With the playoff run-up in overdrive, the Indiana Pacers can go one of two directions — to the top of the Eastern Conference, or somewhere below Miami.
Their final destination is anyone’s guess.
With 18 games remaining in the regular season, the Pacers (47-17) have a two-game edge on Miami (44-18). They’ve led the East wire-to-wire and have, to date, maintained space between the Heat.
But the gap has narrowed, and the margin for error is shrinking.
Of Indiana’s remaining games, only seven are at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. What’s more, only seven of the final 18 opponents have losing records.
And lately, the Pacers have not fared well against winning teams. In their past 20 games, they are 1-5 against opponents with records above .500.
Moreover, Tuesday’s 94-83 home win against the rebuilding Boston Celtics halted a four-game skid — Indiana’s longest of the season.
Although the bleeding stopped, the less-than-dominant performance against Boston was further evidence the Pacers aren’t exactly peaking at the right time. But coach Frank Vogel is confident the recent struggles are an anomaly and not signs of a late-season swoon.
“It’s always good to get a ‘W,’” he said after Tuesday’s win, which wasn’t secured until the final minute. “Nobody was happy about losing four in a row. It’s about winning the next game.
“It’s as simple as that.”
The next game is tonight at Philadelphia (15-49), the first of two in four nights against the woeful 76ers. In between is a Saturday trip to Detroit (25-40) before the remaining schedule heats up — which raises the topic of the Heat.
Notorious for post-All-Star break surges, the two-time defending NBA champions are slumping. Losers of four of their past five games, the Heat have not taken advantage of Indiana’s slips and, as a result, remain at arm’s length in the race for the No. 1 seed in the East.
But for the Pacers, the issue isn’t so much about losing ground as it is gaining traction. They are 14-10 in their past 24 games and 1-4 in the past five.
Buoyed by their win against Boston, players insist they have reacquired the solution for their problems: defense. The league’s No. 1 defensive team all season, Indiana had surrendered triple digits in their previous three losses before limiting the Celtics to 83 points.
“We have enough shot-makers, enough play-makers on this team to get by offensively,” forward Paul George said. “Defense is where we have to come back to our own.”
Point guard George Hill, one of five starters who averages double-figure scoring, agrees.
“Once we get it going on the defensive end, it helps us get going on the offensive end,” Hill said. “Our main focus has to be on defense and let everything else handle itself.”
If the Pacers can recapture the consistency that propelled them to the NBA’s best record for much of the season (the distinction now belongs to San Antonio), their odds of holding off reeling Miami are high. If they can’t, they could do anything from still earn the No. 1 seed to yielding it to the Heat to entering the playoffs with low momentum — or any combination thereof.
Winning, the Pacers understand, is the cure-all.
“Anytime you win, it builds confidence,” Hill said. “I think our confidence was kind of low losing four in a row, having not done that in I don’t know how long.
“A win sure does help the confidence.”