The Indiana Pacers were the hottest team in the league at the start of the season, getting off to a franchise-best start. However, their late-season struggles have cost them top spot in the East and an all-important home court advantage in the Eastern Conference Finals.
The Story So Far
The Pacers shot out of the gate as one of the league’s hottest teams, winning a franchise-record nine consecutive games to start their campaign.
They went on to put together four more (five in total including their hot start) streaks of at least five straight wins and were the first team in the league to clinch a playoff berth after building an unassailable 22-game lead on the then ninth-placed Pistons on Mar. 5.
Indiana enjoyed a comfortably lead for the first seed in the Eastern Conference for much of the season. However, some late season struggles – winning only four of their last 13 contests – have allowed the Miami Heat to leapfrog them in the standings.
The Pacers remain one of the league’s premier defensive units – currently ranked second in points allowed (92.3 per game) and first overall in defensive rating (99.1) – but struggling mightily on the offensive end – 24th in points per game (96.8) and 22nd in offensive rating (103.9).
Much of their struggles can be attributed to the late-season form slump from All-Star Paul George. George’s early-season play saw him jump into MVP considerations and was an integral contributor to the Pacers beginning the season so well. Through his first 30 games, the Pacers star averaged 23.8 points on 47.1% shooting from the field and 39.9% from beyond the arc.
However, through his last 12 games, George has only managed 18.7 points per game. More worryingly, his shooting percentages have dropped to 34.2% from the floor and 32.4% from three.
The Pacers also made midseason moves to bring in Evan Turner and Andrew Bynum in an attempt to push them over the top in the East. However, Turner has struggled to adapt to not being the sole focus of the offence like he was in Philadelphia. Meanwhile, Bynum has only managed two games in his time as a Pacer and is out indefinitely with knee issues.
After coming up short in their crucial final matchup against the Miami Heat, going down 86-98, Indiana have limited time to regain the one seed and the all-important home court advantage it would give them against Miami in a potential Eastern Conference Finals matchup.
They have very a winnable game against the Magic, but also host the Oklahoma City Thunder at home.
Watch this space.
Postseason Performer to Watch
George’s late-season form has been alarming, but the key to Indiana’s success is the play of big man Roy Hibbert.
The perfect foil for Miami’s undersized roster, Hibbert has proven in the past that he can be a key contributor against the defending champs. He stood tall against the Heat in their seven-game Eastern Conference Finals bout last season, averaging 22.1 points (on 55.7% FG and 80.4% FT), 10.4 rebounds and a block against the eventual champs.
This season, the former Georgetown Hoya has only managed 11.1 points (44.9% FG) and 6.7 rebounds per game, but was restricted to just 29.9 minutes per game.
In last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, Indiana unleashed Hibbert on the Heat to the tune of 39.5 minutes per game.
Indiana has made the jump from aspiring playoff squad to legitimate title contender. Therefore, their regular season form has to be judged with a grain of salt, as it is clear that their whole season revolves around the inevitable matchup with Miami in the postseason.
If the Pacers and Heat complete their expected collision course and meet in the Conference Finals again, expect Hibbert to be a major factor in the result.
Honourable mention to Lance Stephenson, who has experienced a breakout season (13.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG and 4.5 APG), but is yet to prove himself as a playoff performer.
The Pacers made the leap to contender status this season, but their late-season struggles make it hard to put them at the top of the list of potential title winners.
Losing the No. 1 seed to Miami will be huge disadvantage come the Conference Finals, but it could be their saving grace in the second round if it prevents them from a potential matchup with the Chicago Bulls.
Couple Chicago’s equally devastating defence with Indiana’s feeble offence – 20th in field goal percentage and 23rd in three point percentage – and it is not inconceivable to see the Bulls making a shock upset.
All things aside, for the entire season the narrative in the Eastern Conference has surrounded Miami vs. Indiana round two and it seems inevitable that the two butt heads once again.
Indiana have the size advantage over the Heat, but unless they can improve on the offensive end, it is hard to see them overcoming the reigning champions in a best of seven – especially if Miami hold home court advantage in a do-or-die game seven.
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