Pacers, Cavaliers clash in key Eastern Conference matchup

Two Central Division rivals face off for the last time in the regular season on Friday when the Cleveland Cavaliers host the Indiana Pacers in a game with major postseason seeding implications.

In the penultimate game for each team, fourth-place Cleveland (47-33) has a one-game cushion over Indiana (46-34), which currently sits in sixth place in the Eastern Conference. The Pacers enter play with the same record as the fifth-place Orlando Magic, who have a 2-1 head-to-head tiebreaker over Indiana.

The winner of Friday’s game at Cleveland will see its magic number reduced to zero and avoid the play-in tournament for teams that finish seventh through 10th.

Aiming for their first playoff appearance since 2020, the Pacers are playing some of their best ball of the season. Winners in five of their last six, Indiana hopes its high-scoring offense can lead the team to its first playoff series victory since the 2014 Eastern Conference semifinals.

Averaging a league-best 122.9 points per game, the offensive prowess was on display Tuesday in Toronto, where they beat the Raptors 140-123 behind Tyrese Haliburton’s 30 points and Obi Toppin’s 23 off the bench. The pair combined for 20-for-30 shooting from the field in a game that the Pacers led by just a point at halftime.

“We had a slow start, which wasn’t good,” Pacers coach Rick Carlisle said. “We got things back together and the bench was a big part of it.”

Another one of those Pacer bench contributors was rookie Ben Sheppard, who chipped in eight of his 11 points in the second half.

“He had a couple of huge shots, and one against the shot clock in the second half, which was enormous,” Carlisle said of Sheppard. “We know that he’s going to be able to scramble around defensively and guard different positions. He’s going to do the things in our system that we need, which is to run hard, cut hard and make open shots.”

Sheppard is averaging 4.4 points per game this season and has only committed 13 turnovers in 774 minutes.

As for the team the Pacers are chasing, Cleveland picked up a much needed 110-98 home win over the Memphis Grizzlies Wednesday night, snapping a three-game losing streak.

Donovan Mitchell, the Cavaliers’ leading scorer on the season with 26.5 points per game, scored 13 of his 29 points in the first quarter, helping Cleveland pull away from a pesky Memphis group.

Mitchell finished 9-for-17 from the field, including five made 3-pointers.

“(Donovan) understands the moment,” Cleveland head coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. “He understands how much his voice means to his teammates. I think tonight he did a great job on both sides of the ball. I thought he performed at a high level, but I thought he used his voice and led at a high level, too.”

Cleveland, which was bounced from the first round of last year’s Eastern Conference playoffs, is trying to snap a drought of its own, having not won a series since the 2018 conference semifinals.

A win over the Pacers Friday would even up the season series with Indiana at two games apiece.