The Indiana Pacers are currently on track to face the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs but whether they will have home-court advantage or not has yet to be determined.
The two matchups that the Pacers and Celtics have with each other to close the regular season could determine who finishes fourth and fifth in the Eastern Conference standings. The first of these games will take place tonight with the next occurring on April 5.
Neither team appears to have a clear advantage over the other at the moment and they have been similar in a variety of ways lately. It starts with the fact that they are both heading into their upcoming matchup with a mere 7-10 record since the All-Star break and have lost four of their previous five games.
“We want to play well against them and also get home court,” Celtics star Gordon Hayward told Mass-Live about the matchup with the Pacers. “They’re a good team. They play together, they move the ball well, they play to their strengths, they’re going to be tough. I think it will be a fun game for us, hopefully one we can look to improve and kinda get ourselves going.”
The main contributor to both teams’ recent struggles has been their defensive execution no longer being enough to compensate for subpar offensive results. Indiana and Boston both boast a top-five defense overall on the season, but their results have slipped.
The numbers behind the Pacers’ struggles since the All-Star break are telling even with the fact that their schedule has been difficult. They have posted a 108.1 offensive rating (24th), a 109.2 defensive rating, and a -1.1-net rating (18th) during this period.
Indiana has mostly had problems with executing during its road games lately. The Pacers have gone 1-9 away from Bankers Life Fieldhouse since the All-Star break and have posted a terrible 103.1 offensive rating (29th), a 111.6 defensive rating (17th), and a -8.5-net rating (27th). No longer having Victor Oladipo to take over games when things aren’t going well has been a problem.
“Having home advantage in the playoffs is going to be big-time for us,” Pacers forward Bojan Bogdanovic told J. Michael of the Indianapolis Star. “We’re going to face Boston twice before the playoffs and then in the playoffs. We’ve got to take care of business those two games.”
Boston is not going to allow a down stretch of play to change its perception of the Pacers. The Celtics even see a resemblance of their team from last season when they went on a deep playoff run without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward because they compete with toughness and are an unselfish unit.
“They are tough, they play hard, they play together, they can go to a number of different guys. Their big guys are excellent and underrated. And then their wings are all capable of going off,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens told 98.5′s Zolak and Bertrand about the Pacers. “Even without Oladipo, and I think it reminds me a little bit of our team from last year, they lose Oladipo and other guys just step right up. And their toughness stands out. Their physicality stands out.”
As for the Celtics, they have recorded just a 109.6 offensive rating (20th), 111.3 defensive rating (19th), and a -1.7-net rating (20th) since the All-Star break. They have been unable to find chemistry on the offensive end of the floor while their defense has deteriorated. Regardless, there is still a chance that they could flip the proverbial switch come playoff time.
It doesn’t help the Pacers that the Celtics’ top playmakers like Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum are at positions where they lack proficient on-ball defenders. What makes it even more difficult is the fact that Al Horford provides a strong impact as a stretch-five with his jump shooting and facilitation and that will pull Myles Turner’s rim protection away from the paint.
The ultimate key for Indiana will be whether or not it can produce enough offensive results come playoff time. Role players typically are inconsistent in post-season situations and while Bojan Bogdanovic has handled the role of being the team’s leading scorer well since Oladipo’s injury, he has never had to do it over the course of a playoff series against an elite defense.
For the Pacers to land home-court advantage, it is important that they take care of business against the Celtics. The season-series is currently tied 1-1 and Boston will hold the tie-breaker if they split the next two matchups.
Grant Afseth is the Tribune’s Pacers columnist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.