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Does peaking for playoffs matter; how screwed are the Pacers?

By Matt Moore | NBA writer

You won't believe it, but the Pacers are headed for a historic collapse. (USATSI)
You won't believe it, but the Pacers are headed for a historic collapse. (USATSI)

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That the Pacers are in freefall is nothing new. This has been going on for well over two months. You can argue there were signs in late December, but the real trouble began in February. And it went from "not good" in early February to "worrisome" in late February to "serious trouble in March" to "are these guys going to get out of the first round" after Sunday's blowout loss to Atlanta, at home.

We've documented the collapse before (here and here) but we probably need to take a look forward. The Pacers were considered the Heat's biggest challenge going into the season, and some even considered them to have the edge as recently as January. If nothing else, it looked like it was going to be another seven-game series between the two heavy-hitters.

But the collapse that's going on is unprecedented. For a team to have started as hot as they did, to lead not only their division, not only their conference, but the league in winning percentage for such a big chunk of the season and drop the way they have, hasn't happened in recent memory, if ever.

But here's another question: Does it matter?

The consensus idea is that you always want to be hitting your stride when the playoffs come around. But is that true?

Below are the league rankings of the teams to make the Finals over the past 10 years in winning percentage and net efficiency (points per possession, a metric that adjusts for pace) over the last 20 games of the regular season. In other words, here's how the teams that made the Finals did compared to the rest of the league entering the final 20 games of the season.

Win percentage and net effeciency of Finals teams: last 20 games
YearWinner TeamWinner W%Winner net effLoser teamLoser W%Loser net eff
2014 IND2024

The eventual NBA champion has held the top winning percentage or effeciency in the final 20 games four times in the past 10 years, which isn't bad when you think about it. A top five ranking in either category has won the title five times. Ten out of 20 conference winners have finished five in the top five in either category.

The lowest in either category to make the Finals in the past ten years? The 2013 Spurs, who finished 21st in that category. You can point to the Russell Westbrook injury as a major interfering variable as well... and the Spurs were still 28 seconds from the title.

In all, eight of twenty teams finished with a winning percentage or net efficiency ranking in double-digits over their final twenty games and made the conference finals. An important note? Seven of the eight teams featured key or "core" players who had won titles within the past five years on those teams. The Pacers do not.

And the Pacers are still considerably behind the others, on track for the worst in both categories over the Final 20 games.

Then there's this. The Pacers are minus-5.6 in their last 20 games in point differential, which has consistently proven to be a good predictor of postseason success. Only one team in the past ten years has even made the playoffs with a point differential of minus-5 or worse in their final 20 games: the 2011 Atlanta Hawks who finished 7-13 in their last 20 with a minus-5.9 point differential.

The amazing thing? That team made the playoffs... and then knocked off the Magic in the first round with some stellar defense that involved letting Dwight Howard do whatever and focusing on shutting down his shooters. They also gave the Bulls a run for their money in the 2nd round before losing to Chicago.

So what can we take away from this? The Pacers are going to have to either dramatically improve in their final four games, or make an unprecedented run to the playoffs, shattering the idea of "peaking at the right time" forever. They don't have championship experience like the Spurs last season, the Lakers or Celtics in 2010, or the Pistons in 2005.

Finishing strong isn't a prerequisite to making the Finals. But having the experience to know how to perform once you get to the playoffs is, if you struggle down the stretch. The Pacers have mad the playoffs the past three seasons with his core. They took Miami to a Game 7. Is that enough experience to overcome their struggles and reach the Finals? The Conference Finals?.... The second round?!

Either way, we're headed for history, with an unprecedented run or a legendary collapse.

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