After the Pacers win over the Thunder Sunday, it's a bit easier to say that Indiana hasn't totally and irreversibly become a total shell of the team they once were earlier this season. But prior to Sunday, they had been showcasing on a stunning fall from grace, going 8-13 in their last 21 games.
For the top team in the East, it's been quite the unraveling. A couple wins against the East's elite -- Miami and Chicago -- were the two high points of their wins, the rest coming against scuzzbuckets like Detroit, Philadelphia, Milwaukee and Boston. Meanwhile, their losses ranged from close games against good teams to downright embarrassments against teams they ought to beat like Cleveland.
So Indiana hasn't really looked like themselves. Paul George said "We get up for the high games, and we kind of maintain in games we think we should win," but that hasn't exactly been true, as evidenced by 26-point losses to San Antonio and Houston.
As their problems began to kill their pillow over Miami for the top seed, the Pacers became more frustrated. "Some selfish dudes in here," Roy Hibbert said after a loss to Washington. Their execution on offense had dwindled as the focus dropped. Players didn't set screens as well, failing to place the pick long enough to effectively hinder the defender, and their passing didn't have the impact they needed to.
With on-court and off-court frustrations seemingly reaching a fever pitch, people (such as yours truly) have wondered if teams trying to fight out of the lower seeds really should want to avoid playing the Pacers, who have now reclaimed the top seed, but only by a mere half-game.
Jacob Frankel, of Hickory High, wondered the same thing: Does the Pacers' post-All-Star break slide bode poorly for their playoff chances? Put more broadly, does performing worse closer to the playoffs correlate with worse playoff performance, or is doubting them an act of recency bias and small sample size?
In his research he found that post-All-Star break performance matters little in the predictive ability for the playoffs. Pre-All-Star break proved to be better indicators of postseason success, starkly ahead of post-All-Star break's correlation. Ultimately, he decides that a larger sample size is a much better indicator for how a team does in the playoffs.
But he notes that there's more nuance to the argument than just his statistical findings: There's not enough historical statistics to supply him with the necessary information to build his base; There's little historical comparison to an outlier like the dropoff the Pacers have had.
He's right; there is a lot of nuance and variables in this equation.
Indiana's had a fair amount of roster turnover, with fairly big additions of Andrew Bynum and Evan Turner joining the team later in the season. But they've started the same five guys 74 times this season. There have been bench changes in the rotation, but when 30 minutes a game at each position are going to the starters, the Pacers struggles go so much further than the bench (which has been bad).
There isn't much time for Indiana to tighten the bolts and do a tune-up for the playoffs, but they're much the same team they were, just with significant execution problems. On a team that's not very good on offense already, their scoring issues have become exacerbated to the nth degree. They've scored 95 points or more six times on the aforementioned skid, once against the Warriors, and the other five times were against the daunting defenses of the 76ers (29th in defensive rating), Detroit (25th) and Milwaukee (30th).
But as we saw today, they can still put it together, and I'm not sure the Bobcats want to face a team that's gone 35-6 at home.
But conversely, Frankel's findings are intriguing when thinking about the Bobcats' own post-All-Star break play, which is pretty different from the Pacers. As the Pacers have gone 9-13 in their last 22 games, the Bobcats have gone 14-8, which has been pretty heartening for Bobcats fans.
But due to injuries the Bobcats had early on, I'm not so sure they'll fall into the correlating figures like the Pacers might. So much of Charlotte's early troubles were on offense. They still had the talented defense they have now, but in the first month or so, they struggled to score, placing them as one of the three worst NBA offenses to that point. Al Jefferson was recovering from a tough ankle sprain and the lack of shooters shrunk the floor. They played fairly well, still, winning half of their games in November, but they had a little tumble in December when Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Jeff Taylor had big injuries. As Al Jefferson returned to the form we're so used to now and as Kidd-Gilchrist came back from his hand fracture and as Anthony Tolliver and Chris Douglas-Roberts added three-point shooting and as the Bobcats acquired Gary Neal at the trade deadline to further help that, Charlotte's become much more daunting on offense and I'm not so sure their early season performance will prove to be the better sample for postseason prediction.
I, of course, could be wrong. The Bobcats have looked mightily out-of-character in their last couple games sans Kemba Walker. The defense has lagged, surprisingly, against Boston and Philadelphia, two of the East's worst teams. But that's without one of their biggest (figuratively speaking, of course) leaders on the floor.
Recency bias might be at work with the Bobcats, but they won 58 percent of their games over February and March, with about even winning percentages in each month. April's is beating that out but it's a much smaller sample size with only six games but the 26 games in February and March are a pretty solid sample size, and also pretty much the only one for a Bobcats team that's reconstructed much of the bench rotation aside from Cody Zeller.
But if the Pacers do end up facing Charlotte in the 2 vs 7 matchup, they would have to refocus to get their defense back in line and their offense back on track in a major way.
"I think Indiana can return to form, but I also think Charlotte shouldn't fear them," Ethan Sherwood Strauss of ESPN told me.
"The Pacers have a mediocre offense, but they're ESPECIALLY bad against good defenses (and, as you know, the Bobs have a good defense). I should note that Charlotte's not the ideal team to beat Indiana--I think squads that spread the floor and push in transition can give the Pacers more trouble. Still, the Bobcats can win this strength-on-strength matchup and it wouldn't be especially surprising. Here's something I like in Charlotte's favor: They don't turn the ball over and the Pacers do."
With only two games left for Charlotte and Indiana each, they might not face each other, depending on how well Miami and Washington do.
However, if they do, we'll get a pretty great example of whether each team's respectable late-season runs impact their postseason play.