While significant injuries on title-contending teams have complicated the Western Conference standings and caused speculation of potentially brutal first-round matchups for the top seeds, the Indiana Pacers have more quietly put themselves back in playoff contention in the East.
Last season’s top seed is a game out of the No. 8 spot and further gains could be coming Saturday night in Philadelphia, though the 76ers have won two of three.
Indiana (15-23), winner of eight of 14 after Friday’s 107-103 home overtime victory over Boston, hasn’t gotten perfectly healthy as the season has gone on, but it has started to play some defense in line with what it did last season.
The Pacers have held opponents to 42.0 percent shooting and 31.2 percent from 3-point range in the past 14 games after allowing 46.3 and 35.0 from 3 on their preceding eight-game losing streak.
There’s been similar improvement offensively with a scoring boost of 6.0 points between their season-opening 7-17 stretch (93.2 points per game) and the last 14 (99.2).
That’s had to do with getting the ball inside to Roy Hibbert and having perimeter players get to the rim.
"Coach has been talking about it and we’ve been putting an effort to getting to the basket some," C.J. Miles told the team’s official website. "… We’re just doing job of being aggressive and trying to get there."
Miles scored 17 against the Celtics and is averaging 18.2 in the last six games.
Hibbert finished with 19 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks two nights after being limited to six minutes in a loss to Golden State due to a sprained left ankle. In the last four games he’s played normal minutes, Hibbert has scored 17.8 points while attempting 13.8 shots, and the Pacers have gone 3-1. For the season, he’s averaging 11.5 points and 9.8 attempts.
"That’s kind of our bread and butter, throw the ball down low, try to get Roy to draw some early fouls and buckets and get us in the penalty early. After that we can drive to the basket more," C.J. Watson said.
While the Pacers are gaining on Miami with a chance to close the gap to a half-game, the 76ers (6-29) are pulling away from someone – the New York Knicks at the bottom of the Atlantic Division.
Three games clear of the cellar with a comparatively inconspicuous 6-12 record since their 0-17 start grabbed them plenty of backhanded attention, they’re seeking consecutive wins for the second time this season after Friday’s 90-88 win in Brooklyn.
Nerlens Noel scored 12 points one game after a 13-point effort in Wednesday’s 97-77 home loss to Milwaukee. The rookie big man has gone 6 for 10 in each of the past two after shooting 29.2 percent in his previous eight.
The team shot 45.6 percent – cracking 45.0 for the ninth time – but consistency remains elusive. The 76ers haven’t shot 45.0 percent in consecutive games this season.
"They find a way to compete," coach Brett Brown said. "They represent the city of Philadelphia and they represent themselves with a level of spirit and toughness most nights, and I’m proud of them for that."
The problem is Philadelphia is still just 1-15 at home and getting destroyed in its losses regardless of venue. Even dating to winning that first game back on Dec. 3, the 12 losses have come by an average of 19.7 points.
The Pacers swept the three-game series a season ago and won 103-91 in Indianapolis on Oct. 29. Hibbert and Philadelphia’s Tony Wroten had 22 points each.
Indiana guard George Hill (strained left groin) has missed the last five games.