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Indiana Pacers

Are the Indiana Pacers a legitimate Eastern Conference contender?

#Pacers
Indiana looks to hold on to one of the East's top seeds (NBA Getty Images)

With 17 regular-season games remaining, the Indiana Pacers (42-23) next two games represent two of their biggest tests of the season.

Thursday, Indiana traveled to Milwaukee and fell to the No. 1 Bucks. They'll next travel to take on the No. 4 Sixers on Sunday in Philadelphia.

Despite losing Victor Oladipo to a season-ending injury on Jan. 23, the Pacers have managed to remain in the top half of the Eastern Conference standings.

As expected, things got off to a rough start as the team was without its lone All-Star and leading scorer. After rallying to win the game in which Oladipo went down, things began to look bleak for the Pacers as they would lose their next four games.

Since its Jan. 31 loss to Orlando, Indiana has won 10 of its last 15 games and currently holds a half-game lead over Philadelphia for the No. 3 seed in the East.

The past six weeks beg the question: Are the Pacers for real, or are they the most vulnerable team at the top of the East?

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Sure Not Now

Let's take a look at their formula for success:

Anchored by Myles Turner, who leads the league with 2.9 blocks per game, Indiana has the league's No. 1 scoring defence (103.7 points per game) and No. 2 rated defence (105.0 Defensive Rating).

While the low scoring is a byproduct of the Pacers playing at the league's fourth-slowest pace (98.63), the team's Defensive Rating is a reflection of the team's defensive DNA.

Over the past five seasons, only four teams in the Eastern Conference have boasted both a top-five scoring defence and top-five Defensive Rating: this year's Pacers, this year's Celtics, the 2017-18 Celtics and the 2014-15 Hawks.

Team Defensive Rating Rank Opponent PTS Rank Finish
2018-19 Boston Celtics 105.7 4 106.6 4 -
2018-19 Indiana Pacers 105.0 2 103.7 1 -
2017-18 Boston Celtics 103.1 2 100.4 3 Lost ECF to Cleveland
2014-15 Atlanta Hawks 102.2 5 97.1 5 Lost ECF to Cleveland

The difference between the Pacers and these other three teams? Boston entered last postseason with one active All-Star in Al Horford, who also happened to be one of the 2015 Hawks' four All-Stars.

Indiana won't have an All-Star on its active roster this postseason, so who will bear the load offensively and who will take the big shots late?

Since Oladipo's injury, Bojan Bogdanovic has averaged 22.1 points per game while shooting 52.1 percent from the field and connecting on 41.2 percent of his 5.7 3-point attempts. Over the same span, Bogdanovic has taken the most clutch-time shots on the team (13) while Darren Collison has taken the next most (nine).

After those two, Myles Turner, Thaddeus Young, Domantas Sabonis, Tyreke Evans and newly-acquired Wesley Matthews could all be looked upon to carry this team offensively in spurts.

The team is well coached and has a roster complete with players capable of filling each of the roles required to experience postseason success - shooters, interior scorers, veteran leaders and heady guards - but it lacks a true centrepiece.

While their ability to do things by committee is encouraging, it could be a cause for confusion down the stretch - the team is 5-6 in the 11 games that came down to clutch-time since Jan. 23.

The biggest concern surrounding this team is its ability to compete with the East's top teams - each has plenty of star power, and that's exactly what the Pacers will see in the postseason.

Indiana has gotten to where it is now by taking care of business - it's currently 30-9 against teams under .500; while plenty is to be said for defeating lesser opponents, the Pacers' 12-15 record against teams over .500 should be a cause for concern.

Even more concerning is the team's 4-8 record against the other top teams in the East.

Pacers vs. the East's Best
Team Record Remaining Games
Milwaukee Bucks 1-3 -
Toronto Raptors 1-2 -
Philadelphia 76ers 1-2 March 10
Boston Celtics 1-1 March 29, April 5

With that in mind, Indiana's next two tests double as opportunities to make a statement of legitimacy to the rest of the conference. Additionally, the Sixers trail Pacers by half a game in the standings meaning the third seed could be up for grabs come Saturday.

There is a stark difference between the Pacers holding on to the No. 3 seed to take on the Nets or Pistons, who they are 3-1 against this season, and the team falling to fourth or fifth to take on the Sixers or Celtics, who they've struggled against this year.

Ultimately, the expectations for a team that enters the postseason without its All-Star should be tempered, but don't think that means that this Pacers team will back down.

Head coach Nate McMillan has pushed this team beyond expectations time and time again; last season, the Pacers pushed LeBron and the Cavs to the brink of elimination and this season, the team has kept its head above water without Oladipo.

With the right matchup, this Indiana team could very well advance past the first round and as history indicates, anything could happen at that point.

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