Entering the final week of play, it's become apparent that the Indiana Pacers will finish the season as the third seed in the East.
Sitting two-and-a-half games behind the Knicks for the second seed with only four games to play, it is highly unlikely Indiana will top the Knicks in the standings. This isn't necessarily a bad thing for the Pacers, as they will avoid playing the Boston Celtics in the first round, who are likely to finish seventh in the East.
We will analyze not only the Pacers potential matchup with those same Boston Celtics, but Indiana's potential matchup with every other team slated for the Eastern Conference playoffs. We'll take a look at how the the teams match up and what the Pacers will need to do to advance.
Here are the keys for a Pacers victory in every hypothetical series during the Eastern Conference playoffs.
All stats are courtesy of ESPN unless otherwise noted.
That's no knock on the Bucks, it's the simple fact that they would have to beat the Miami Heat in the first round, then get through to the Eastern Conference Finals. That's not likely for a team that has played to a record of 37-40 thus far this season.
Milwaukee struggles on defense, and their efficiency on offense is dreadful, with Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings jacking up shots. Both shoot barely 41 percent from the field and combine for about 33 shots per game. A defensive-minded team such as the Pacers would easily shut down the trigger-happy backcourt of the Bucks.
Inside, the Bucks do have some length with Larry Sanders and John Henson, when he comes off the bench. But for as good as both are on the defensive side of the ball, both struggle on the other end of the court.
Going up against a front line of David West and Roy Hibbert would cause the slender Bucks frontcourt even more trouble because the Pacers' tandem would be able to bully their weaker opponents.
Should the Pacers ever meet the Bucks in the playoffs, they would be best suited playing an inside-out game. By throwing the ball down low, the overly aggressive Bucks defense would collapse on the big men, freeing up shooters on the outside. Both Jennings and Ellis get lost on defense most of the time, so the Pacers would look to take advantage of that.
Additionally, the Bucks don't have anyone outside the inconsistent Luc Richard Mbah a Moute to shut down Paul George. Their backcourt is undersized, and neither Mike Dunleavy or J.J. Redick have the athletic ability to hang with George.
A potential matchup between these two is far-fetched because of all the holes the Bucks have, and if it does happen, the Pacers hold most every advantage.
Despite being the seventh seed in the East, the Boston Celtics are among the most dangerous teams. Worse yet for the Pacers, both teams are very similar.
Granted, both teams will have to win their first-round series to meet, but if they should meet, it will likely be a grind-it-out defensive battle.
Boston has been decimated by injuries, but they are still a very dangerous team. Rajon Rondo's injury is the one that most directly affects this matchup, because the Pacers don't have an answer for him.
George Hill is a solid defensive point guard, but Rondo's pesky defense would bother Hill on the offensive side of the ball. With Rondo being out, the weakness at point guard is not such a glaring hole for the Pacers.
Inside the Celtics also lost some depth with Jared Sullinger going down with a back injury. Before the injury occurred, Sullinger was seeing his minutes increase and was playing solid basketball. With him out, Boston has had to go small with Jeff Green playing power forward.
Kevin Garnett still remains there, but rebounding is the key to this potential matchup. Will the Celtics be able to grab enough rebounds against the Pacers' long-and-tall front line? Wednesday night against the Nets, the Celtics' backup big man was Shavlik Randolph. That cannot be a good sign for them moving forward.
Boston still has one of the best coaches in the league with Doc Rivers and has the veteran leadership needed to succeed in the playoffs. They just don't have enough talent to get by the Pacers.
Outside of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, no one on the Celtics' current roster should scare you. Jordan Crawford may go bananas one game, but for every big game he has, there are three games where he hurt the team. Jason Terry can still hit the big shots, but he is well past his prime and doesn't possess the abilities to make that significant of an impact.
The Pacers are too deep one-to-five for the decimated Celtics to overcome, which is why Indiana should be able to take care of business against Boston.
If the regular season ended today, Indiana would be playing the Atlanta Hawks in the first round.
