The Indiana Pacers, part of a three-team scramble for the Eastern Conference’s last two playoff berths, are hitting their stride at just the right moment.
The Pacers, who visit the Philadelphia 76ers on Monday night, improved to 40-40 by beating the Orlando Magic 127-112 on Saturday. It was the third straight victory for Indiana, which sits in seventh place in the East, one game ahead of Chicago (39-41) and Miami (39-41).
The Pacers can clinch a playoff spot with a victory in Philadelphia, coupled with either a Bulls loss to Orlando or a Heat loss to Cleveland. Indiana would secure a berth with one win in its final two games and one loss by either Chicago or Miami.
The Pacers close out the regular season with a home game Wednesday against the Atlanta Hawks. Chicago hosts the Brooklyn Nets that night, and Miami hosts the Washington Wizards.
All-Star forward Paul George scored 37 points to lead the Pacers over the Magic. Myles Turner added 23 points and 10 rebounds.
“In the bigger picture, we did what we were supposed to do to handle our business and keep our hopes alive,” George told the Indianapolis Star. “At this point, we’re not really worried about what everybody else outside of us is doing. Again, we’ve got to get this win in Philly and lock up a spot.”
Indiana has been without guard/forward Glenn Robinson III (left calf strain) the past eight games and veteran big man Al Jefferson (sprained left ankle) the past six. Jefferson has been in uniform and on the bench the last two games, however, and would have been available in an emergency. He should be back in the rotation if the Pacers reach the playoffs, according to the Star.
Indiana has not been held back by those absences, following a four-game losing streak with its current three-game run.
“For this group to come together like this toward the end of the season is huge for us,” forward Thaddeus Young, an ex-Sixer, told the Star. “It gives us some momentum in what we’re trying to do, which is try to solidify this playoff position. We’re just playing good basketball right now. The mood (in the locker room) is focused on the next game.”
Young’s former team is, in the meantime, focused on the future. The Sixers fell 90-82 to the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday night, their sixth straight defeat. Richaun Holmes had 17 points and 10 rebounds, but the Sixers shot 22 percent from the floor while being outscored 25-12 in the pivotal third quarter and 29.7 percent in the second half.
Philadelphia, which has lost six players to injuries for the season, has made just 35.7 percent of its shots over its last two games, and 23.4 percent of its 3-point attempts.
“There’s no team in the NBA that has gone through injuries like we have,” point guard T.J. McConnell said. “We just can’t make excuses. We know what has happened and we just have to keep fighting, playing together and finish up the season strong.”
Holmes has been a bright spot. The second-year center, who has seen the first extensive action of his career because of all the injuries, has double-doubles in each of his last two games. He also has five such outings in 24 games since the All-Star break, and is averaging 13.4 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocked shots in that stretch.