The Indiana Pacers look to keep their slim hopes alive of winning the Central Division title when they open a regular-season-ending home-and-home series against Charlotte Hornets on Sunday afternoon in Charlotte, N.C.
The Pacers (47-33) trail the first-place Cleveland Cavaliers (49-31) by two games with two remaining but hold the tiebreaker advantage. So if they sweep the Hornets and the Cavaliers lose both ends of a home-and-home against the New York Knicks, the Pacers could still steal the Central title.
More likely, the Pacers appear headed for the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, where it is possible they will draw the Cavaliers in the first round.
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The Pacers won the season series from the Cavaliers 3-1, including a 124-107 win in Cleveland in November.
Indiana has won six of its last eight games, including a 126-106 home blowout of the defending champion Golden State Warriors in an emotionally charged game on Thursday.
But the Pacers seemed to run out of gas on the second night of a back-to-back Friday at Toronto, falling 92-73 to the East’s top team in a defeat that virtually sealed Indiana’s fate in the division race.
Recognizing the importance of the game against the Raptors, Pacers coach Nate McMillan seemed resigned to a second-place finish after the defeat.
“They gave us what they had,” he said of the tough back-to-back in the final week of the season. “Our guys just didn’t have it.”
The Pacers can’t fall any lower than fifth in the seedings, so McMillan is afforded to luxury of resting key guys in the final two games should he choose.
One smaller team goal that remains is the possibility of a winning record on the road. The Pacers will take the court today with a 20-20 record away from home.
If there has been a poster team for playing hard in meaningless games, it has been Charlotte (35-45).
After suffering a 41st loss against Philadelphia on March 19, assuring they couldn’t finish with a winning record, the Hornets have won five of nine games.
Three of the four losses came against three of the East’s playoff teams — Cleveland, Washington and Philadelphia.
Rookie Malik Monk exemplified the Hornets’ late-season positive attitude with a career-best 26 points in Friday’s 137-100 win in Orlando.
“I don’t think it’s ever going to get any better than that,” he said. “I’m going out there to play like it’s LeBron (James), Russell Westbrook, anybody like that.”
Monk went 8 of 14 from the field and 4 of 6 on 3-pointers while matching his career high in assists with eight in arguably the Hornets’ best game of the season.
Charlotte shot 56 percent overall, 55 percent on 3-pointers, and 92 percent from the free throw line.
Monk has scored in double figures in eight of his last 11 games after scoring 10 or more just six times in Charlotte’s first 69 games.
His current stretch includes 13- and 16-point outings against Philadelphia, and 17 against Washington.
Monk saw no action earlier this season when the Hornets split two games against the Pacers.
Kemba Walker was the big scorer with 41 points when Charlotte, at home, surprised Indiana 133-126 in February.