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NBA Daily: Race to the Eastern Conference Playoffs

We’re finally entering the homestretch of the 2018-2019 NBA season. Every team in the league has either five or six games left in their season. With such little time left, the playoff picture is almost all but formed.

The top eight teams in the Western Conference have all clinched playoff berths. What remains to be seen is who goes where. Basically, there’s a two-team battle for every odd-number seed in the conference. For the first seed, we have Golden State and Denver. For the third seed, we have Houston and Portland – Prayers up for Jusuf Nurkic. For the fifth seed, we have Utah and the Clippers. For the seventh seed, we have San Antonio and Oklahoma City.

Who finishes where could very strongly impact how the playoffs turn out in the West. In the east, there’s more uncertainty. Only five teams have clinched a spot – Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia, Boston, Indiana – while there are a game and a half difference between four teams for the last three spots – Detroit, Brooklyn, Miami, Orlando.

So much can happen between now and when the regular season concludes. Among all the possibilities, there is only one matchup that is pretty much set in stone, and that is the first-round matchup between the Boston Celtics and the Indiana Pacers.

Unless Philadelphia has the collapse of all collapses and/or Detroit has the uprise of all uprises, the Celtics and the Pacers will face off in the playoffs for the first time since 2005. Since their matchup looks more and more inevitable by the day, it’s worth examining just how these two teams got to where they are.

When the season started, Boston was viewed as a potential juggernaut having come off a Cinderella run in the playoffs who was getting their two stars back healthy. Having done what they had done last season, the Celtics were considered the favorite to represent the east in the finals.

Indiana was not put in the same category as Boston, but it wasn’t too far behind its rival. Coming off a remarkable that absolutely nobody saw coming, Indiana was seen as a team that, though not perceived as a contender, was on the rise and would be a tough team for anyone to play on any given night.

Amazingly, both teams currently sport the same record at 45-32. Compared to their respective expectations at the beginning of the season, both have disappointed because of unforeseen circumstances.

It’s unfair to associate the Pacers’ season with the word “disappointing” because they’ve done what they could. The only reason why – from a technical standpoint – they have disappointed is because of Victor Oladipo’s ill-fated season-ending knee injury, which will most likely prevent them from topping last season’s win total of 48.

Putting their expectations early on aside, what Indiana has done despite losing its undisputed leader in ‘Dipo. The Pacers have gone 14-17 since their all-star went down (That includes the very game he sustained his injury against Toronto) and have had the 23rd-highest offensive rating (108.7) and 9th-highest defensive rating (108.3).

A net rating of +0.4 is average at best, but in the wake of losing the teams sole All-Star, you can’t ask for much more than that. What’s more, is that the team is still sticking to its togetherness in that time.

Bojan Bogdanovic has taken the reins as the team’s leading scorer, averaging 21.5 points on 51/43/79 shooting splits. Myles Turner has made some strides in both his shot-blocking and three-point shooting, averaging 2.6 blocks a game and shooting 35.6 percent from three on 3.6 attempts a game. Darren Collison has picked up some of the scoring slack – 14.6 points a game – and Wes Matthews has fit in about as well as you could expect.

March did not treat Indy well, as they went 4-10 – including losing seven of its last eight games – but the ship hasn’t sunk. Because of that, for the second consecutive season, the Pacers’ are one of the NBA’s most likable teams. The same cannot be said for their likely playoff rival.

For the Celtics, calling their season “disappointing” is putting it lightly. Boston still has plenty of depth, currently has the sixth-best net rating, and yet it still hasn’t gotten past its demons.

The team’s had its excuses. Gordon Hayward’s recovery has taken longer than expected. Al Horford dealt with a knee injury early on in the season. Jaylen Brown was borderline unplayable early on. Jayson Tatum’s shot selection was iffy. The list goes on.

A fair amount of those issues have been mitigated for the most part. Hayward is playing much better in rhythm. The Celtics are taking proper precautions with Horford. Brown has been playing excellent basketball since being moved to the bench. Tatum has been taking more good shots than bad.

Somehow, the Celtics just can’t get over the hump and still find ways to hit a new low. After the trade deadline, the team built a 28-point lead on the Clippers at home and wound up losing by 11. Just last week, the team had an 18-point lead on the Hornets in Charlotte with seven minutes to go and wound up losing by seven.

The Celtics still have quality wins against their top competition in the conference, and not too long ago, they handed Golden State one the franchise’s worst losses in recent memory. All of this points to Boston clearly having the talent to be great, but its mental weakness keeps the team from reaching its potential.

Remember how the Pacers had a net rating of +0.4 when Oladipo went down. In that same span, the Celtics, who were mostly healthy outside of Aron Baynes, have a net rating of +1.2. Baynes’ absence is nothing to sneeze at, but when compared to the loss Oladipo, the Celtics should not only slightly better than the Pacers in that regard.

Because of that, the tables have turned for the Celtics. After being one of the league’s most enjoyable underdogs over the last four seasons, the Celtics have become one of the NBA’s least likable teams.

That’s what makes Boston’s matchup with Indiana so riveting. The Pacers are a team that is completely devoid of talent whose mental strength and chemistry help them play to the best of their abilities. The Celtics are a team that is overabundant in talent whose mental weakness and lack of chemistry prevents them from playing to the best of their abilities. Seeing them face off should be a sight to behold.

If their similar records despite polar opposite seasons aren’t enough evidence of that, watch the last 2:50 of the most recent game between the two of them.

When the series is over between them, it’s either going to be the story of an underdog rising up to defy the odds, or it’s going to be the story of an underachiever finally getting over its mental hurdles to become the team it’s wanted to be.

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