The Indiana Pacers have already punched a ticket to the postseason and can still improve or worsen their postseason status down the stretch.
The Pacers face another team headed to the playoffs Monday night with the Atlanta Hawks set to invade Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Indiana is even with New York for the second spot in the East -- 12 1/2 games behind high-flying Miami -- and sits two games ahead of Brooklyn and four in front of Atlanta.
Indiana stumbled its last time out in an 87-84 loss at Chicago and had a three-game winning streak come to a halt. It was a defensive battle from the jump and the Bulls pulled away in the third quarter with a 29-23 advantage in the stanza. The Pacers and Bulls are first and second, respectively, in team defense. Memphis is currently tied with the Pacers.
Paul George led Indiana with 23 points and 11 rebounds, while Roy Hibbert had 18 points and 12 boards for the Pacers, whose magic number to clinch the Central Division title is eight. The Pacers are 4 1/2 games ahead of the Bulls in the division and had won the first three meetings of the season between the rival squads.
"It's just very tough to beat a team four times (in one season)," Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. "Tonight (the difference) was their defense. They made it tough to score. We struggled to score all night."
As previously stated, the Pacers are the top defensive unit in the NBA, holding opponents to 89.5 ppg. They are allowing 87.6 ppg in the previous 21 contests, while averaging 98.03 ppg on the offensive end in the last 34.
The Pacers, who are 28-8 at home, will play five straight against the Western Conference after hosting the Hawks and are scheduled to begin a four-game trek Wednesday at Houston. Dallas, Phoenix and the L.A. Clippers are also on the docket.
In injury news for Indiana, forward David West has missed four straight games with a lower back issue and is doubtful Monday. West is second on the team with 17.3 ppg. Tyler Hansbrough has started the last four games and is posting averages of 15.3 points and 10. 8 rebounds in that span.
Atlanta will resume a four-game road trip Monday and is just one-half game ahead of Chicago for the fifth spot in the East.
The Hawks opened the road swing with a 104-99 victory at Milwaukee on Sunday and were paced by Al Horford's 24 points, seven rebounds and six assists. Dahntay Jones made a difference by hitting the go-ahead free throw with 22.4 seconds remaining and Jeff Teague later sealed it from the foul line to cap a strong comeback for the visitors.
"It shows a lot of toughness for our team," Horford said of his team battling back. "When all the momentum seemed like it was on their side, we responded well and made plays when we needed to."
Teague finished with 14 points and eight assists for Atlanta, which has won five of seven games and pulled within a game of .500 on the road (17-18).
Horford has been a major catalyst for the Hawks recently with 13 double- doubles in the past 17 games. He leads the Hawks in scoring (17.5 ppg) and rebounding (10.3 rpg).
Atlanta still has Toronto and Boston to play on this trek and is unbeaten in its last two road assignments. The Hawks have taken two of the first three matchups with Indiana this season and are 13-3 in the past 16 overall meetings between the two teams.