INDIANAPOLIS—How will the East be won, at least in the regular season?
For an answer to that, you just had to go to a man named West.
In the afterglow of the Pacers' 90-84 Tuesday night victory against Miami, Indiana forward David West best explained what's been driving his team, now off to a 19-3 start, a full three games clear of the hated Heat in the Eastern Conference standings.
"We feel like they're capable of reeling off 10, 15 wins in a row, so that's always in the back of minds," West said. "We feel like every single night, even though they are not on our schedule, we are playing against them, because we know they are capable of peeling off two, three weeks of straight wins. So we've got to take care of business every single night we come out here."
This is why, just a quarter of the way into the season, it's safe to scribble out the seeding now.
Actually, put it in permanent marker.
The Pacers will be one, because what they want, more than anything, is a potential seventh game in front of Gold Swagger'd screamers.
The Heat will be two, because that's not something they fear—and in some senses, it could be to their benefit.
You want compelling conference competition?
Well, it takes two to tango, and tangle.
And, in this case, it's clear the Pacers are dancing with themselves. Meanwhile, Miami is pressed against the wall, smacking its gum, sipping its drink, checking its watch, declining all offers to engage. The Heat simply can't be convinced to care all that much about what will transpire between now and May.
Just two things.
Incremental improvement, and....
"Health is No. 1," LeBron James said.
Not the No. 1 seed.
In fact, those may be contrasting aims. The vigorous pursuit of the East's pole position has the potential to alter Miami's appropriate approach for a team of their wear and tear—one that has included intermittent absences for the healing Dwyane Wade, a deeper dive into the roster, a more balanced distribution of minutes, an integration of new pieces (Michael Beasley), and a patient regular-season outlook.
"We understand that being home for a Game 7 is very important, in any round," James said. "(But) we don’t play to say let’s get the No. 1 seed, but we play at a high level, and if that puts us there at the end of the season, we’re all for it."
They got it last season, almost by accident, getting caught up in a 27-game winning streak, during which Wade played brilliantly but probably extended himself too much. The prior two seasons, they finished second in the East, three and four games behind Chicago, and still advanced to the NBA Finals.
The Bulls never had a chance in 2011-12, not even surviving the opening round after Derrick Rose blew out his knee, and essentially forfeiting that top seed to the Heat. But, in 2010-11, you could reasonably argue that Tom Thibodeau's relentless pushing for regular-season supremacy left his team without the legs to defend home court in the Eastern Conference Finals, and Miami took the series in five.
The Pacers are younger than the Heat, and they have fortified their bench, so that all of their key players (West, Paul George, Roy Hibbert, Lance Stephenson) are playing manageable minutes, with Hibbert and West at just 30.7 and 30.3, respectively. And that's before Danny Granger returns.
"Coach does a good job of keeping us off our feet, and staying rested," West said of Frank Vogel. "I don't think burning out, or peaking too soon, is going to be a conversation with this group."
Maybe it won't be.
Maybe they can sustain this.
Maybe this is the way that best works for them, single-minded focus on seeding.
But that doesn't mean the older, more experienced Heat need to chase for chasing's sake.
"We have to develop our team naturally," Heat forward Shane Battier said. "I think that's been a strength of Spo (coach Erik Spoelstra). You can't artificially try to develop a team, and say 'OK, go!' Each team has its own progression. And the progression for the Pacers is different for us, just like it's different for the Thunder and the Spurs."
Their own progression, over the past two seasons, has resulted in two rings.
"You don't know what it takes to win a championship until you do it," Battier said. "You think you know. The first year we won against the Thunder, we put our head down and just grinded like hell and you pray and hope that at the end of the day, that the effort and the preparation and the journey was good enough to get you to the top. But you don't know that until that buzzer sounds. And I think that is the value of winning a championship, more than anything else. You understand when the journey is over, OK, that's what it takes. You don't know that until you actually do that."
The Heat know, at this point, what works for them.
So what if Indiana beats the Heat next Wednesday in Miami and extends its lead to four, even five games, not even accounting for a tiebreaker?
The Heat will likely say just that:
As one Heat player put it late Tuesday, "It wouldn't be the worst thing. We'll just focus on us, and being ready when it matters. They can have that pressure."
They'll pay their respects to the Pacers, and be content to plug ahead, though very much at their own pace.