22-11.

Five and a half games between good teams and bad teams isn’t a split you expect from a 3 seed.

But more importantly, it shows that the Pacers, especially in the East, are perfectly capable of winning big games.

Fans notice instantly when Indiana’s not in sync, looking past a game. Bad Lance Stephenson shows up. Victor Oladipo loses his touch. Bojan Bogdanovic can’t hold onto the ball; he starts thinking it’s the last minute and he’s playing the Celtics. Myles Turner can’t find the rim with a map for rebounds.

The team just plays flat.

And while one of this site’s mantras is “great teams win big and lose close”, it’s hard to deny that a 10-1 record in one-possession games does show that they’re winning marginal games against teams that really aren’t that much worse than they are; they’re getting the small edges they didn’t get in prior years, just a wee bit better than teams they’re evenly matched with rather than a wee bit worse.

Besides, the Pacers are 17-14 in games decided by 10 or more, leaving a 13-13 record between 4 and 9 points’ margin. If they were truly a bad team eking out the close ones, you wouldn’t expect that effect; you’d expect something more like a team that is just above the terrible zone, getting smacked around in the losses, a team exactly like the 30-win team the Pacers projected as before the season even started.

Now, nobody’s expecting Indiana to go 10-4 the rest of the way out and somehow end up with 50 wins.

But at the same time, if any team can take advantage of a brutal late-season schedule and end up making a playoff run, it’s this one.