Roughly three weeks from today, one of two teams will have locked up the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The contenders are the Indiana Pacers and the Miami Heat.
The irony is, neither looks much like a contender for anything — except maybe an early exit.
Heading into Monday’s game at Chicago, the Pacers — who have led the East the entire way — had a three-game lead on Miami but had lost five of its previous 10 games.
With only 11 regular-season games remaining, the Pacers’ grip on first would seem loose, except for one thing: The Heat aren’t playing any better. They are actually faring worse.
Instead of exploiting the Pacers’ problems, the Heat are dealing with their own. They have lost seven of their past 11 games and, as a result, have gained no ground on Indiana.
Moreover, the Heat’s defense is faltering. They have given up on average 100.1 points per game during the 11-game stretch and in no way resemble the team that has won the last two NBA championships — much less a team poised to overtake the Pacers.
Then again, the Pacers — whose problems are primarily at the offensive end — don’t resemble the team that had the league’s best record for the first three-quarters of the season.
Indiana’s two All-Stars, Paul George and Roy Hibbert, have struggled since the All-Star break, and a bench that was built to enhance scoring has largely been flat during the same span.
Consequently, the Pacers have been unimpressive in wins against lowly opponents and been largely ineffective against playoff-caliber opposition. Of their past 12 wins, only two have come against teams with winning records.
On Saturday at Memphis, which is clinging to the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference, the Pacers were humiliated 82-71. The 71 points were a season-low, and only two players — Lance Stephenson and David West — reached double figures.
Stephenson had 15 points, and West had 10 on a miserable 5 of 15 night from the field. Hibbert had four points and no rebounds, and George — who averages just over 22 ppg — had eight points on a dismal 2 of 10 performance.
George’s outing was the latest in a series of sub-par performances for a fourth-year player who was touted as an MVP candidate earlier in the season. In his last four games, he is a combined 13 of 54 from the field (24 percent).
“It’s the offensive end where we didn’t play well,” George told the media after Saturday’s loss at Memphis. “We didn’t get into a rhythm. If you hold a team to 82 points, you are playing pretty good defense.”
But as the 71 points reflect, the Pacers aren’t playing well offensively.
Keenly aware of their problems, the Pacers aren’t sure how to solve them.
“We’ve got to play for each other. We talk about it, but we don’t do it,” Hibbert said. “Until we do that, we’re going to keep beating the bad teams and losing to good teams.”
Miami’s slump notwithstanding, Indiana’s next opportunity to beat a good team is Wednesday night against the visiting Heat. The East rivals are 1-1 against each other this season, with each team winning on its home court.
Desperate for a lift with the postseason approaching, the Pacers are battling not only for the No. 1 seed in the East, but to recapture the drive that initially propelled them to the top.
“I think one thing is just keeping the momentum up,” backup forward Evan Turner said. “That’s the most important thing, the momentum and going into the playoffs with a lot of energy.”