What I’m about to point out may have seemed fairly obvious to some of you for a few weeks now, but it has only become more apparent in the past couple of days. The Indiana Pacers have a great opportunity to hold on to the three seed in the East standings and potentially play a reeling and discombobulated Orlando Magic team.
The Pacers have a three-game lead over the Celtics with only six games left to play and only three of those games against +.500 teams. Unless my weak math skills have betrayed me that means that if the Pacers can manage to win four of their remaining games then they will lock up the third seed.
But why is the third seed all of a sudden so very important? Because many signs are pointing towards Orlando remaining in the sixth seed. And this Orlando team is currently going in the exact opposite direction as the Pacers. The Pacers have won eight of their last ten, while the Magic have lost seven of their last ten.
But it’s more than that. The Pacers have seemingly grown closer as a team all season. They have remained an unselfish team and by all accounts seem to be learning from the natural mistakes that are a part of becoming a winning team. The Magic on the other hand, have been dragged through a season by an indecisive superstar who demanded to be traded only to do a complete 360. This was followed up only a couple weeks later with their head coach, Stan Van Gundy, telling the press that Dwight Howard wanted him fired only to have Dwight Howard enter the room moments later. Oh and by the way, Stan Van Gundy will be their coach for the playoffs. I started to feel awkward just writing those last two sentences and I’m not a player in the locker room trying to play through all of this. And we wonder why Jameer Nelson is having a bad season?
But perhaps the scariest news for Magic fans came recently when it was announced that Dwight Howard will take the next two weeks off with a herniated disc in his lower back. Sure, it’s good news that the disc is supposedly “not fully-herniated,” but it’s never good news when, “surgery remains a possibility” according to ESPN.
All of this adds up to Orlando most likely remaining as the sixth seed and being the ideal matchup for Indiana. They are currently only one game behind Atlanta, but without Dwight Howard they will be less likely to catch them and their three game lead over Philadelphia and New York may be just enough to hold them off.
Indiana has gotten better and better as a team all season. They also have become more of what I often refer to as “professionals.” They are not flawless, but they have recently taken care of what they need to take care of because they all show up for work prepared and ready. Due to all the distractions, the Magic are not in that same state of mind and you can’t win in the playoffs distracted. And if Howard is not fully healthy then the Pacers will simply be a significantly more talented team. Of course, a less than 100% Dwight Howard will still give any team trouble, but the Pacers have an All-Star center of their own and Howard will have a lot to handle with a bad back.
I am also in the small group of people who refuses to disrespect the Atlanta Hawks. Especially in a first round series. The running joke for the Hawks during the Joe Johnson era is that they will perennially lose in the second round. Well, they have to beat someone in the first round to get there. Joe Johnson’s contract prevents them from improving their roster, but it doesn’t mean Joe Johnson can’t ball. The Pacers wouldn’t have to guard his contract they would have to guard him. What happens when Josh Smith shuts down Danny Granger, Joe Johnson catches fire, their athletic team smothers Hibbert and Jeff Teague plays at a higher level than Darren Collison? Will all those things happen? Probably not. But could any one of them happen in any game of a series against the Hawks? Absolutely. Plus, they have the ghost of Tracy McGrady, which for some reason terrifies me.
The Pacers haven’t been to the second round of the playoffs since 2005. Before any other ambitions come into play, that should be the only goal. I don’t think I’m alone in believing that the Pacers would have a great opportunity of beating the Orlando Magic in the first round. Not to say that it would be easy, but I don’t think there is Pacer on the roster that expects it to be.
I look at the next two weeks as taking hold of an opportunity. Losing four of the next six games and being jumped by the Celtics seems unlikely, but crazier things have happened. The Miami Heat have been described as having an “off/on-switch” for the playoffs. Maybe that’s true for them. I’m not sure if the Pacers have that same switch. And with the best possible first round matchup on the line, I’m not sure they can afford to find out.