By DYLAN MALONE
NBA hoops are nearing their regular season end and if you're like me (or even the most casual of fans) you are probably saying, "Already?"
The shortened season is indeed coming to an end here and the playoffs are set to begin next weekend. With the shortened season there was no shortage of drama on and off the court. Sprinkle in some injuries to key players on almost every team and you've got the formula for a very interesting playoffs.
Throw seeding out the window if you can't even suit up your best players. I'm looking forward to some of the most unpredictable post-seasons in recent memory.
For the first time in a long time, I can honestly say that I want to watch my Pacers in the playoffs. Last season, they snuck into the post-season as the #8 seed and the only team in the NBA to make it there with a losing record. They were unceremoniously done away with by the Bulls in five games.
What people probably missed was that games 1-3 were decided by an average of just 5 points. The Pacers gave the Bulls a run for their money and that sparked a lot of national interest.
This season, the Pacers have silently become the deepest team in the east except for the Bulls. Currently at the number three seed, the Pacers have already clinched the playoffs and home-court advantage in the first round thanks to winning 10 of their last 11 games.
All that is heard around the NBA currently is how good Miami vs. Chicago is going to be in the Eastern Conference Finals. I'm not sold yet. I know I sound biased because I like the Pacers, but I think that this playoffs will come down to who is the healthiest. The stats don't lie.
The current NBA injury report reads big names across the board full of guys who are vital to their team and are MIA currently or for the rest of the season: Kobe Bryant, Al Horford, Jermaine O'Neal, Ray Allen, Rajon Rondo, Luol Deng, Derrick Rose, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Andrew Bogut, David Lee, Stephen Curry, Kevin Martin, Chauncey Billups, Kevin Love, Ricky Rubio, Brook Lopez, Deron Williams, Amar'e Stoudemire, Jeremy Lin, Baron Davis, Chris Kaman, Hedo Turkoglu, Dwight Howard, Grant Hill, LaMarcus Aldridge, Greg Oden (well...does he count?)...just to name a few.
There are a lot of injuries that have not kept players out of games, but have hampered their abilities nontheless. The only three teams in playoff contention without more than one guy out right now are the Pacers, the 76ers (who may not be playoff bound for long if they continue to slide), and the Spurs.
There's a coach who has it all figured out.
Greg Popovich doesn't care about seeding at all. In fact, it should scare him. Of the four championships he's won in the last 15 years, none of them have come with the Spurs as the number one seed. Last season they were the number one seed and made an early exit from the playoffs.
This season, Pop and the Spurs have a slim lead on the OKC Thunder but might be putting on the brakes to let Timmy D, Parker, and Ginobili get some rest before its time to make one last go. The Celtics, Lakers, and defending-champion Mavericks should be thinking along the same lines.
Particularly with the youth of the Bulls and Thunder and pure athleticism of the Heat, the older teams making the playoffs should really consider the Spurs' method for success.
Indiana will likely end up facing either the Magic or Hawks. Without Horford, the Hawks have just seemed lost at times and absolutely awesome at others. The Magic have been equally as sporadic with the Howard/Van Gundy saga still playing out. Why hasn't that guy been fired yet?
Either way, the Pacers have the talent to contend with either of those teams and will likely face the Heat in the next round.
Miami blew out the Pacers early in the season but then were played tight the second time in Miami, and Indiana held their ground in Indy the last time they played picking up a victory. It seems that under the tutelage of one-time interim coach Frank Vogel, the Pacers finally have some confidence to work with.
I don't think they will make it the Finals this season, but with one more season under their belt, I think they could be a scary team next year, particularly with a good off-season. I'm not counting them out, however. Like a true-blue Pacers fan, I have them going at least to the conference finals and there will be another entire year's worth of speculating about what's wrong with LeBron James and why the Heat can't make it over the hump.
Blame the short season and move on.