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Erratic Indiana looks to deep-six recent struggles, finish strong


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INDIANAPOLIS

The race for the Eastern Conference’s No. 1 seed comes down to six games for the Indiana Pacers, four of which take place away from home.

In the case of the two-time defending champion Miami Heat, five of their final eight regular-season games play out on the Heat’s home floor.

Scheduling discrepancy aside, it’s risky to prematurely award Miami the top seed —especially within earshot of Pacers’ head coach Frank Vogel.

“The season’s not over. We’re going to try to win games and continue to compete for the top seed,” Vogel said following a recent practice. “If we don’t get it, we have the (No.) 2 seed, and we compete from there. We still have confidence we’re going to finish strong.”

It was a forgettable March for Indiana, which won only eight of its 18 games and went 3-7 away from the familiar confines of Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

The undisputed low point came with Monday’s barrell-scraping 103-77 loss at home to San Antonio. The Spurs outscored Indiana 59-33 over the first and fourth periods, demonstrating the Pacers’ glaring inability to start or finish strong.

Indiana lost six of its last eight games in March, including road losses to sub-.500 types New York and Cleveland by a total of 20 points.

The Pacers did regain some lost footing on Wednesday, defeating divisional rival Detroit 101-94 at home.

Tonight’s game at Toronto is Indiana’s second and final trip north of the border this season. The Pacers lost 95-82 at Air Canada Centre on New Year’s Day but won both meetings played at home against the Raptors.

Like all NBA coaches, Vogel remains hopeful of finding the right buttons to push down the stretch.

Regardless of which seed it carries into the postseason, Indiana has six more engraved invitations to make plusses out of remaining opportunities.

Always the optimist, Vogel is confident they will.

“Never get too high, never get too low. Stay the course with your plan that works for you. We’re looking to find an offensive rhythm. We want to make sure our offensive struggles don’t impact the defensive end, which I feel like they have a little bit,” he said.

“We have to get back to who we are. Get stops and get the ball moving on offense.”

A No. 1 seed would pair Indiana against either current No. 8 seed Atlanta or New York, the latter still within reach of the final Eastern Conference slot.

Entering the postseason as a No. 2 likely pits Vogel’s squad against Charlotte or Washington in a first-round series.

Indiana dropped lopsided road match-ups to both in March, losing 109-87 at Charlotte on March 5 and a 91-78 decision to the Wizards on March 28.

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