With the final month of the NBA season around the corner, we have a better understanding of which of the remaining games on the Indiana Pacers' schedule will be the most meaningful as they prepare for the playoffs.
With only nine games remaining on their schedule, the Pacers will play five of those final nine games against playoff teams. More importantly, two of those games will likely be the first and second round match-ups in the playoffs.
It's not a question of the five most important games in April; the standings have already told us that. It's more of a question of which games Pacers fans should be most inclined to watch.
Yes, John Wall's recent stellar play almost caused me to include the Wizards on this list, because he is becoming a must-watch player. I resisted, though, because the Wizards will be sitting at home during the playoffs and also because half their team is hurt.
Similarly, if Kyrie Irving were healthy the Pacers-Cavaliers game would be one to sit down and watch, but without Irving the Cavs are just another below-average team.
The most important games for Pacers fans to watch the rest of the way are the ones that will be of relevance to their playoff chances. Therefore, a potential first round matchup will be more of a must-watch than a potential Finals matchup, even if the team in the latter is much more exciting.
One thing you will notice about the following games is that the Pacers have struggled against these teams all year. They have a combined record of 2-7 against these five teams, so playing well in these games will give them confidence going forward.
Although they have struggled in the past, April is a new month with new beginnings. So here are the five most important games to watch in April for Indiana Pacer fans.
Sorry Brooklyn, even though you play in the East, there is a slim chance you see the Pacers at all during the playoffs.
Currently, the Pacers are the second seed and the Nets are the fourth seed. That means for the Pacers and Nets to meet up during the playoffs it would have to be in the Eastern Conference Finals. I apologize in advance to Brooklyn fans because there is no way the Nets will get past the Heat in the playoffs.
The Nets are three-and-a-half games behind the Knicks for the Atlantic Division crown, and with so few games to play it is unlikely they pass them. Even if the Pacers finish with the No. 3 seed and the Nets drop to the fifth seed, the two would still have to make the Conference Finals to play one another.
It still is a big game, but I'd venture to say there's a greater chance the Pacers see the Thunder in the playoffs over the Nets. So yes, I believe there is a better chance the Pacers make the NBA Finals than the Nets the Conference Finals.
The two previous games between the two have been good games, though. Their previous meeting went to overtime, and the first meeting the Pacers fell apart in the fourth quarter. The Nets outscored the Pacers 28-11 in the fourth en route to a 97-86 victory.
This upcoming meeting will be a chance for the Pacers to exact some revenge for those previous two meetings. It will also be a chance to see if Paul George can get on track against a team he has struggled against all year.
In the two games against the Nets this season, George has shot 7-for-28 from the field while averaging only 10 points per game. The Nets aren't an exceptional defensive team, ranking 17 in defensive efficiency, so George's struggles are a bit confounding. Perhaps he struggles with Joe Johnson's length, but it will be interesting to see if he can improve in this upcoming game.
The Pacers should have won the first two games against the Nets, so letting another one slip away on their home court would be disheartening for Pacers fans.
In terms of facing one another in the playoffs, there is probably about the same chance the Pacers see the Clippers or the Nets. But in terms of watchability, the Clippers will top the Nets every time. Hence the reason the rank ahead of the Nets here.
To see how the Pacers defend the Clippers' pick-and-roll will also be interesting in this matchup. Roy Hibbert was suspended for the first match-up between the two, and the Clippers took advantage.
Blake Griffin was 7-for-10 from the field with 18 points and 14 rebounds and Chris Paul dropped 29 points. With Hibbert back in the game it will likely be a different story.
The previous matchup was also one of the few games that Danny Granger appeared for the Pacers. It was his best game of the year as he went 5-for-10 from the field with 12 points. It will also remain the best game of his year as he is set to undergo season-ending surgery sometime in the near future.
Granger's absence will have no negative consequences as the Pacers have played 90 percent of the season without their fallen star. The addition of Hibbert, though, should profoundly affect the Pacers in a positive way.
Chris Paul was able to get in the lane at will last time, doing anything he wanted when he got near the rim. With Hibbert in the game, Paul will be less inclined to do that with a shot-blocker in the middle.
The Clippers are a more well-rounded team than the Nets and are a better barometer for the Pacers headed into the playoffs. There is no question the Clippers are a more similar team to the Heat or Knicks than the Nets are. It will be a perfect tune-up for the Pacers as the playoffs draw near, and it is the reason the Clippers are ahead of the Nets on this list.