Much is still to be determined, though, as Atlanta is currently tied with Chicago for the sixth spot. Pacer fans may want to root for the Bulls over the next week, because if Derrick Rose makes a miraculous comeback, anything can happen in that series.
Against Atlanta, though, Indiana will find a frontcourt that has the ability to compete with their own. Al Horford is one of the most underrated centers in the league, and Josh Smith can be dynamic—when he cares. For as good as Smith is, he can take significant portions of the game off.
At times, there are moments when he can get lost on defense, give a listless effort for rebounds and take terrible shots. There are other times when he can look like the All-Star he is and carry a team. If the Pacers can go up early in the series on the Hawks, the enigmatic Smith is the one more likely to surface as the series draws on.
The one thing the Hawks lack is a dominant wing player. Kyle Korver is a sharpshooter from three-point range—45 percent—but he lacks the athleticism to cover Paul George on the outside. The Hawks don't have anyone who can match up with George, making him the key to this series. If the Pacers want to win, George will have to be dominant.
Getting rid of Joe Johnson in the offseason left Atlanta without a go-to scorer at the end of a game. They are essentially a group of above-average players without a superstar.
And even though the Pacers feature a team full of above-average players, Indiana's collection plays better defense—second in points per game allowed compared to 13 for Atlanta—and rebounds better—first in the league compared to 24.
Those two factors are what will have Indiana marching on to the second round, should this be the first-round matchup.
As I just mentioned, both the Hawks and Bulls are currently tied for the sixth seed in the East, meaning Indiana may see either in the first round.
Out of the two, Chicago will be the tougher out. Not only because with Derrick Rose's potential comeback the possibilities are endless, but because the Bulls are more talented and deeper than the Hawks.
Not to mention, they play better defense—third in the league—and have a dominant wing player in Luol Deng whom the Hawks don't possess. Deng gives Chicago the ability to shut down Paul George, and the recent development of Jimmy Butler gives the Bulls more depth at that position.
Chicago's problem all year has been scoring. They are 29 in the league in scoring, averaging only 92.8 points per game. Without a point guard running the show, Chicago has looked lost on offense for prolonged stretches all season long.
With Rose out, the front line of Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah has been crucial for their success. The recent injury to Noah, though, is cause for concern for many Bulls fans headed into the playoffs. The Bulls have a reliable backup option in Taj Gibson, but if Noah was to miss any extended amount of time, it would be devastating to Chicago.
For Indiana, it would be delightful. Losing Noah would open up much of the low block with Carlos Boozer's shaky defense. Gibson is a good defender, but Boozer struggles as he has allowed a 17.6 PER to opposing forwards this year, via 82games.com.
Even with Noah, the Pacers should focus down low. Deng is a great on-ball defender and will negate much of the ability Paul George has. Playing pick-and-roll offense with the big guys will open up lanes, as will playing through Roy Hibbert on the block.
The Bulls are beat up right now, giving the clear advantage to the Pacers. Should they get healthy, this would be a great series to watch if they face one another in the opening round.
Much like the Bucks, there is a slim chance Brooklyn and Indiana cross paths. And it's for the same reason—the Miami Heat.
For the two to meet, it would have to be in the Eastern Conference Finals, meaning the Nets would have to get past the Heat. Anything can happen in the playoffs, so never say never, but a matchup between the two is a stretch.
If they meet, Deron Williams will definitely prove to be a tough cover for George Hill and the Pacers. Hill has the length and athleticism to hang with Williams, but the Nets' floor general has been playing very well of late. He's averaged nearly 25 points per game on 54 percent shooting over the past six games.
Paul George should be able to handle Joe Johnson, who has been mediocre in his first season with Brooklyn. He's only averaged 16 points per game on 44 percent shooting while posting a 13.94 PER, a little below league average.
Gerald Wallace has been even worse than Johnson, leaving Wednesday night's game against Boston with a foot injury (per Mike Mazzeo of ESPNNew York). Wallace is a veteran, but this may be a case of addition by subtraction due to his abysmal play.
