If the Indiana Pacers are going to achieve their season objective of making the playoffs, the next nine-game stretch could prove to be telling.
After enjoying eight of nine at home, the Pacers start a stretch of six out of nine away from Bankers Life Fieldhouse with a visit tonight to the Chicago Bulls (40-28). And six of the nine opponents have winning records.
Indiana has won two of three games against the Bulls including 99-90 at Chicago’s United Center on Nov. 15. And the Bulls have lost their last two, same as the Pacers (30-36), who begin play tied with the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat for the Eastern Conference’s seventh spot.
Five teams are within 2 1/2 games of each other for the last two playoff spots.
The Pacers’ challenge continues with a Friday visit to the Cleveland Cavaliers (43-26), then they return home to host the Brooklyn Nets (27-38) on Saturday. The Houston Rockets (45-22) visit Monday, then it’s back on the road at the Washington Wizards (39-28) and Milwaukee Bucks (34-33) before a home game against the Dallas Mavericks (43-25) and visits to the Nets and Celtics (30-36).
The Pacers have been on a roller coaster ride since Aug. 1, when two-time All-Star Paul George broke two bones in his lower right leg. There have been an endless series of other injuries — 11 players have missed a combined 194 games — which contributed to three lengthy losing streaks of eight, seven and six games.
When point guard George Hill returned to the starting lineup and guard Rodney Stuckey started coming off the bench, the Pacers won a season-best seven in a row. That precipitated losing the last two at home.
Just like that, after the season teetered on the brink of being a lost cause, the team is back in the playoff hunt.
To earn a postseason berth, head coach Frank Vogel’s squad will have to survive this next stretch.
“Yeah, a tough challenge,” Stuckey said, “but I think we’re up for it.”
The good news is that if the Pacers can endure, four of the final seven games are at home. But if making the playoffs comes down to the final week, this team faces three winning teams — the Oklahoma City Thunder (37-30) and Wizards at home and an April regular-season finale at the Memphis Grizzlies (47-21).
“We’re fighting for our lives,” Vogel said, “understanding every game can impact whether we make the playoffs or not.”
Phillip B. Wilson can be found on Twitter (@pwilson24), Facebook and Google+.