With Chicago Bulls superstar Derrick Rose (torn meniscus) back on the shelf, another potential Eastern Conference contender has fallen out of the race. Some six months before the start of the 2014 Eastern Conference Finals, the matchup already appears set in stone.
Between Chicago's sudden loss and the growing laundry list of concerns in the Big Apple, is a rematch of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals already unavoidable?
Maybe a repeat battle between the Heat and the Pacers was inevitable.
Miami's maintained dominance over the rest of the East in each of the last three seasons. Indiana proved all of the problems it can present to the two-time defending champs in a scintillating seven-game slugfest last season, then spent the summer solidifying its ranks.
But this was never supposed to be as drama-free as it appears now.
The New York Knicks are rewriting the definition of dysfunction. A combination of disjointed offense (99.0 offensive rating, 22nd) and porous defense (105.5 defensive rating, 28th) has looked every bit as sad as it sounds.
The Brooklyn Nets have become an unprecedented disappointment. Sacrificing the future and $189 million of owner Mikhail Prokhorov's cash has brought nothing but heartache and broken dreams.
Chicago's challenge is different from these two but all too familiar for a once again reeling fanbase. Rose's latest season-ending injury—a torn ACL cost him the entire 2012-13 campaign—not only wrecks the franchise's short-term future, but as B/R's Howard Beck pointed out, may also radically reshape its long-term structure.
And these were supposed to be the biggest threats the Eastern Conference had to offer.
It's not as if another contender has risen to fill the ranks. Miami and Indiana are a combined 24-4 on the season. The Atlanta Hawks (8-6) are the only other team above .500. The rest of the East has gone just 58-107.
The Toronto Raptors lead the Atlantic Division with a losing record (6-7). The Philadelphia 76ers, whose coach Brett Brown said he saw just "six NBA players" on the roster before the season started, via Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer, would hold a playoff spot if the season ended today.
The Pacers and the Heat have already displayed their dominance over the rest of the East. That gap could even widen over the course of the season.
But is that necessarily good news for the fine folks of the Circle City and South Beach?
A Little Too Easy?
The NBA's 82-game schedule is a grind. It's as much of a mental test as a physical one.
So, could having this much separation between these two contenders and the rest of the field actually be a bad thing?
Measuring-stick matchups aren't just luxuries for broadcasters, they're often necessities to teams forging a championship path.
"Miami hasn't shrunk from challenges the past three-plus seasons," B/R's Ethan Skolnick wrote. "On the contrary, it has appeared to need them, to sharpen and sustain its edge."
The Heat can't feed themselves false realities. Miami knows it's never more than a flicked switch away from reaching a gear no other NBA team can match. Its take-home prizes from the last three seasons—three finals trips, two titles and the second-longest winning streak in league history—suggest as much.
Miami is looking to become the fourth franchise in NBA history to pull off a three-peat. The path to a third straight title will have as much or more to do with what happens inside the Heat locker room as it does with what goes on around them.
"Complacency was a little bit of an issue," Mark Madsen, a member of the last three-peat champions (the 2000-02 Los Angeles Lakers) told the Los Angeles Times' Ben Bolch. "You've won it twice in a row, you kind of think, oh, it's automatic, it's just going to happen."
Four regular-season battles with the Pacers and a handful of games against the best from the West is hardly the ideal way to ward off satisfaction. The Heat could use more challenges from the East, challenges that just don't appear to be coming.
Indiana isn't facing that same demon.
More than a decade removed from its last finals appearance and lacking an NBA title on the franchise's resume, the Pacers have nothing to feel complacent about. Indiana (13-1) is tied for the best record in the league, and the team is fueled by a certain motivation each time it takes the floor.
"Every game means something when you’re trying to get that No. 1 seed," coach Frank Vogel told Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star. "The No. 1 seed is attainable, and we’re going after it every single night whether it’s at home or on the road."
That extra fire couldn't come at a better time. The Central Division has hardly shaped into the battleground that some envisioned. Rose's removal strips Indiana of the only team capable of competing for the division crown.
But the Pacers can put a premium on each of their scheduled engagements. The 23-point shellacking on Miami's home floor that ended Indiana's 2012-13 campaign won't allow this franchise to overlook the importance of home-court advantage.
Even with so much time left on the schedule, these incentives may never improve. If the conference has another contender flying below the radar, it's tough to see where that challenge will come from.
Best of the Rest
Can any of these forgotten faces in the East play their way back into contention?
The Knicks and Nets have both been ravaged by injuries. But true contenders find answers to adversity, not fold in the face of it.
Chicago might still emerge as the conference's third-best team. But their championship hopes left the same time Rose did. Again.
The Hawks have been a relative surprise, but they're still searching for a signature win. The Raptors, Charlotte Bobcats and Detroit Pistons might make playoff trips, but none are built for postseason success. The Washington Wizards and Cleveland Cavaliers still look years away from competing on the biggest stage.
The conference standings might show 15 different names, but there are only two that really matter.
Pacers and Heat fans can already put down on their Eastern Conference Finals tickets. This matchup isn't going to change.