The mad scramble for the fourth playoff seed in the Eastern Conference and the third seed in the West continues Wednesday afternoon when the Indiana Pacers face the Houston Rockets in the NBA bubble near Orlando.
The Pacers (43-28) will take the court one game behind fourth-seeded Miami (44-27) in the East with two to play. Indiana wraps up the regular season against the Heat on Friday afternoon. Miami also plays Wednesday, taking on Oklahoma City.
Finishing fourth or fifth means avoiding the top three teams in the East — Milwaukee, Toronto and Boston — in the first round of the playoffs. The fourth and fifth seeds will duel in Round 1.
Having already clinched a fifth consecutive trip to the postseason, the Pacers will be looking for a fifth win in seven tries since the restart. Indiana, however, is coming off a 114-92 loss to Miami on Monday.
The Pacers struggled offensively against the Heat, shooting just 39.3 percent overall and 10-for-35 (28.6 percent) on 3-pointers.
T.J. Warren, who had averaged 34.8 points and shot 60.5 percent from the field in Indiana’s first five games, was limited to 12 points by the Miami defense.
Warren only took 14 shots — he had launched as many as 29 earlier in the bubble — a number Pacers coach Nate McMillan attempted to explain.
“He’s playing in the flow of the game,” the coach noted. “He’s not forcing anything.”
Nobody picked up Warren’s slack against the Heat, with only Victor Oladipo scoring more than his teammate’s 12 points, totaling 14.
Warren took only eight shots, making one, and Oladipo sat out when the Pacers lost 111-102 at Houston in November in the teams’ only previous meeting this season. The Rockets have beaten Indiana five straight, sweeping the last two season series.
James Harden had 44 points in 40 minutes, while Russell Westbrook chipped in with 17 points, eight rebounds and six assists in 35 minutes in the earlier matchup.
The Pacers likely won’t see Westbrook, who has been nursing a bruised quad, when the Rockets play the second half of a back-to-back on Wednesday. Houston was beaten 123-105 by San Antonio on Tuesday, a game Harden watched while getting a rest.
Westbrook went 28 minutes in the loss, scoring 20 points.
Despite the defeat, the Rockets (44-26) remained in the thick of the fight for playoff positions in the West. Houston currently resides fourth behind Denver (46-25), just ahead of Oklahoma City (43-27) and Utah (43-28).
The Rockets complete their regular season Friday against Philadelphia.
Houston coach Mike D’Antoni made it clear Tuesday that the priority is winning next week, not this week.
“We need to play well on Friday when we get (our team) together,” he insisted to reporters after the loss. “We’re trying to get through these next two games and we’re just trying to get guys physically ready to go next week.”
A piece of personal pride could be on the line Wednesday if both Harden and Warren play.
Each ranks among the NBA’s leading scorers in the bubble, with Harden averaging 33.4 and Warren 31.0.
–Field Level Media