3:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: 76ers -6.5, Over/Under: 217.5
With the Playoffs approaching, time is running out for teams to make their move, as the Philadelphia 76ers host the Indiana Pacers in a matchup featuring teams separated by a single game in the standings. Arguably the most unlikely contender to be in this position, the Pacers (42-24, 3rd in Eastern Conference) have worn the label of overachiever better than most in recent memory, maintaining their place in the Eastern Hierarchy despite the season-ending injury to their All-Star Guard, Victor Oladipo (18.8 PTS, 42.3% FG, 34.3% 3FG, 5.6 REB, 5.2 AST, 1.7 STL, 17.7 PER). The reigning Most Improved Player of the Year was off to a great start to the campaign, his second since being traded to the Pacers two summers ago, before rupturing his Right Quadriceps Tendon back in late in January. Many around the league believed that this would be a proverbial death sentence for Indiana, but nearly two months since that fateful event they’re nonetheless competing like hell at the top of the Eastern Conference. Credit goes to Nate McMillan and his Staff for keeping the ship together despite and getting the most out of the Supporting Cast in the face of such a sizable loss, for this team has won ten out of their last fifteen contests. The key here has been twofold for the Pacers, who have enjoyed the benefit of possessing some serious Depth, with six other players averaging in double-figures, including the likes of Bojan Bogdanovic (17.7 PTS, 49.9% FG, 43.1% 3FG, 4.1 REB, 1.8 AST, 0.8 STL, 16.0 PER), Myles Turner (13.2 PTS, 49.2% FG, 40.1% 3FG, 7.0 REB, 1.6 AST, 0.8 STL, 2.9 BLK, 18.2 PER), Thaddeus Young (12.6 PTS, 52.8% FG, 36.4% 3FG, 6.4 REB, 2.4 AST, 1.6 STL, 0.5 BLK, 16.6 PER), Domantas Sabonis (14.3 PTS, 61.0% FG, 57.1% 3FG, 9.3 REB, 2.7 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.4 BLK, 22.9 PER), and most notably veteran Point Guard Darren Collison (11.0 PTS, 47.0% FG, 41.5% 3FG, 3.1 REB, 6.0 AST, 1.4 STL, 16.7 PER). While none of those names may wow anyone, it’s definitely been a case of this team being greater than the sum of their parts. Of course, it also helps immensely that Indiana has been arguably the most staunch defensive team in the league this season, yielding a scant 103.9 Points per Game (1st Overall). Furthermore, they’ve relegated opponents to 44.9% shooting from the field (6th Overall), including 53.8% inside the Three-Point Arc (7th Overall), while also forcing 15.9 Turnovers (4th Overall), 8.8 of which have been Steals (3rd Overall). However, their biggest strength has been their ability to defend their opposition without fouling them. Seriously, this has been very much a lost art in the game of basketball, folks, but McMillan’s charges have been one of the best in the NBA in terms of keeping teams off the Free-Throw Line; the Pacers have permitted 15.7 Free-Throws (3rd Overall) on 20.9 Free-Throw Attempts per Game (4th Overall), with a Free-Throw/Field Goal Attempt Ratio of .184 (4th Overall).
With all that said, Indiana’s recent string of performances may lead us to believe that their starting to wear down without Oladipo, for ever since the All-Star Break this has been a team that has struggled to close. Losers of four out of their last six tilts, the Pacers may have reached their nadir in a disappointing 98-117 blowout loss to the East-leading Milwaukee Bucks last Thursday Night. This one looked preordained, folks, for the Bucks were coming off back-to-back defeats for the first time this season, and the visiting Pacers were to be without the aforementioned Sabonis, who has been nursing a sore ankle of late. With the game very much close midway through the Third Quarter (64-67), the hosts went on a 13-0 run that pushed the score out of reach for the visiting side, who trailed 64-80 towards the end of the stanza. Another 12-0 run from Milwaukee sealed the deal, as Indiana struggled mightily to throw the ball into the ocean, shooting a dismal 38.9% from the field, despite assisting on Twenty-Six of their Thirty-Five Field Goals in comparison to committing just Ten Turnovers, and hanging around on the strength of 14-of-37 shooting from beyond the arc (37.8%). Five different players scored in double-figures, led by Turner, who totaled Twenty-Two Points on 8-of-19 shooting (42.1%), including 4-of-11 from downtown (36.4%), Seventeen Rebounds, Three Assists, and Three Blocks. Bogdanovic added Seventeen Points on 6-of-15 shooting (40.0%), though Collison had a terrible night with just Nine Points on 2-of-7 shooting (28.6%), though dished out Nine Assists. Equally disappointing to their shooting was their Defense, for the Bucks had their way them, shooting 50.0% from the floor, including 14-of-35 from the perimeter (40.0%), and outrebounded them 52-40. With the first leg of this crucial stretch against Eastern Powerhouses being a failure, they’ll look to square the season series with the Sixers, who have taken two out of the previous three meetings, including the most recent a 120-96 route back in mid-January.
