Trend Watch: The struggles of the Pacers and Heat

By Royce Young | NBA writer

George knows he can learn quite a bit from James. (USATSI)
Paul George and the Pacers need to get back on track. (USATSI)

It feels like we've been saying the season is in the stretch run for a while, but did you know: This is the last full week of March. Most teams only have 10-13 games remaining. It's almost playoff time.

Let's check what's trending:

Pacers vs. Heat, Heat vs. Pacers

So far, it's 1-1. The Pacers won on their home floor, and the Heat did the same on theirs. Matchup No. 3 before one more in April, and then what seems to be the inevitable one in May.

Both teams established a pretty clear separation at the top of the East by the end of November, but doubt has crept in over the last few weeks. Tha Pacers are just 5-7 over their last 12 and the Heat are the same, 5-7 over their last 12.

So, what's wrong?

The easy explanation is that there's been a lapse in focus, particularly since the only remaining motivation for either is just competing for the top Eastern seed.

We give the Heat the benefit of the doubt, because they're proven. They're tested. They've won consecutive titles meaning we know what they're capable of. Maybe Wade's health and the Heat's role players will make things more difficult, but them slipping in March isn't as much of a concern because the Heat have built a lot more equity. We've seen them flip the switch and get back to being something special.

The Pacers, though, I'm not sure. We know they're good, we know they're going to contend. But a late season swoon produces actual doubt and concern, because this is still an inexperienced group that has to climb the mountain.

The Pacers made a significant trade deadline deal, sending Danny Granger to Philadelphia in exchange for Evan Turner and Lavoy Allen. An apparent upgrade, and a move seen by many that might swing the balance of power in the East. Turner has been fine -- averaging 8.0 points on 42.9 percent shooting in 22.2 minutes a game. He's the new anchor of the second unit. Which has been inconsistent. In lineups Turner plays, the Pacers are minus-3.2 points per 100 possessions. The Pacers' starting five has remained stout, allowing just 95.1 points per 100 possessions since the trade, but with Turner on the floor, Indiana's allowing 102.9 per 100.

The larger, more glaring issue for the Pacers is their offensive struggle. Since Feb. 20, the Pacers are scoring just 95.2 points a game and an anemic 101.6 points per 100 possessions. That number would rank the Pacers in the bottom 10 of the league if it were for the entire season. A lot of the focus has fallen to Paul George and his offensive struggles -- just 18.9 points on 37.7 percent shooting in March -- but a lot of the blame has to also fall to Roy Hibbert who has been woefully inconsistent and often finding himself in foul trouble.

It's simple: The Pacers are better than they've played the last month. But they have to prove that to themselves in a way the Heat don't have to. Miami has a well-earned confidence, a self-belief that a three-game losing streak isn't going to necessarily deter them. Obviously, both teams would prefer have the No. 1 seed, but it does seem the the Pacers are far more invested in it than the Heat are. Especially since it's fresh on their minds losing Game 7 on the road in Miami last postseason.

As April nears, that's a time to establish a standard of performance and confidence for the postseason. It's not unusual to limp a bit into the postseason, but the Pacers could use a boost. And they've got a big opportunity for one staring them in the face tonight.

Who's No. 8 in the West?

As it stands now, it's the Grizzlies and Mavericks in, the Suns out, separated by half a game. Memphis has a hugely important five-game road trip ahead of them traveling to Utah, Golden State, Denver, Portland and Minnesota. The Suns only play four of their final 11 games at home. And the Mavs

Here's what's fun though: The Suns play at Dallas and home against Memphis in the last week of the season, potentially setting up a play-in type of scenario.

Trail Blazers in danger?

Another scenario: The Blazers fall into the conversation with the Suns, Mavs and Grizzlies. The Blazers still sit fifth in the West and 2.5 games clear of the Suns, but have been in a freefall since starting the season 31-9. Since Jan. 20, the Blazers are just 14-18 and punctuated it with a terrible 95-85 loss in Orlando last night.

They get LaMarcus Aldridge back from injury likely this week, which obviously helps, but their closing schedule could be dicey with six games against good teams. It seems unlikely the Blazers would actually completely fall outside of the West's top eight, but if they don't get back on track, they're going to start feeling that pressure.

The final stand of the Knicks

For a minute there, the Knicks got themselves back into the postseason conversation. Winning eight straight, they'd closed to within two games of the Hawks. And while it's not over quite yet, the showing the Knicks had in Los Angeles last night seems to be the final nail. The Knicks are four back of the Hawks in the loss column with 11 to play. They'd need to finish something like at least 8-3 to really give themselves a chance, and those 11 games are against a lot of good teams.

That eight-game streak was nice, but consecutive losses, one being awful, signal that Phil Jackson's aura isn't going to fix things on its own.

Sixers watch Watch

It's now 25 consecutive losses for the 76ers. One more and they tie the LeBron-less Cavs of 2010-11. But here's the most amazing stat: They still are ahead of the Bucks by two games.

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