Tough Week Ahead for PacersBy Alex H.
Currently leading the Central Division, Indiana faces a tough week ahead with a pair of solid Western Conference opponents arriving in town, a trip north of the border, and a divisional game against the trailing Bulls.
Winners of four straight and nine of the last 11, Indiana (35-21) has climbed into second place in the Eastern Conference, taking advantage of a slumping New York. After the Knicks defeated Philadelphia on Sunday night, the Pacers are one-half game ahead of the Manhattan side, and six games behind the Eastern Conference-leading Miami Heat.
Forward Danny Granger – who injured his knee on the eve of the season – returned Saturday night, giving the Pacers 19 minutes. His two points on 1-10 shooting may have been underwhelming but it’s to be expected of a player taking the court for the first time this season. The Pacers have time to ease him back into playing shape too.
Granger’s absence saw the emergence of Paul George, who received his first All-Star nod earlier this month. George has taken the team on his back, averaging 17.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game, all career bests.
The Pacers are now in a position to contend for the Eastern Conference championship. While most believe Miami will walk away with that accolade, this Pacers team will be on the list of ones to avoid come playoff time. And the Heat will remember dropping to 2-1 against Indiana in the conference semis last year.
This week the Pacers can continue to stay ahead of the Bulls in the division standings and look to cut the gap with Miami at the top of the conference standings. It won’t be easy though.
The Pacers host Golden State (33-23) on Tuesday, and while the Warriors fell into a six-game slump around the All-Star break, three straight wins looks to have the team back on track. Indiana will enter this game as favorite, but the side will be cautious with a 103-92 loss to the Warriors on Dec. 1 firmly at the front of the mind.
After the Warriors have been and gone, the Pacers will host the Los Angeles Clippers (40-18) on Thursday. The Clippers have won five of the last six and will be hoping that the downturn the side faced earlier this year – when the team lost eight of 11 – is well and truly in the rearview mirror.
Friday will see a quick flight across the border to Ontario to take on the Toronto Raptors (23-33), a team currently looking revitalized since the arrival of Rudy Gay. The Raptors have gone 6-1 over the last seven games, and it’s not beyond the realms of plausibility that the side could be contending for the final playoff spot soon. To make things more interesting, the Raptors have beaten the Pacers in the previous two meetings between the sides, both played in Indiana, and Indiana will need to win to even this year’s season series at 2-2.
The Pacers will fly back from Toronto to face Chicago (32-24) on Sunday. Depending how this week plays out, this top of the division clash could actually decide whether the Bulls pass the Pacers in the standings. Alternatively, it could see the Pacers move into an almost insurmountable position. The Pacers have won both earlier games between the sides this season.
The Week Ahead
A 102-72 loss in Oklahoma City on Sunday night wasn’t so much disappointing as embarrassing. Losers of seven of the last 11, the Bulls are in a tailspin and Derrick Rose’s non-return and those comments made by his brother/agent were of no help to anybody. Tom Thibodeau’s side can stop the rot early this week with home games against Cleveland (Tue.) and Philadelphia (Thur.) but it gets tricky after that. Brooklyn comes to town on Saturday before the Bulls head out to Indiana for the second half of a back-to-back on Sunday.
At eight games back of the Pacers, Milwaukee’s divisional chances look bleaker by the day. Worse than that though, the Bucks have lost nine of the last 11 and will now be glancing nervously over the shoulder as they try to hold onto the final playoff berth. Toronto has won six of the last seven and is now within four games of the down-trending Bucks for that berth, and as fate would have it, the two sides meet this coming Saturday. There’s no better time for the Bucks to stamp their mark on the Raptors. Ahead of that, the Bucks head to Texas for a back-to-back with Dallas (Tue.) and Houston (Wed.).
Having dropped both games of a home-and-home with Indiana on Friday and Saturday, there’s little hope left for the Pistons this year. That being said, Detroit is just six games behind Milwaukee, and even this late in the season, that’s a number that can be breached, especially with how bad the Bucks are playing. In order to even think about catching the Wisconsin side, Detroit needs to play like it did at the turn of the year – when it went 7-3 – rather than the erratic form we’ve seen of late. A home game against Atlanta (Mon.) sees the Pistons a two-point underdog. After that, the side heads out on the road for three, taking in trips to Washington (Wed.), New Orleans (Fri.), and San Antonio (Sun.). That’s a tougher schedule than it looks.
With the Cavaliers’ season done, Cleveland fans might choose to daydream about the return of LeBron rather than see out the remaining 26 games of the season. But then again, the play of Kyrie Irving is worth the price of admission at the moment. It’s a quiet week for the Cavaliers but one with potential. Byron Scott’s side takes on the surging Raptors at Quicken Loans Arena on Wednesday, before hosting the Clippers on Friday. The good news for the Cavaliers is that the Clippers play the previous night in Indiana. An upset could well be in the air.