If the Sixers face the Pacers in the first round of the playoffs, get ready for a physical battle. The Pacers will be doing just that.
Tuesday's meeting in mid-March was a potential postseason preview with the Pacers (40-28) and Sixers (36-30) ranked third and sixth, respectively, in the Eastern Conference.
The Pacers made a statement with their 101-98 win (see observations).
"We try to set examples early," Lance Stephenson said. "We ain't no jokes. We're coming after you."
The Pacers have been keeping an eye on the Sixers as they fight to rise in the standings. The Sixers are chasing a coveted top-four seed to secure home-court advantage. The Pacers, who are 23-12 at home compared to 16-17 on the road, are in the same battle.
"Most definitely, you've got to have your hard hat on when you play against these boys, especially here at home, because they're a physical team," Al Jefferson said. "I know if we do get a chance to play them in the first [round], it's going to be a physical series."
Both teams have turned heads this season. The Pacers looked more like a lottery team than a playoff contender after trading Paul George to the Thunder. That is, before Victor Oladipo kicked off his breakout season and the Pacers clicked far beyond expectations.
The Sixers had the potential to make the playoffs, but battling for home-court, that's playing at a different level of basketball.
"They're a young team that plays hard," Myles Turner said. "I feel like they've used a lot of fuel over the past couple of years as not being like a relevant team to kind of fuel their play this year."
The Pacers won the regular-season series, 2-1. The Sixers triumphed in their first meeting Nov. 3 in Philadelphia thanks to 31 points from JJ Redick and a triple-double from Ben Simmons. The Pacers spoiled Joel Embiid's first career back-to-back set with a balanced team effort Feb. 3 in Indianapolis. Tuesday's game came down to the wire as 21 turnovers stifled the Sixers in a chippy matchup.
The Pacers have had enough of a sample size to know what to anticipate in a postseason series. Jefferson noted the balance of rising young talent and experienced veterans. Former Sixer Thaddeus Young pointed out specifically the impact of Simmons' size mismatch and passing abilities as well as Embiid's versatility and floor spacing.
"They're just a resilient team. They fight each and every game and they continue to play hard," Young said. "That's what makes them tough. They've done a very, very good job of putting the team together. Brett Brown is a damn good coach."
With only four games separating the third seed from the eighth in the Eastern Conference, it is far too soon to tell where the Sixers will end up in the standings. The Pacers are using Tuesday's win as a learning experience in case they are matched up.
"They always play physical," Stephenson said. "You've just got to stay poised and play your game. But they're a great team. I like how they play together. So we just pulled it out tonight."