Playoff Push: Pacers Fend Off Bucks, Get Help From Orlando

No NameAnalyst IApril 1, 2011

It was a big Friday night for the Pacers, as they held on to beat the Milwaukee Bucks at home and also saw the Charlotte Bobcats get handled by the Orlando Magic. The three teams continue to battle it out for the final playoff spot, but Indiana now has a much better grip.

The Pacers took advantage of another golden opportunity tonight at Conseco Fieldhouse. They had a chance to knock out one of the two teams they are battling with for a playoff spot. With tonight's big win against the Bucks, they are now four games ahead of them for the final spot, and now three games ahead of the Bobcats with just five games remaining. They didn't make it easy though.

The Pacers defeated the Bucks by a score of 89-88 on Friday night. Drew Gooden missed a game-winning shot in the final seconds to give Indiana the victory.

Danny Granger led the way tonight with 17 points for Indiana. Roy Hibbert added 15 points, 11 rebounds, and four blocks. Tyler Hansbrough and Darren Collison each scored 11 for the Pacers, with Collison also dishing seven assists. Brandon Rush had a solid night off the bench, finishing with 12 points.

The Pacers closed out a perfect three-game home stand after beating the Celtics on Monday and the Pistons on Wednesday. They will now travel to New Orleans for their second-to-last road game of the season on Sunday. The Bucks have now lost three of their last four, which included one-point losses to both the Bobcats and the Pacers this week. Now four games out of eighth place, they are essentially out of the race.

The Pacers really do need to make the playoffs this year to get some valuable playoff experience for the young players on this team. The future of this team will need to know the difference between the regular season and the postseason in the NBA, which is something that is often overlooked.

Without veteran Jeff Foster, the Pacers have just one player on the roster (Granger) that has any playoff experience and he only has six games under his belt. He started in three games in their first-round series against the New Jersey Nets in 2006.

Most players in the league on the outside looking in would be salivating at the opportunity to play in the postseason. The Pacers have shown that they want it and will scratch and claw their way to the postseason.

Their problem is that they get up for, and come after teams like Boston, Miami and the Lakers, but have been pounded by teams with worse records than they have. Just this past week they were beaten by the Kings and the Pistons, yet were able to beat the Celtics on Monday. The inconsistency they have shown this year is what scares me the most.

The key for them now is to focus on their last five games, taking each one as though it is a playoff game, because essentially, it is. They have three of their last five at home, and the last game of the season is in Orlando, who will probably be resting some guys.

Their next game will be in New Orleans on Sunday, and they are going to have to play hard for all 48 minutes. The Hornets have been on a tear since the All-Star break, but just lost their second best player, David West, for the rest of the season.

West is a guy that I love, and I think would be the best player this team could land next year. Unfortunately, I don't see it happening. There will be a lot of talk about Darren Collison's return to the "Big Easy" and his match up with Chris Paul, but he can't let that distract him. This game is really going to test the strength of this team and their ability to close out the season strong, clinching a playoff berth by winning, not with other teams losing.

Sunday's game won't be their last test though, as they have a tough stretch to end the season. Four of their last five games are against playoff teams. After the Hornets on Sunday, they will still have to do battle with the Hawks, Knicks, Wizards and Magic. If they truly do want to taste playoff basketball, they are going to have to prove it and fight every single night, for all 48 minutes.

One of the biggest things they need to fix, in my opinion, is their slow starts, particularly the first quarter. For some reason they just don't seem into it at the beginning, and the bench is heavily relied on to carry a bulk of the load into halftime.

After that, they either go on a huge run in the third quarter or fall apart in the fourth. Tonight's game was another example as they were outscored by eight points in both the first and fourth quarters, yet dominated the second and third quarters.

They have had many come from behind wins late this year, but they can't get comfortable doing that. They can't let the thought of just "flipping the switch" enter their minds. It's good to be relaxed at the beginning of a game, but they need to treat the quarters the same. Actually, if they played the first quarter of every game as though it were the third, I think they would be a .500 team.

The team's focus right now should be the New Orleans Hornets and their game on Sunday. Perhaps the Butler Bulldogs can inspire them a little on Saturday night to come out and give it 110% on Sunday.

The tip in New Orleans is set for 7:00pm.