The Indiana Pacers surprised everyone when they stormed into the playoffs and took out the two-seeded Toronto Raptors in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinals series. The Raptors are largely regarded as the team in the East with the best chance at taking down the Cleveland Cavaliers due to their quality defense and star-studded backcourt. On the flip side, though, the Pacers have a lot of support as a dark horse in the playoff upset category.
But then the Raptors came back, won Game 2 of the series, and will head to Indiana to play Games 3 and 4, looking to head back north of the border with a commanding hold over the Pacers. To do so, they’ll need to have better performances from their guards; Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan both shot under 30% from the field in the first two games.
But what about the Pacers? Let’s say that they can sustain their high level of play and get superior performances from forward Paul George when the series returns to Indiana. Can the Pacers actually upset the Raptors in the first round of the playoffs? And if they do, how far could they go in the East? Are they among the serious threats to the Cavs’ perceived easy path to the NBA Finals?
The Raptors were 3-1 against the Pacers in the regular season, but those games don’t matter quite as much once the playoffs start and you’re locked in to the same schedule as the other team. Just two teams playing each other in a best-of-seven, strategizing and thinking about nothing but the team on the other end of the court.
The Pacers, like the Raptors, are a quality defensive team. Their backcourt of George Hill, Monta Ellis, and role players Solomon Hill and Rodney Stuckey have performed well to this point, frustrating the tandem of Lowry and DeRozan. If the Pacers are going to move on to the second round, they will have to get more of the same during the rest of the series. They’ll need George to keep performing like a superstar, too.
In the 2013-14 season, George was a 23-year-old on his way to the top, averaging 21.7 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. But that summer involved a fateful scrimmage with Team USA in which George landed awkwardly against the basket support and gruesomely snapped his leg in half. After missing nearly all of last season, George returned this year with a lot of questions surrounding his performance.
Would he return to perform on his same career arch? He silenced the critics almost immediately, averaging 27.9 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game in his first 20 games played. He dropped off a bit after that, though, scoring 21.6 points on just 40.6% shooting the rest of the way.
But George has stepped up in the bright lights of the playoffs, and if he can keep playing like the guy from the first two months of the season, then the Pacers have a good shot at moving to the second round. That would mean a matchup with either the Charlotte Hornets or Miami Heat (the Heat currently lead the series, 1-0), which isn’t all that terrifying for Indiana — despite their seventh seed in the East.
Both Charlotte and Miami finished just three games ahead of the Pacers in the standings, with all of them a part of a massive Eastern Conference jumble that saw the third-place Heat and the eighth-place Detroit Pistons only separated by four games. The Pacers may not be favored against either of those teams, but there would be plenty of fans and objective analysts who think the Pacers have a reasonable shot at moving on yet again.
And that takes us to the idea that the Pacers could reasonably be the opponent to the Cleveland Cavaliers — or whichever team moves on from the top of the bracket — in the Eastern Conference Finals. It doesn’t seem like a likely scenario, but who knows what could happen at this point? With the East being so close in talent and the parity becoming more apparent each year, it doesn’t seem like too much of a stretch to suggest that a seven-seed could advance to the conference finals.
It also doesn’t seem out of the ordinary to suggest that the Raptors might win the next three consecutive games, either. The Pacers didn’t exactly blow away their opponents this year, and they were prone to stretches where they’d play bad basketball and lose games they should win. We can’t really predict how far the Pacers will actually go, but at least we know they have a chance.
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