Pacers Edge Closer; Bulls Still Battling

Lance Stephenson's triple-double helped the Indiana Pacers topple the Oklahomc City Thunder.

Lance Stephenson’s triple-double helped the Indiana Pacers topple the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Indiana Pacers moved a step closer to securing the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed Sunday afternoon with a 102-97 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

With criticism running rife at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in recent weeks, the Pacers needed to put in a strong performance against the No. 2 team in the Western Conference.  That’s exactly what they did.

After sitting his entire starting lineup against the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday and then watching his side lose to the Miami Heat on Friday night, head coach Frank Vogel was happier to watch as the Pacers operated well at both ends of the floor.

David West led all Pacers with 21 points while Paul George added 20 points to go alongside 12 boards. Lance Stephenson’s fifth triple-double of the season (17pts, 10rebs, 11asts) – which broke the franchise record for most in a season and tops all players this season – helped put the Pacers in position to win. Strong bench performances from C.J. Watson (20pts), Ian Mahinmi (11pts) and Luis Scola (10pts) put the team over the hump.

The Pacers out-rebounded the Thunder 46-32 and held their opponent’s to 25.0 percent shooting from beyond the three-point line, 11 percentage points below their season average.

The final score was enough to propel Indiana (55-26) back into the Eastern Conference top spot, where it now sits one-game up on Miami (54-26) in the win column.

Crucially, the Pacers own the tiebreaker over the Heat; the Pacers are 37-14 against Eastern Conference opponents, while the Heat is 34-16. As a result, Vogel’s side could lockdown the top seed if the Heat loses on Monday night to the Washington Wizards.

Miami Heat vs. Washington Wizards odds for 04/14/2014

Alternatively, if the Heat wins at the Verizon Center, the Pacers could still secure top spot with a win over the Orlando Magic on Wednesday, or a Heat loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.

While the Pacers are in a good position to finish first, not everybody is confident the team has gotten past its recent poor run of poor form.

The Pacers are still 4-8 over the past 12 games and have picked up just one road win in their last eight – a part of a larger run of 4-10 on the road – which means a win in Orlando is by no means assured. In fact, the Pacers lost 93-92 in their last trip to The City Beautiful.

The race for the top spot is still very much on.

A loss to the Knicks on Sunday saw the Bulls move into a tie with the Toronto Raptors.

A loss to the Knicks on Sunday saw the Bulls move into a tie with the Toronto Raptors.

The Pacers aren’t the only Central Division team involved in a frenetic last-minute playoff race. The Chicago Bulls continue to make a bid for a third place finish but are facing stiff competition from Atlantic Division champions the Toronto Raptors.

The Bulls (47-33) suffered a lapse Sunday, losing 100-89 to the down and out New York Knicks. With the Raptors winning on Sunday, the Bulls are now tied with Toronto (47-33), a scenario that suits the team from north of the border as division champions.

Chicago has two games left to climb above the Raptors, beginning with Monday night’s home clash against Orlando.

Orlando Magic vs. Chicago Bulls odds for 04/14/2014

The Magic earned an unlikely 83-82 victory in its last visit to the United Center on December 16, but the Bulls – who sport an Eastern Conference-best 35-15 record since the turn of the year – look like a very different prospect this time around.

Toronto meanwhile will host Milwaukee at Air Canada Centre on Monday. The Raptors are 3-0 against the NBA-worst Bucks this season.

Milwaukee Bucks vs. Toronto Raptors odds for 04/14/2014

The two challengers for the No. 3 spot will close out the season on the road on Wednesday, with the Bulls visiting the Charlotte Bobcats and the Raptors visiting New York.

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