Caught in the Web Indiana Pacers blog: Never too early to look at playoff potential

It's never too soon to start considering playoff ramifications, is it?

Jan. 13, 2012

Heading into this season, we all figured the Pacers would be better, but determining just what to expect was difficult given the harried way in which this season was thrown together.

My first instinct was that it was overly optimistic to think of this as a team that could contend for the No. 3 spot in the East because the jump from 37 wins and the eighth seed to the upper half of the conference in one year seemed a bit ambitious.

My first instinct might've been wrong.

Three weeks in, things already are starting to shake out in the conference standings. Chicago and Miami, as expected, look like the class of the East, almost certain to occupy the top two seeds. After that, however, comes the land of opportunity.

Boston, the team I expected to be a solid No. 3, has started slowly, leading to doubts about their ability to retain elite status. I still think the Fearsome Foursome (you have to include Rajon Rondo, don't you?) has enough in the tank for one more season of championship dreams but their days as a favorite are done.

Orlando, a constant in the top half of the bracket for five years, will remain so as long as Dwight Howard is there. But how long will that be? Even with Howard, the Magic is a good but flawed team, which is the main reason the gifted young center might prefer to be relocated.

And so into the mix with the Magic and Celtics, it is fair to thrust the Sixers, Pacers, Hawks and Knicks. Any of those five teams could emerge with a top-four seed , or find itself in the dreaded one-eight matchup -- which makes every game against the teams in that peer group particularly important for Indiana.

"It's a shortened season and we know the bunch that we're in the mix with right now," Pacers Coach Frank Vogel said. "Everybody is sort of putting Miami and Chicago as the cream of the crop. From three to eight or nine or 10 it's sort of up for grabs. We feel we're at the top of that bunch and Atlanta certainly is playing well enough to be considered that way as well. "

Within a span of six days, the Pacers played three games within that peer group, going 2-1. They looked impressive defensively in beating the Celtics in Boston, not so much while shorthanded in a loss at Philadelphia, but again solid in taking out a similarly shorthanded Hawks team Wednesday. They face the Celtics again Saturday in Bankers Life Fieldhouse before heading out West but when they come back, games against the Magic (twice), and Celtics await.

So yes, it is still early, but in a 66-game schedule, it's probably never to late to start thinking about the playoff ramifications of certain matchups.

"We understand who's going to be there," said David West. "As we get through this next month or so the picture starts to get a little clearer. I'm not familiar with the East but I'm almost certain it's the same sort of deal, where after the first couple months of the season it's pretty clear not necessarily what the seedings are going to be but who's going to be in the race."

Philadelphia Coach Doug Collins is of a similar mindset. After his team took down the Pacers Monday, he summed up the importance of that win nicely.

"This is a team," he said, "that we’re going to be in a battle with all season long."

The benefit of the Pacers' 7-3 start is that it has clearly defined a goal. The third seed is within reach, but the margin of error is perilously slim. Every game matters, but those against playoff peers matter a little more.

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