Playoff Push: Now or never for Indy's move toward final East spot


If the Indiana Pacers want a piece of the playoffs, Tuesday night will be pivotal.

The last remaining playoff spot in the East will be filled either by the Atlanta Hawks, Pacers or Nets, though it's possible Atlanta could move as high as the No. 5 seed should the three teams currently ahead of the Hawks falter.

The Hawks (36-41), who play in Indianapolis on Tuesday, currently own the eighth spot, holding a three-game lead over the Pacers with five games left in the season.

But if Indiana (33-44) wins this one, it would gain the tiebreaker over Atlanta by virtue of a 2-1 head-to-head matchup. That means if the teams finish with the same record, Indy would get in.

Indy's odds of making the playoffs currently sit at 5.1 percent, according to John Hollinger's playoff odds.

Here's how Indy could do it: Win Tuesday against the Hawks, Friday at Philadelphia, Saturday at home against Charlotte, Monday at Washington and then wrap up the season with a win when playing host to Donnie Walsh's New York Knicks on April 16.

Atlanta's road ahead includes a Friday game in New York, Saturday against Boston at home, Tuesday at Orlando and a season finale April 16 at the D-League's finest, the Miami Heat. Realistically, the Hawks shouldn't do worse than 2-2 in this quartet of games.

But if Indy wins Tuesday and can manage four straight wins, it's possible it could finish in a 38-43 tie with Atlanta, and would have the honor of playing Boston in the first round.

This will be Pacers center Jermaine O'Neal's fifth game since coming back from a left knee bone bruise that caused him to miss 33 games. In his four games since returning, O'Neal is averaging 19.3 minutes per game, 8.3 points and 4.3 rebounds.

If the Pacers fall one game short, chances are they'll grumble about the clock management that allowed Atlanta to beat Toronto last week. Judging by Conseco Fieldhouse attendance (NBA-low 12,047 per game), the grumbling won't be too loud.

Chances are, though, the Hawks will win enough to make the Pacers' hopes a moot point.

Tuesday's Playoff Push Games Of Note

Sacramento at Golden State: The Warriors, currently tied with Denver for the West's eighth spot with a 46-31 mark, need this one to keep pace with the Nuggets.

Denver at L.A. Clippers: Elton Brand's back for the Clippers, making them potentially a more formidable force than the club that has slouched to a 23-52 mark so far. After Sunday's night Seattle stunner, George Karl and Co. need this one.

Utah at New Orleans: The Chris Paul-Deron Williams rivalry rolls on. With a win or a Denver loss, Utah would clinch the Northwest Division crown. The Hornets can keep their grip on the West's No. 1 seed with a win.

Phoenix at Memphis: The Suns, currently No. 6 in the West and now paired with No. 3 Lakers in first round, could take a step to overtaking Houston for No. 5, and thus earn a likely pairing with the Jazz. But would they want that, having lost to the visiting Jazz on March 7 in Shaq's ninth game with the Suns?

A Jazz match might be even less palatable for the Suns if Utah, which owns the NBA's best home mark (35-4), earns home-court advantage.

L.A. Lakers at Portland: Enjoy the shots of Andrew Bynum in street clothes, for now. By season's end, the Lakers could move up to No. 1, but can slide no lower than No. 6. Winning home games Friday against the Hornets and Sunday against the Spurs would be key for a dash to the first seed.

Andrew Ayres is an NBA editor at ESPN.com.