With 20 games remaining in their season, the Pacers are in the same spot they’ve been the past two seasons – NBA no-man’s land. Not quite good enough to make the playoffs, not quite bad enough to have a shot at a top pick.

Can Danny Granger's return lift the Pacers into the playoffs, or will it be a ninth-place finish for the third consecutive season?

Can Danny Granger's return lift the Pacers into the playoffs, or will it be a ninth-place finish for the third consecutive season?

Sitting three games behind eighth-place Milwaukee, the Pacers appear destined to stake claim to the dreaded nine-spot in the East for the third consecutive year.

A couple weeks ago, it looked like the ship was going to sink. During a Feb. 18 loss to Charlotte they could ill afford, the Pacers lost Danny Granger to a foot injury that would keep him out for a few weeks. It was becoming clear that Mike Dunleavy was done for the year. The Pacers had lost six of nine contests and were dropping like a rock to the Eastern Conference basement.

It was just what they needed, a free fall to build up their stash of lottery balls for the 2009 draft.

Not so fast.

Despite missing their two leading scorers the Pacers have won four of their last six contests – capped by a 100-94 comeback victory over Denver Sunday – and remain in the thick of the race for the eight-spot … for better or worse.

The next six games will be telling for the Pacers’ playoff hopes. Five of those contests are on the road, where the Pacers are a dreadful 7-25.

But if they can come away from that stretch still in the mix, 10 of their final 14 games are at home, where the Pacers are 19-11 and have won their last five.

Additionally, Indiana can earn the tiebreaker with the three teams currently ahead of them in the playoff chase.
In Granger and Dunleavy’s absence Jarrett Jack, Marquis Daniels, and Brandon Rush have played out of their minds. Over the last six games Jack has averaged 21.5 points per game, Daniels 17.8, and Rush 11.2.

So much for the sack of lottery balls.

With Granger possibly returning as soon as this weekend, the Pacers might as well make a run at this thing. But typically, this is about the time they’ll give fans a glimmer of hope and promptly string together an inexplicable losing streak.

One thing is for sure, the franchise could use the money generated by a playoff appearance. Attendance has been abysmal this season and ownership recently said the team has been operating at a loss in nine of the past 10 seasons.

Should they make the playoffs, the Pacers would be guaranteed two home games – most likely against Cleveland or Boston, which would sell out in either case. And besides, even a brutal finish would likely only drop the Pacers a few spots – the seventh-worst record likely being the best-case scenario when it comes to lottery chances. And the seventh-worst record would still only provide a less than a six-percent chance at getting a top-three pick.

Playoffs or bust Pacers … good luck with that.