Back on April Fools’ Day, the lead story on ESPN’s “Pardon The Interruption” was that Larry Bird was coming down from the Indiana Pacers’ front office and replacing Frank Vogel as head coach of the struggling team.
That was just a prank. A week later, however, Larry Legend returning to the bench to salvage Indiana’s season doesn’t seem so ridiculous.
Something is clearly amiss in the Pacers locker room, and many are pointing to the departure of team leader Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers for Evan Turner as a turning point. The recent weeks have brought several instances of public sniping from Pacers players and even reports of a confrontation or two. In mid-March, Bird called out Vogel for not being hard enough on his players.
The team that was atop the Eastern Conference for much of the season hit rock bottom Sunday. Indiana, who owned the NBA’s best home record at the time, were humiliated 107-88 by a very mediocre Hawks squad. It was just the team’s second home loss this season to an Eastern Conference team (Bird’s 1985-86 Celtics team holds the record by going 29-0 against its own conference).
Indiana scored only 23 first-half points against the Hawks, leading Vogel benched all of his starters. All-Star center Roy Hibbert, whose numbers are way down across the board since the All-Star Break, didn’t play after the intermission.
The defeat was Indiana’s seventh in the past nine games, and the Pacers now trail Miami by two in the loss column for the Eastern Conference’s top seed. It would likely be devastating for Indiana not to get the top seed, as it has been a very public goal all season after the Pacers lost a Game 7 in Miami in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals. At this point, it’s not even a sure thing that Indiana would beat Charlotte in a possible No. 2 versus No. 7 first-round matchup.
For a significant stretch, the Pacers odds at Bovada were nearly even with Miami to win the East and an NBA championship. Now Indiana has dropped to the fourth favorite to win it all at 11-2, well behind the Heat (9-4), the red-hot Spurs (3-1) and the Thunder (9-2). Miami is 2-3 to win the East, while the are Pacers 7-5.
The good news for Indiana is that it should have little trouble winning Wednesday at Milwaukee, as the Bucks currently own the worst record in the NBA. The crucial game will be in Miami on Friday, which will have Live Betting at the book. A Pacers upset victory would give them a 3-1 series edge and clinch a head-to-head tiebreaker should the teams finish with the same record. A Heat win would force things to the second tiebreaker if necessary, which is the better record inside the Eastern Conference. The Pacers currently have a slight edge there.
Indiana hosts Oklahoma City on Sunday in a potential NBA Finals preview. That game also will have Live Betting. The Pacers should know by Sunday evening whether attaining the No. 1 seed is still doable. Their only game next week is in Orlando, while the Heat are at Washington and home against Philadelphia to close out the season.
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