20130429-135523.jpgCan we please just fast forward to the Eastern Conference Finals?

That way, we can skip the rest of this nonsense and get down to the really important business, to the series everyone wants to see:

Nets vs. Bulls.

OK, OK, just being snarky there, not entirely serious. We all know what would make for a much more entertaining and compelling matchup:

Raptors vs. Wizards.

Seems like a joke but, given neither the Pacers nor the Heat have even loosely resembled championship contenders lately, previously unthinkable alternatives have worked their way onto the landscape.

Yes, the Pacers have a four-game win streak and are the first in the East to 50 wins. But before you start hanging banners and ordering rings, consider: the streak was built against teams with a combined record of 77-191.

Their last 11 wins, in fact, have come against sub-.500 teams. The Pacers haven’t beaten a team with a winning record since Portland on Feb. 7, losing all four tries since. This is not the first time I’ve mentioned this particular fact but it now gains increasing relevance, given the remaining schedule.

Five of their next six games are against teams with winning records. The other, Wednesday in New York, is against a Knicks team that has won six in a row and is riding the wave of Phil Jackson’s return to save his old franchise.

“This is the point in the season where we put everything aside and man-up,” said Paul George. “We’ve been fortunate to play sub-.500 teams. Now it’s coming around to playing the playoff-bound teams, the upper-echelon teams. We’ve got to man-up at this point.”

Since the Pacers beat the Trail Blazers in early February, they have put together an 11-7 record. That’s good for sixth in the East in that span, tied with Charlotte.

Excepting Atlanta, every other playoff contender in the conference has at least as good a record as the Pacers, and all have at least two victories over winning teams in that span.

Chicago (13-5) has six, in fact, while the Nets (12-5) have five. Though much has been made of Miami’s recent slump to five losses in seven games, the Heat (10-6) has seven victories over winning teams in that span.

Of the Pacers’ 15 remaining games, nine are on the road, and 10 are against teams currently in playoff position.

If they are to dispel the popular, and increasingly credible, theory that they peaked in January, it’s time to shake this malaise once and for all.

The offense has been disjointed, flat and generally painful to watch. This is inevitable when a system built on inside-out ball movement inverts and becomes increasingly dependent on one-on-one plays from its explosive but mistake-prone wings.

The defense has been sporadic, lax in closing out to shooters, slow in reacting to the pick-and-roll, frequently unable to recover aggressively in transition.

Though much of the criticism has been directed toward the bench, the reality is the starters have become the problem. In the last seven games, the once-dominant first unit has shot .436 overall, .333 from the 3-point line and been effectively neutralized (outscored by one point).

In the last eight, the Pacers have been outscored by 48 points in the first quarter.

Bench scoring has actually been on the rise, to 29.9 in the last seven games. Of course that could change if the MRI on Andrew Bynum’s swollen knee contains bad news.

“We haven’t come out of the gates as strong but we’re showing resolve and we’re coming back and winning these games,” said Roy Hibbert, who has all-but disappeared offensively. “One of these nights we’re going to come out, do what we’re supposed to do and get a lead early.

“It’s a grind right now. Everybody’s going through it. Some teams are peaking right now, some teams are getting by, some teams are losing a couple. I’d rather win.”

The Pacers certainly aren’t peaking, but they are getting by. If they want to avoid losing more than a couple, they need to change their present course. Quickly.


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