The Indiana Pacers will miss the playoffs for the first time in a decade, but they still want to finish the season on a positive note.
The Pacers can start by sweeping the season series from the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday night at Philips Arena.
A 111-107 loss to New Jersey on Sunday eliminated Indiana (35-45) from the Eastern Conference playoff race. It’s the first time since 1996-97 that the Pacers will miss the postseason and finish with a losing record.
Indiana was in the thick of the playoff race for most of the season, but stumbled to a 7-21 record after the All-Star break, highlighted by an 11-game losing streak Feb. 23-March 14.
Despite the disappointing season, coach Rick Carlisle expects his team to finish strong in this contest and at home against Washington on Wednesday.
“You don’t approach it any differently because you’re out of the playoffs,” said Carlisle, whose team has lost three of four. “You come in and you try to get better and you try to win those last couple.
“Our guys like winning. Even though it’s been a tough season and we’re not in the playoffs, anything we can do to end this thing on a positive note is significant.”
Jermaine O’Neal scored 20 points in Sunday’s loss. O’Neal, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, has been bothered by ankle, hamstring and knee injuries this season and could sit the final two games along with guard Jamaal Tinsley, who has dealt with leg and elbow problems in the last month.
“We want to do anything possible to win them, but we’re not going to risk anybody’s health situation to do it,” Carlisle said.
O’Neal, who averages 19.4 points and 9.6 rebounds, is averaging just 12.0 points and 8.6 rebounds in three games against Atlanta this season.
“This has been my toughest year by far,” O’Neal said. “We put ourselves in this predicament. We’re not in position to feel sorry for ourselves. We need to challenge ourselves.”
Indiana is looking to sweep the season series over Atlanta for the third time in four seasons. The Pacers have outscored the Hawks by an average of 17.3 points in the three previous matchups in 2006-07.
Mike Dunleavy led the Pacers with 21 points in the most recent meeting between the teams, a 113-90 Indiana victory at home on March 17.
Atlanta (29-52) lost its final road game of the season, 102-96 at Milwaukee on Monday. The Hawks are trying to avoid a fourth straight loss to close the season, as well as finishing with fewer than 30 wins for the fourth year in a row.
“A lot of our guys have been out 20 games,” said Marvin Williams, who had 21 points Monday. “It’s tough to build chemistry for the season when everyone’s sitting down.”
Rookie Shelden Williams scored 16 points and added 17 rebounds Monday for his third straight double-double.
Atlanta could have coach Mike Woodson back on the bench Tuesday after he missed Monday’s game due to food poisoning. Assistant coach Larry Drew guided the team in Woodson’s absence.