Time to take the rest of the regular season off.
With New York riding a 12-game winning streak, pushing its lead over the Pacers to 2.5 games, the chase for the No. 2 seed is all-but over. Another loss or two and the Pacers’ potential showdown Sunday in Madison Square Garden will turn into a showcase for future summer league all-stars.
With a 3.5-game lead over Brooklyn, the Pacers are effectively locked into the No. 3 seed. There’s little to be gained from the final five games, and much to be lost – namely, a further draining of what little juice remains in the legs of the core players.
After the Pacers were blasted in Washington Saturday night, Coach Frank Vogel said his team looked tired. That’s the second time in the last few weeks he’s played that card. Paul George ranks 12th in the league in minutes played, and it shows. Lance Stephenson and George Hill likewise have put up career highs in minutes, and all three perimeter players are struggling.
Though they had three days off last week before playing the weekend back-to-back, the Pacers certainly looked leg-weary, fading in the second halves of losses to the Thunder and Wizards. If they truly are fatigued, they need rest much more than they need one more rung on the playoff bracket.
They can still work on correcting bad habits and fine-tuning while the first unit’s on the floor. And some extra minutes for the reserves might help bring the second unit back to life.
Besides, No. 3 looks like it will provide a much better matchup, at least in the opening round.
The Knicks’ reward for “winning” this race for No. 2 is in all likelihood a first-round pairing with Boston. Theoretically, the higher you climb in the standings, the lower the quality of competition you face to open the postseason, but this is a notable exception.
Pay no attention to Boston’s late-season slide, fueled by the absences of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, who both are dealing with left ankle issues. Because you can fully expect both proud warriors to miraculously heal up in the Knick of time, the Celtics will be a much tougher out than any of the other first-round underdogs in the East. In fact, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them push New York to six or seven games – and an upset isn’t out of the question.
While the Knicks are locked in mortal combat with the Celtics, the Pacers, for “losing” the 2-3 race, are in position to draw the closest thing to a first-round bye. Teams need purpose in the playoffs, and the Hawks were stripped of theirs when management tried to move their best player, Josh Smith, before the trade deadline. When that happens, the message is clear: your own franchise doesn’t believe you’re good enough.
Unless the Hawks start their third unit, the Pacers are looking at a sweep, certainly no more than a five-game series.
Of course, there also exists the possibility the slumping Bulls could slide past the Hawks into the No. 6 slot and that would be a much more emotional – and challenging – matchup. Even so, given the choice between potential pairings with the Celtics, Hawks and Bulls, the team you’d most like to avoid is Boston.
The primary downside of the No. 3 slot is the absence of homecourt advantage in a potential second-round matchup with the Knicks (of course, in the event of a Boston upset, Indiana would have the home edge). But what would you rather have: a relatively fresh team without the home court facing a tired team coming off a first-round war, or the inverse?
If the Pacers truly are a tired team, the last thing they need is a down-to-the-wire battle for a playoff seed that, even if won, might ultimately prove to be counterproductive.