Meanwhile, the time is now for the 76ers (41-25, 4th in Eastern Conference), who currently trail their opponent tonight by a single game in the standings. This particular meeting with Indiana is significant on multiple levels for Philadelphia, for the fact that a win would grant them the luxury of any tiebreaker in the event that they wind up with the same record when the Regular Season comes to it’s conclusion, and what it could mean in terms of potential opponents in the Playoffs. While there is likely too much ground to cover and not enough time to do so in catching up to the Bucks or Raptors, staying in Fourth in the East would likely set up a rematch with the struggling Boston Celtics, who of course eliminated Brett Brown’s charges in the Eastern Conference Semifinals a year ago. Say what you will about the Celtics, but they’ve had Philly’s number and matchup with them very well, creating the least ideal potential opponent for this team to face in the First Round. Ascending to Third Place would set up a potential meeting with the Detroit Pistons, who at just two games above .500, would be a far more favorable matchup, for after Boston there is a considerable drop-off in terms of quality in the Eastern Conference. Of course, time is also running out on this particular team, that has changed faces throughout the campaign, to come together and form the requisite chemistry for that lengthy Playoff Run that everyone has been pegging them for since the Summer. Given his previous challenges coaching this team, the 2018-2019 term has been an altogether different challenge for Brown and his Staff, for in addition to the weight of lofty expectations, the roster has been in consistent flux due to a pair of significant trades, the first being the acquisition of Jimmy Butler (18.6 PTS, 47.1% FG, 33.6% 3FG, 5.2 REB, 3.9 AST, 1.9 STL, 0.5 BLK, 20.3 PER) back in mid-November, after the All-Star Shooting Guard fell out with the Minnesota Timberwolves, and the second being a Trade Deadline Deal for Tobias Harris (20.9 PTS, 52.5% FG, 40.0% 3FG, 8.0 REB, 2.5 AST, 0.4 STL, 0.7 BLK, 18.5 PER) from the Los Angeles Clippers, another versatile two-way swingman. It’s not unrealistic to think that integrating these new faces has been far from easy, for the results give credence to that notion; Philadelphia has gone 7-5 since acquiring the latter, and a middling 4-4 since emerging from the All-Star Break. After all, one of the most underappreciated traits of this group last season was their Depth, with their Bench playing a huge role during their post All-Star Break surge that propelled them up the ladder in the Eastern Conference. Now, the 76ers have become a team that relies far more on their Starting Five with a much shorter rotation, with the chemistry still very much in question.
With that said, it’s difficult to build the proper chemistry to contend for a championship without the necessary parts, which is where the Sixers find themselves at the moment. We wouldn’t recommend competing for a higher Seed without your best player, but that’s exactly what’s happened as All-Star Center Joel Embiid (27.3 PTS, 48.2% FG, 29.5% 3FG, 13.5 REB, 3.5 AST, 0.6 STL, 1.9 BLK, 25.5 PER) has now missed each of the past Eight Games with soreness in his Left Knee. Given his injury history, it certainly makes sense that Philadelphia would take absolutely every precaution with the 24-year old, even though his presence has been sorely missed, which was evident in their most recent outing, a 91-107 defeat at the surging Houston Rockets. This one was over early, folks, for the hosts struck quickly and frequently, establishing a commanding 37-21 lead at the end of the First Quarter. As a team, they appeared like a deer in the headlights, unable to keep pace with Houston’s prolific offense, shooting a miserable 36.8% from the field, including a woeful 3-of-26 from beyond the arc (11.5%), getting outscored in that regard by Thirty Points. Furthermore, they committed nearly as many Turnovers (18) as Assists (20), with All-Star Point Guard Ben Simmons (17.0 PTS, 56.1% FG, 9.2 REB, 7.9 AST, 1.4 STL, 0.7 BLK, 20.0 PER) accounting for Seven Turnovers, despite totaling Fifteen Points and Ten Assists. The aforementioned Harris continued his impressive play leading the way with Twenty-Two Points on 10-of-15 shooting (66.7%), including 2-of-4 from downtown (50.0%), while Butler added another Nineteen Points on 8-of-18 shooting (44.4%), with Nine Rebounds, Three Assists, and a pair of Blocks.