The Nets are a solid rebounding team with both Brook Lopez and Reggie Evans underneath. Evans doesn't contribute much on the offensive end, but he is a high-effort guy and is liable to get any rebound. David West and Roy Hibbert would have to do a good job of boxing him out.
Indiana is a little deeper than Brooklyn, and their hounding defense should be what separates them. The matchup between Hibbert and Lopez would be fun to watch, but both will likely negate each other. That is more of blow to the Nets who rely on Lopez's 19 points per game compared to Hibbert's 12.
The Knicks and Pacers are slated to play this Sunday in what should be a nice primer for the playoffs.
If Carmelo Anthony keeps playing the way he is playing, the Pacers may have no shot. In fact, if the Knicks, as a team, keep playing the way they've been playing, it could be a short series.
In the past, New York has relied on offense to power their engine. This year, though, the Knicks have ratcheted up their defense, making all the difference. The Knicks are holding opponents to under 96 points per game—eighth in the league—and are third in the league with a 75 percent defensive-rebound rate, via HoopData.
The Pacers are still the better defensive team, but the Knicks stand a very good chance in a seven-game series.
While some of their front-line depth was lost when Rasheed Wallace and Amar'e Stoudemire went down, the Knicks still have Tyson Chandler and picked up Kenyon Martin.
those guys will miss New York's next two games (per Ian Begley of ESPNNewYork), but they should be back for the playoffs. Chandler and Martin are very versatile and will give Roy Hibbert and David West trouble on both ends of the court.
The difference in this series will be how the Pacers handle the Knicks scorers. Both J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony can put a team on their back, so Paul George and Lance Stephenson better be up to the challenge. George Hill will also have a tough cover in Raymond Felton, who is also capable of carrying the scoring load.
The Knicks are very dangerous teams, especially when they hit their threes. New York shoots nearly 29 three-pointers a game and makes almost 38 percent of them. Indiana will have to lock on to the shooters of the Knicks if they want to have any chance.
That point could be moot if Anthony continues this pace. Over the past five games, he has averaged 40 points per game while shooting 60 percent from the field. And oh by the way, he has also grabbed eight rebounds a game over that stretch.
If Indiana wants to have any chance, George must shut down Anthony, or else, Indiana won't get past the Knicks.
The Pacers have played well against the Miami Heat this season, but the playoffs are a different animal.
There is no doubt the Heat are the favorites to win the Eastern Conference, if not the NBA Finals, so the Pacers' road to a championship runs through Miami.
Miami is dealing with injuries at the moment, or it may just be rest, who knows. Either way, everyone expects the Heat to be at full strength when the playoffs begin.
The Pacers do have the advantage on the inside against the Heat, although some of that advantage was negated with the signing of Chris Andersen.
Andersen brings a grittiness to the table the Heat were lacking, but still fouls at a ridiculous rate to have much of an impact—seven fouls per 48 minutes. Andersen gives the Heat size next to Chris Bosh, though, and can always be counted on for high energy off the bench.
Still, the rest of the Heat will have trouble slowing down Roy Hibbert and David West on the inside. Bosh doesn't have the length to guard Hibbert, so the big man cannot be passive on offense.
Bosh is better suited to guard David West on the perimeter, but with the Heat going small, he is forced to guard Hibbert. Indiana should slow the game down and pound the ball inside against Miami if they want to have any chance.
Even with their advantage inside, the Pacers will still have trouble slowing down LeBron James.
Paul George should be able to contain him, but there are so many other things LeBron does well to make his teammates better. With shooters like Shane Battier and Ray Allen on the outside, if the Pacers defense converges on LeBron, he has no trouble dishing it to them.
Both he and Dwyane Wade are not shy attacking the rim, which can get Indiana in foul trouble, negating their size advantage. Hibbert fouls a lot, as does Ian Mahinmi. If either are to get in early foul trouble, the Pacers could be in trouble.
Indiana does have the size and athleticism to match up with the Heat and is very capable of pulling the upset. Beating the Heat in a seven-game series is a lot to ask of this young team, though, especially if LeBron plays the way he did in last year's playoffs.