The Pacers were basically left for dead after Lance Stephenson left and Paul George suffered a gruesome leg injury with Team USA in the summer. Sure enough, they were a rough watch throughout the first half of the year. Other injuries to key players didn't help matters, and they sat at 17-32 at the end of January.
After an overtime victory over the Bucks on Thursday (a seventh-straight win), the Pacers are now 30-34, meaning they've gone 13-2 since Feb. 1. That's the best record in the league since that point. Not only has the defense remained stout, but the offense has been playing at top five levels as well. The return of George Hill from injury has been a huge plus, and Rodney Stuckey (who was signed at the minimum) is playing like a legit Sixth Man of the Year candidate.
And let's not forget that Paul George may be coming back soon. George was initially targeting this weekend to return, and although that won't happen, he could very well be back soon. We know from experience that it would be crazy to expect George to come back and immediately start playing at a high level, but if he can even contribute anything, the Pacers are even more dangerous.
At 30-34, Indiana is currently the No. 7 seed in the East. The Pacers are 3½ games behind the Bucks for the No. 6 seed, and with Milwaukee reeling a bit, it wouldn't be a surprise at all if Indiana got up to No. 6.
Even if the Pacers stay at No. 7, there's still a chance the Bulls would play them in the first round, although it's tough to see the Cavaliers falling out of the No. 2 seed with all the injuries to Chicago. At any rate, the prospect of playing a surging Pacers team with George back in the first round isn't all that appealing. Bulls-Pacers tilts are always tough, grind-it-out games, and Indiana can match up relatively well with Chicago, especially if George can contribute.
I would feel fairly confident in a healthy Bulls team beating the Pacers in a first-round series, but if Chicago goes limping into the postseason, I don't think anybody would be surprised at a first-round exit. Let's hope it doesn't come to that.
Here's a full look at the East playoff picture.
The Hawks will cruise into the postseason as the No. 1 seed. I feel like Atlanta still has plenty of doubters, and that probably won't change until they actually win some playoffs series. Still, they beat the Cavs three out of four times, have handled the Bulls twice and have beaten a host of other great teams.
Cavaliers (42-25, 9½ games back)
I know y'all hate Kyrie Irving, but 57 points against the Spurs is pretty ridiculous. It's the second game this season he has put up at least 55 points in a game this year, and it feels so long ago that Derrick Rose torched Irving just before the All-Star break, possibly on a torn meniscus. Cleveland has been rounding into form for a while now, although the Kevin Love situation remains interesting, as David Blatt opted to go with James Jones over Love for most of crunch time in San Antonio.
Bulls (40-26, 11 games back)
It's hard to judge anything the Bulls do right now with all the injuries. Joakim Noah is aiming to play tonight against the Hornets, while Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson are hoping to be back relatively soon. Who knows about Rose, but I expect him to be back at some point. We basically just have to cross our fingers that they can stay healthy, otherwise, the Bulls won't win anything.
Raptors (38-26, 12 games back)
The Raptors are 1-9 in their last 10 games. Kyle Lowry's game has cratered and their defense isn't very good. I was never all that concerned about the Raptors in a postseason series even when they were playing well, and that certainly hasn't changed. Toronto has nice depth, but the defense just isn't good enough and I don't know if Lowry has it in him to be the guy they need him to be after expending so much energy earlier in the season with DeMar DeRozan out.
Wizards (37-28, 13½ games back)
We've always kind of viewed the Wizards as a nightmare matchup, but they had turned into a train wreck prior to their last two games. We saw the very short-handed Bulls take them down last week, and their offense just hasn't been good of late. A fully loaded Washington team still isn't the most ideal of matchups for Chicago, but it's not looking quite as imposing as it was a month or two ago. All hail Randy Wittman.
Bucks (34-31, 16½ games back)
The Bucks are 3-7 in their last 10 games, and they would probably be the most ideal first-round opponent. Milwaukee has a great defense, but they've shown absolutely zero ability to score on the Bulls' defense this season. It would be a hard-fought, ugly series, but a series the Bulls should win rather handily given relatively good health.
Pacers (30-34, 20 games back)
Heat (29-35, 21 games back)
The Heat have been banged up all season, and obviously Chris Bosh won't be coming back because of the blood clots scare. However, Miami could still be dangerous with Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, Luol Deng and Hassan Whiteside. Counting on Wade's health may be a fool's errand, but that's still a considerable amount of talent.
The Hornets (28-35), Celtics (27-36), Nets (25-38) and Pistons (23-41) are all within six games of the eighth seed, but the Nets and Pistons are on life support. The Hornets just got Kemba Walker back, but now Al Jefferson is hurt. The Celtics are quite interesting considering it looked like they were tanking the season. Boston has come up with some huge wins of late, and Isaiah Thomas, although hurting now, has been great for them. Brad Stevens has done a hell of a job with that group after trading away Rajon Rondo and Jeff Green.