Indiana (39-28) overtook Cleveland for the Central Division lead Sunday, grabbing a one-half game advantage by virtue of their 99-97 victory at Boston coupled with the Cavaliers losing to the Los Angeles Lakers later that night.
In Boston, the Pacers hung on for the win in a frantic final seconds in which they allowed Jayson Tatum to draw the Celtics within two points with 1.9 seconds to play and then gave the ball back on a turnover after Marcus Morris sold minimal contact that led to a foul by Victor Oladipo. But Cory Joseph contested Terry Rozier’s jumper well enough that Indiana escaped and now own the third seed in the Eastern Conference.
Oladipo finished with 27 points while Myles Turner added 19 and ten rebounds for the Pacers, who got ten assists from Darren Collison off the bench in his second game back after missing 11 due to a knee injury. Indiana have won three straight on the road and five of their last six overall.
Philadelphia (36-29) are just two games behind Indiana for that third spot and in sixth place in the East as they drive toward their first playoff berth in six years. The 76ers have alternated wins and losses in their last five games after pounding Brooklyn on the road 120-97 on Sunday as eight players scored in double figures and Ersan Ilyasova had 11 points and 13 rebounds off the bench.
The 76ers rediscovered their shooting stroke as they made 52.6 percent of their shots, topping 50 percent for the fourth time in five games. They have averaged 113.4 points in that span, connecting on 42.6 percent of their 3-point shots and 51.1 percent overall.
Three keys to the game
A huge game for tiebreaker implications - This is the third and final meeting between the teams, who split the first two matchups. The home team has won the previous two games, so the advantage might be with the 76ers, whose 11-game home winning streak is their longest since a 24-game run at the Spectrum from November 27, 1982, to March 23, 1983 during their title-winning season.
Welcome back, Collison - The Pacers point guard has had different parts of his game shine in his first two games back. He scored 17 points on seven-of-ten shooting Friday in Indiana's rout of Atlanta and took only two shots while recording ten assists against three turnovers Sunday at Boston. The ball is moving faster on the perimeter since his return as the Pacers have made 26 of 50 3-pointers in those two wins.
Belinelli and Ilyasova providing boost - Since they both arrived from Atlanta, Marco Belinelli and Ilysaova have given the 76ers a jolt in scoring off the bench. They have combined to average 21.2 points and seamlessly fit in with a young team still learning how to win important games.
"I think that they give you a far greater chance to try to win in the playoffs," coach Brett Brown told The Associated Press. "I felt like the group that we had, we were right there. I think that they tip it. I think that they provide a veteran sort of presence."
Matchup to watch
PG Darren Collison vs PG T. J. McConnell - As Collison works his way back into game shape, he has been coming off the bench and will eventually retake his starting spot from Cory Joseph. But in the interim, this creates an intriguing clash with McConnell, who deputizes for rookie Ben Simmons.
McConnell is a whirl of activity and coming off one of his better games of the season in which he totaled ten points, six assists, four steals and four rebounds Sunday. He was on the floor when the 76ers turned a nine-point game into a 22-point blowout over the third and fourth quarters largely with their defense.
He will have to do more of the same against both Collison and Joseph, who are more pass-first point guards than scorers, though Collison is capable of finding points.
Indiana Pacers projected starting lineup
PG - Cory Joseph | SG - Victor Oladipo | C - Myles Turner | SF - Bojan Bogdanovic | PF - Thaddeus Young
Philadelphia 76ers projected starting lineup
PG - Ben Simmons | SG - J. J. Redick | C - Joel Embiid | SF - Robert Covington | PF - Dario Saric
Oladipo appears back in form after totaling 44 points in his last two games on 17-of-29 shooting. He went 11 for 38 from the field in the previous two contests while scoring 27 points. The All-Star guard had 31 points and seven assists in the loss at Philadelphia on November 3, and 19 points and eight rebounds in Indiana's 100-92 home win February 3.