In terms of the overall quality of a team the Pacers will play the rest of the way, the Oklahoma City Thunder are at the top. But the fact both the Pacers and the Thunder would have to make it through their respective conference's playoffs makes it an unlikely matchup.
The Thunder are the favorite to come out of the West, and the Pacers are very likely the second-most dangerous team in the East. But too many things have to go right, on both sides of the equation, to see a Finals matchup between these two.
Either way, this matchup on April 5 should be electric.
The Thunder bested the Pacers way back in December when Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Martin combined for 72 of Oklahoma City's 99 points. The Pacers just didn't have the bodies to match up with the Thunder then, and it didn't help that Roy Hibbert was still in the honeymoon stage of his massive offseason deal.
Hibbert has played much better of late, but even so, the Pacers must be able to defend the Thunder on the wing if they want to win this game. The matchup nightmare will be Durant, as if that wasn't already implied.
Paul George will most likely get the honor again, but he did a decent job in the first go-around. Durant scored 27 points, but he was only 9-of-24 from the field. He made eight free throws, so this time the Pacers must defend without fouling.
The back breaker in the first matchup was Kevin Martin. Martin scored 24 and was 7-of-12 from the field with three three-pointers. Lance Stephenson, and whoever else is on Martin, has to contain him if the Pacers want any chance of winning.
The Thunder are one of the most exciting teams to watch with their bevvy of young superstars. The fact that the playoffs are around the corner and both these teams are gearing up for a deep playoff run only makes this game more exciting.
Barring unforeseen circumstances, the Knicks and Pacers will wind up being the second and third seeds in the East. So in all likelihood, this will be the second-round matchup in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Thus far, the Pacers have bested the Knicks in the season series between the two. After the Knicks won the first game, the Pacers bounced back with two victories culminating with a 34-point blowout about a month ago.
The Knicks had Amar'e Stoudemire for that loss, but for at least the game on April 14, Stoudemire will be on the shelf. He could be back for the playoffs, but after coming off two surgeries in about six months, a setback is inevitable.
Even with Stoudemire the Pacers have the advantage inside. Although Tyson Chandler may be the best defensive center in the game, the Knicks are thin on the front line.
On the other side, the Pacers' front line is their strength, featuring David West and a much-improved Roy Hibbert. Both Hibbert and West will be able to score at will on the inside and should Chandler get in foul trouble, as he normally does, the Knicks will have no one to stop them.
With Danny Granger being sidelined for the rest of the year, the matchup between Paul George and Carmelo Anthony will be front and center. Both are the most dynamic players on either side of the ball and their showdown will be one to watch. George is the better defender, yet Anthony is the better scorer.
The Pacers' defense should be able to suffocate a Knicks team that relies on the three ball. In one game the Knicks may be able to get hot and beat the Pacers, but over a seven-game series Indiana has the advantage.
New York's defense is much improved, but they are still not in the same class defensively as Indiana. This game will be early look into a second-round series that seems a strong possibility.
The only reason a second round matchup may not happen between the Pacers and Knicks is one of those teams may fall to the Boston Celtics in the first round.
Much of the seeding in the Eastern Conference has yet to be settled, so there are still many playoff matchups to be determined. There is a very good possibility both these teams meet in the playoffs, though.
Whether it be in the first round or the second round, the way the seeding is looking like it will play out, the Pacers and Celtics look like they are on a crash course to meet.
When they do eventually play, both teams will feature similar styles of basketball—getting it done on the defensive side of the ball. With the injury to Kevin Garnett, though, Boston has been forced to play small. When Garnett comes back, the Celtics will have a force in the middle, along with one of the savviest centers in the league.
Whether it be David West or Roy Hibbert going up against Garnett, they will have their hands full on both ends of the court.
The Celtics depth has been severely impacted by the injuries to Rajon Rondo, Jared Sullinger and others, but they have played well in the absence of all of them. Against the Pacers, it might catch up with the Celtics.
The Pacers' second unit hasn't been stellar this season, but Indiana does feature some solid assets off the bench. Tyler Hansbrough has played well of late in the absence of David West, and can always be counted on for energy. Ian Mahinmi also gives the Pacers another big body off the bench who will trouble a Celtics team with limited depth.
Boston is very well coached and will slow the game down, much like the Pacers. But their lack of depth on the inside will be what fails them against Indiana. In terms of scoring this game won't be exciting, but it will be a defensive battle and a preview of what very may well be a first-round playoff matchup.