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Home woes to blame for Pacers’ relegation to Eastern Conference play-in tournament

With three games remaining in the 2020-21 NBA regular season, the Indiana Pacers have clinched a spot in the Eastern Conference play-in tournament. They cannot move into the top six and guarantee a place in the more traditional playoff bracket, but they will at least be able to play for either the No. 7 or No. 8 seed.

Despite already knowing their fate to some extent, the Pacers still have a ton to play for over this final stretch. They desperately want to snag the eighth seed instead of ninth, because No. 8 has to win only one game during the play-in festivities—either at the expense of No. 7, or over whoever wins the 9-10 game. The No. 9 and No. 10 seed must win that opening game and then also defeat the 7-8 loser. Indiana and the Charlotte Hornets are currently tied for eighth in the East at 33-36.

The Pacers play two of their last three games at home, but that actually isn’t good news. Their struggles inside Bankers Life Fieldhouse are a big reason why you will not find them anywhere near the top of the NBA Championship odds. Indiana is 13-21 at home this season and heading into Thursday’s date with the Milwaukee Bucks, it has covered the spread only five times in its last 20 home contests.

Obviously the COVID-19 pandemic has severely diminished every NBA’s home-court advantage—not just that of the Pacers. Fans have largely been absent from games this season, just as they were from the Orlando bubble when the 2019-20 campaign concluded following a four-month hiatus.

The Pacers began this season with no crowd whatsoever before 1,000 fans started being allowed in late January. In March, Marion County Health Department approved Bankers Life Fieldhouse for 25 percent of capacity, or approximately 4,500 fans. However, team management decided to cap it at 3,000 as a precautionary measure. Needless to say, the atmosphere just hasn’t been the same.

Of course, the situation is similar for every franchise in the association. You can’t simply blame the coronavirus as the entire cause of Indiana’s home failures. After all, the Utah Jazz are 31-5 at home (compared to 19-15 on the road); the Philadelphia 76ers are 27-7 at home (20-15 on the road); the Brooklyn Nets are 26-8 at home (20-16 on the road); the Phoenix Suns are 26-9 at home (22-12 on the road); the Atlanta Hawks are 23-11 at home (16-20 on the road). This means that when it comes to home matches, many an NBA best bet has gone the way of Indiana’s opponents this season.

For reasons beyond the lack of fans, the Pacers have been a problem inside their own friendly confines. They just have not been able to generate enthusiasm on their own while playing in a tempered atmosphere.

First-year head coach Nate Bjorkgren replaced Nate McMillman (who is currently working wonders as interim head coach in Atlanta) and nothing about Bjorkgren’s tenure so far has been positive. Reports have surfaced that there is locker-room friction between players and coach, and the lack of on-court chemistry seems to confirm such ideas.

It doesn’t help that the overall franchise morale has decreased in recent years with the departures of all-stars Paul George and Victor Oladipo. It has to be said that the Pacers did not get a whole lot in return for George and Oladipo, either. Add in more than a few injuries (T.J. Warren has played only four games this season, for example) and this particular Indiana squad just hasn’t been able to gel.

The Pacers actually play quite well when they are able to get away from it all, as they have gone on the road to the tune of a solid 20-15 away record.

At home, though, things are bad and may get worse. The Pacers may not be an NBA pick you want to make on Thursday given their home woes and the fact that Milwaukee is bidding for a top-two seed in the East. Incentive is there for the Bucks to win, and the Los Angeles Lakers will be similarly motivated when they visit Indiana on Saturday. LeBron James and company are currently seventh in the West but are mathematically alive to avoid the play-in tournament.

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