Indiana Pacers Haven’t Looked Like NBA Championship Contenders Since Break

Roy Hibbert, DeJuan BlairThe Boston Celtics face the Indiana Pacers for the final time this season Tuesday on the road. The Pacers opened as an 11-point favorite at Bovada.

The Pacers have lost a season-high four straight, so they’re likely to be an ornery group. Indiana is tied for the NBA lead in scoring defense at 92.2 points per game. Opposing teams are shooting just 41.9 percent from the field against the Pacers, the lowest mark in the league. That defense has started showing cracks, however.

The Pacers have allowed an average of 106.0 points a game during the losing streak (while failing to score more than 96 in any game). They’re 6-5 since the All-Star break and allowing a little more than 100 points a game while scoring just 98.8. The losing streak could simply be a result of a step up in competition, as the losses all came against likely playoff teams in the Golden State Warriors, Charlotte Bobcats, Houston Rockets and Dallas Mavericks, with the last three on the road.

Many thought Indiana made a wise trade in sending Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers at the deadline for Evan Turner, but Turner has been largely silent. He’s averaging 9.1 points off the bench. During the skid, he has been held to five points or less in three of the games. The Indiana bench was outscored 41-4 by the Dallas reserves and 34-11 by Golden State’s.

All-Star center Roy Hibbert also┬áis slumping since the break. He was averaging 11.8 points and 7.7 rebounds before it but just 9.8 and 5.3 after. Hibbert was outplayed by Bobcats center Al Jefferson (34 points, eight rebounds) and the Rockets’ Dwight Howard (15 points, seven rebounds, four assists). Indiana could get some frontcourt help in Andrew Bynum this week, though.

With Indiana’s slump, the Miami Heat have pulled away slightly as the NBA title (21-10) and Eastern Conference favorites (5-7). The Pacers are 13-4 and 6-5, respectively. The surging Chicago Bulls are a distant third to win the East (20-1) but are better off the Brooklyn Nets and Toronto Raptors (28-1 each). Neither Miami nor Indiana should have much trouble in the first round of the playoffs, but neither wants to face Chicago in the East semis should the Bulls advance.

Boston is 0-3 against Indiana this season but hasn’t been swept by the Pacers since 1998-99. The first two losses were blowouts, but the Celtics played well March 1 at home, losing 102-97. Lance Stephenson has been a terror against Boston with two triple-doubles.

The Celtics finish their season series against the visiting Knicks on Wednesday. Boston has won two of three against New York (2-1 against the spread), but those victories were in December. The Knicks have been playing better of late as they make one last playoff push.

The Suns visit the Celtics on Friday, and they are expected to have Eric Bledsoe back. He hasn’t played since Dec. 30. Boston lost 100-94 in Phoenix on Feb. 19. The Celtics are 4-23 against the West, while Phoenix has NBA’s the best record against the spread.

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