Caught in the Web Indiana Pacers blog: Breaking down race for No. 3 seed

Who's the biggest threat in race for No. 3 seed?

Standings as of March 1, 2012
March 1, 2012 - With all due respect to Frank Vogel, who continually challenges the Pacers to strive for bigger and better things -- like not settling for third place in the East -- I submit that keeping the chair in which they sit would not only be a noble and worthy goal to pursue but one that will not be accomplished without great difficulty.

Let's be honest: Miami and Chicago are running away with the East. The Pacers trail the Heat by five games and the Bulls by 5½. Both of those teams are on pace to win 50 games, no mean feat in a 66-game season. The Pacers would have to go 28-4 to reach 50 wins.

So let us focus, then, on what it will take to protect the third seed from the pack of competitors chasing that spot. What is there to covet about No. 3? Well, the biggest benefit, aside from homecourt advantage in the first round, is the Pacers would avoid the No. 1 seed until the conference finals. That would be a particularly precious bonus if Miami winds up atop the East.

It would mean a likely second-round matchup against a Chicago team the Pacers have played on relatively even terms in a series that would fan the embers of a smoldering rivalry. Should the Pacers emerge from that series, they would be much more prepared to deal with Miami, a team that has dominated them in the regular season.

But that's looking way down the road. For the moment, the most important images are those in the rear-view mirror. Three teams are on the Pacers' bumper, with two others in the picture.

ORLANDO: The Pacers have dropped two of three to the Magic with one game remaining March 11 on the road. Given the March 15 trade deadline, the Magic will be closer to some kind of resolution of the Dwight Howard situation. If he is traded, there seems little chance Orlando would remain in the hunt for third. If not, the Magic could rally in pursuit of one last playoff run with their dominant center. After slumping in late January, Orlando rallied nicely with an 11-4 record in February. Should Howard be retained, the Magic would pose the most serious threat to the third seed.

PHILADELPHIA: The Pacers have three games remaining with the struggling Sixers, two at home. After a blazing start the Sixers have struggled since hitting the road, losing six of seven. Scoring has been the biggest problem, as the team has averaged just 85.9 points in the last seven games. Injuries haven't helped. Elton Brand has been dealing with a nagging thumb problem and Spencer Hawes has missed 22 games with an Achilles issue. Hawes could return in a couple of weeks, which would help but Philly finishes the season with nine of 11 on the road.

ATLANTA: The Pacers are 1-1 against the Hawks, with Tuesday's game in Bankers Life Fieldhouse to determine the season series. The Hawks got some good news this week as center Al Horford, originally thought to be out for the season after sustaining a torn pectoral muscle against the Pacers on Jan. 11, has been cleared to begin rehab and could be back earlier than expected. But can they remain in the hunt until that time? The Hawks, who were 4-9 in February, play six of their next seven on the road and Joe Johnson is battling sore knees. If they can hang around into the final month, the Hawks finish with five in a row at home.

NEW YORK: The Pacers have yet to face the Knicks, with three meetings remaining. New York has won 10 of 13 to surge into the playoff picture behind Jeremy Lin and with Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire certainly has the marquee talent to put together a run -- although they have quite a bit of ground to cover to climb as high as third. The Knicks will have to do a lot of their work on the road, where they play eight of the next 12 and eight of their final 13.

BOSTON: The Pacers are 2-1, with the final meeting April 7 at home. With reports of interest in trading Rajon Rondo resurfacing, it appears the Celtics are more interested in breaking up their team to begin the rebuilding process than trying to gird the Big Three for another run. After a terrible start they had a brief surge but have slumped again, losing seven of 10.

With nine of their final 12 at home, the Pacers are in favorable position to hold onto third. First, they must survive a brutal stretch of nine straight games against teams currently in playoff position that begins Monday in Chicago. Should they emerge from that gauntlet intact, they will be primed to finish strong.

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