For the first time in the 2013-14 National Basketball Association season, the Miami Heat (51-22, .699) are percentage points (52-23, .693) ahead of the Indiana Pacers for the number one seed in the Eastern Conference standings. Pacers center Roy Hibbert, who was already pretty down following the team’s worst home loss of the year by the final of 103-77 to the San Antonio Spurs (58-16), made his feelings pretty clear about the matter.
“Good for them,” said Hibbert, who finished with 15 points and 7 rebounds in Monday’s loss. “Whoever we see in the playoffs we will see, but we have to figure things out. Miami is a good team and they’ve had a couple hiccups themselves, but we don’t deserve that number one seed.”
Since day one during the Pacers media day back in October, each and every single player (and coach) made it very clear that the number one seed of the Eastern Conference was an absolute priority. As the season progressed, whether it was Lance Stephenson after home victories or head coach Frank Vogel during media sessions after practices, it was quoted over, and over, and over again that all 82-games of the season were more important than ever due to home-court advantage in the playoffs. The Pacers truly believe deep down inside, that if game seven of the Eastern Conference Finals wasn’t played in Miami, the Heat wouldn’t have won 99-76 and gone on to win the NBA championship. And though there are things that get blown out of proportion in the media, I would absolutely 100% back that Indiana’s pursuit of the number one seed isn’t one of those.
Indiana took this intensity, and what seemed almost like an obsession to win every single game, to the top of a weak Eastern Conference standings. Reminiscent of the Jordan Bulls trying to topple the Bad Boy Detroit Pistons squads, the Pacers soon became the darlings of the NBA, the team on the mission to take down the reigning two-time NBA champions that had eliminated them each year in the playoffs. The team played incredible defense, Paul George did reverse 360-windmill dunks, Lance Stephenson posed as a knight, and the team took a picture for GQ magazine in outrageous clothing. Along the way, the Pacers made sure they never slipped against teams that are below-.500, up to this point posting an overall 33-8 record against them.
(Though it should be noted that Indiana is 19-15 against teams with a .500 or above record, which is sixth-best in the NBA.)
All of this is great. Basketball is a sport that is meant to be fun, and after all, this is perhaps the most fun this franchise has had in over a decade. But when losing happens, just as it has in the month of March in which the Pacers ended up finishing an overall 8-10, the fun quickly disappears and expectations can start to feel like an absolute burden on your shoulders.
“That would be a reality check for us,” said Paul George after the loss, after finding out the Heat would soon be grabbing the top spot.
“To be number one, and to be controlling our own destiny. This is the time that we could have had guys resting and really enjoying being in the position that we were in. But now, we are playing down to the wire. It is tough, it is tough. But hopefully this lights a fuel under us, and maybe we will have a better understanding what we need to do.”
Hibbert half-jokingly mentioned that perhaps the team needs to go to group therapy, to maybe “air the grievances” out in pursuit to figure out what a team that has lost five of their last six can do to turn things around. The all-star noted that the squad has had multiple meetings, ones held by players, coaches, and front office members, in pursuit to trying to turn the team back into the juggernaut that it once was just weeks ago. And in fairness to the Pacers, despite there only being seven games left in the season, the playoffs won’t start for another two-and-a-half weeks. That is plenty of time to put a slump behind and make a charge through the playoffs. However, it won’t happen if the squad plays as disappointing as it did on Monday night against the top team in the league.
The Spurs, ultimately heralded for their amazing success under head coach Gregg Popovich that includes four NBA championships and fifteen straight seasons of 50 straight wins, took the Indiana Pacers to a basketball clinic. There were moments on the defensive end in which the Spurs made Indiana look lost, flustered, and outright bad, taking advantage of a team that at times didn’t quite seem like it knew how to get open in the first half. The result, after a handful of bad turnovers and some that lead to easy transition buckets, was a fan base booing a Pacers squad that has scored more than 80 points just once in the past seven contests. Indiana has never been known as an offensive force, but the lack of scoring (with 17 points coming off the bench, compared to the Spurs’ 45) hasn’t helped a squad that hasn’t held up to its reputation on the defensive end.
Answers as to why this is happening are out there somewhere, but the team seems to be searching long and hard for them at the moment. Hibbert mentioned, in a positive way, that Paul George is doing his best to take care of the situation at hand.
“I feel like if we move the ball, and get all the starters in double figures, we’ll have some good nights,” said Hibbert. “But we haven’t been able to knock down shots. Paul (George) has been relentless in getting to the pain, and is able to find people for open shots and open lay-ups. Some of us haven’t been able to convert. He has taken it upon himself to distribute the ball, and I feel like he should do that, and then in the fourth quarter that is his time to be aggressive and get us points. He’s been great, and I love that.”
George on the other hand, seemed a little bit more open about airing his thoughts and troubles. No. 24 noted that the team is in a funk, and that there are multiple things that seem to be going wrong on the offensive end for him to put his finger on, but made this pretty clear.
“We are not having the right setups,” said George. “It is just tough, and it is taking a lot out of us, because we are not playing the game the right way.”
On the offensive end the Spurs, who won a franchise record 18th straight game, were able to take advantage of an Indiana team that just looked tired. Tony Parker (22 points, 4 assists) led a relentless Spurs attack that was running on all cylinders, and the point guard’s ability to attack the paint opened up outside shots for the likes of Boris Diaw (14 points) and Patty Mills (10 points). Throw in the likes of Kawhi Leonard (13 points, 11 rebounds), Tim Duncan (9 points, 6 rebounds), and the rest of the Spurs squad that just took advantage of anything and everything that was given to it throughout the night.
Watching the Spurs up close at this point of the season, you saw a squad that perhaps the smartest in the NBA, that cheered each other on each moment they could and thoroughly loves playing every minute with each other, and that is continuing to peak into the right direction. Not that it is any surprise, as mentioned above, this isn’t the Spurs first rodeo heading into April while sitting on top of the standings.
Doesn’t that theme sound familiar though? The Indiana Pacers were once this team, and deep down inside, they still are. Indiana proved it with its 84-83 victory over Miami less than a week ago, knocking off the defending champions on a national stage that felt like a preview of the inevitable match-up between the two squads come late May in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Pacers won that game in front of a home crowd, one that left Bankers Life Fieldhouse fans feeling as if they were witnessing a team destined for a championship.
And even with the lows that the squad is feeling at the moment, the idea that all of this is lost couldn’t be further from the truth. With seven games left, and contests against the lowly Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks, Orlando Magic, and a late-season game against the Miami Heat, the Pacers can easily find themselves back on top of the Eastern Conference standings with home court advantage throughout. Though now, it doesn’t sound like you are going to hear much talk about the goal set at the beginning of the season anymore.
“I think it’s the last thing on our minds,” said Vogel. “Seeding is the last thing on our team’s mind. What is on our team’s mind is finding an offensive rhythm, and finding a rhythm for this basketball team to get ourselves back on track.”