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Indiana Pacers: Playoffs or Bust

   by Tom Stryker - 04/06/2006

The taste of the NCAA basketball championship is fading, so it’s time to turn thoughts to the rapidly-approaching NBA playoffs and the teams, like the Indiana Pacers, that may or not be a huge factor. It’s no secret that the Pacers can, when healthy, play with anyone. But no one has the complete answers to Indiana’s playoff possibilities.

Tied for the last playoff spot currently with a home game tonight (Wednesday) against Toronto, a whole rash of things have to happen before the Pacers can plan life after April. In fact, Toronto has wiped out double-digit leads twice and beaten Indiana on both occasions early this season.

The Pacers have to find a way, healthy or not, to stop its current slide.

Tuesday in Chicago, for instance, the Pacers blew a 17-point lead in the final quarter and lost by six to Chicago. That pulled the Bulls to within 1.5 games of Indiana. That loss to the Bulls was Indiana’s fifth straight, their sixth in seven games and their eighth in 10 outings. Those numbers are scary and are not indicative of a team ready to mount an NBA playoff charge.

One thing in Indiana’s favor is that the Pacers hold the tiebreaker over both the 76ers and the Bulls. Another thing in the Pacers favor is that of their remaining nine games (eight after tonight) only one team has a winning record.

Philadelphia, meanwhile, must play five teams with winning records in its final push. The 76ers and Bulls play twice this week. Anything less than a split will be deadly for either team.

Four of Indiana’s last games are at Conseco Fieldhouse and it’s imperative that the Pacers protect their home court.

After spending much of the season in and out of the lineup, both Jamaal Tinsley and Jermaine O’Neal are back in the Pacers lineup and have to get their game legs back before the playoffs open in less than two weeks. Unfortunately for Indiana, the team has gone 1-5 since Tinsley’s return and the rust on both players is showing. And Fred Jackson missed the Bulls game with a thumb problem.

Stephen Jackson has been a bright spot for the Pacers and he (along with Sarunas Jasikevicius) will have to be productive for Indiana to be a threat.

O’Neal, healthy or not, has averaged 19.9, while Peja Stojakovic has been steady at 17.8. And Jackson is at 16 points a game.

So the Pacers can be a huge problem for early-round playoff opponents when they are on their game. This year, though, Coach Rick Carlisle has had more than his fill of playing in “crisisâ€쳌 mode.

One positive for Indiana has been the improved play of Jeff Foster, who has had an average of 11.8 rebounds over the last 16 games. Only because Foster hasn’t played in enough games is he not listed among the NBA rebounding leaders.

Still rounding his game back into shape, O’Neal has had a tendency to pass more and shoot less in recent games. But he can be counted on for points - and plenty of them, when he is back in stride.

The Pacers are fragile, though, and a re-injury to any of their key players could be a death knell to the 2006 playoff possibilities.

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