Despite shooting just 23.5 percent from 3-point range in 13 career games versus the 76ers, Oladipo has averaged 19.5 points while shooting 46.2 percent. He has averaged 20.2 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.7 assists in six lifetime visits to Philadelphia.
Turner has struggled mightily in the two matchups with Philadelphia this season, totaling 11 points and 12 rebounds while shooting four of 19. In his defense, he was making a return from a seven-game absence due to post-concussion symptoms in the first meeting in which he scored all 11 of those points on four-of-11 shooting.
In the second game, though, he was ineffective due to foul trouble and missed all five of his shots while playing 15 minutes. He has averaged 10.5 points and 8.9 rebounds in eight career matchups with the 76ers while also blocking 18 shots in those games.
Embiid narrowly missed a double-double in the home win with 18 points and nine rebounds and did get one in the loss at Indiana with 24 points and ten boards. But he has also committed 13 turnovers in those two contests. Embiid totaled 25 points and seven rebounds in his only other game against the Pacers last season.
76ers forward Dario Saric wrapped up a solid four-game road swing with an 18-point effort in Brooklyn and he averaged 20.5 points and 6.8 rebounds while shooting a torrid 67.4 percent overall and 14 of 23 from beyond the arc. He has been steady against the Pacers this season, totaling 31 points and 11 rebounds while shooting 50 percent and has averaged 12.3 points and 7.3 rebounds in six career matchups.
The 76ers have been established as 5.5-point favorites for this game and will look to extend a pair of trends in which the favorites have covered in the previous four games and the home teams have covered in four of the last five matchups.
While Philadelphia are 35-17 against the spread in their last 52 home games, they are just 1-4-1 against the number in their last six against opponents with a winning record and have covered just once in their last five matchups with Central Division teams. They are also 2-5 against the spread in their last seven contests following a straight up win.
Indiana, meanwhile, have covered five straight times against Atlantic Division teams and are 5-1 against the spread in their last six overall. They have covered in each of their last four road games versus teams with a winning home record and are 5-2 against the number in their last seven on the road. The Pacers are also 37-18 against the number in their last 55 matchups with conference foes.
The over/under has shed 2.5 points to 211 since its open, and while the over has hit in the last six games between the teams in Philadelphia, the under has gone 6-2 in Philadelphia's last eight overall and their last eight versus conference rivals. The under has also been a strong play of late with Indiana, hitting in their last eight games against Eastern Conference opponents, posting a 4-1 record in their last five versus Atlantic teams and going 5-0-1 in the Pacers' last six against teams with a winning home record.
After chasing the Cavaliers for pretty much the entire time since they went on that 13-game winning streak in November and December, the Pacers have now become the hunted as they try to hold onto this slim lead with 15 games to play. It certainly will not be easy since ten of them are on the road and includes two games apiece against Eastern Conference leaders Toronto and reigning champions Golden State, but meaningful games in the spring is what every player wants.
The two players who could be swing votes for their respective teams are 76ers rookie Ben Simmons and Pacers veteran Lance Stephenson. Simmons had a triple-double in powering Philadelphia to a home win in the first game, while Stephenson delivered a huge fourth-quarter effort and finished with 14 points and nine rebounds off the bench in last month's victory.
Lost in the margin of Philadelphia's blowout win was that it appears Brown is growing in trust with his young players. He called timeout once in the third quarter to settle them down as the Nets were making a comeback, and after another timeout, the 76ers came out and locked down defensively. If they put forth that type of effort consistently, they will be a tough out in the playoffs.
The 76ers may be catching the Pacers at the perfect time since Indiana host Toronto on Thursday after this game, and while Indiana cannot afford to look ahead, it would not be surprising to see them ease up a little after a tight win over Boston. That might be enough for Philadelphia to see out a 108-102 victory.
The game will be televised locally on Fox Sports Indiana and NBC Sports Philadelphia. Tip-off time is 7 pm EDT.
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