Throughout the season, the Indiana Pacers have been in the driver's seat of the race for the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. They gained early control of the pole position with a 9-0 start to the 2013-14 campaign that quickly turned into a 16-1 record, and they have yet to relinquish their grasp on the conference's top record.
But the strong-fisted stranglehold is no longer anything more than a tenuous two-finger grip.
After a dismal week saw the Pacers drop three games in a row, the lead over the Miami Heat is quite slim. In fact, it only exists because Miami has played three fewer games at this stage of the season, though it's possible a loss from the Heat in one of those three outings could render that point moot.
All of a sudden, Indiana has to be worried that it could be staring at a big, glaring "2" right next to its name in the Eastern Conference standings. Nothing—and I really do mean nothing—could be a bigger psychological blow during the closing stretch of the regular season.
The Pacers' No. 1 Goal
Indiana has made no effort to hide its desire for the No. 1 seed throughout the season.
In some ways, it seems as though the Pacers have been more intent on dethroning the Heat during the regular season than the postseason, although that's quite clearly not the case. The No. 1 seed is merely being used as a means toward a more important end.
"We believe in this locker room that we can get the No. 1 seed and we started the year with that attitude," David West said, via ESPN's Brian Windhorst, after helping the Pacers start the season in 7-0 fashion. "The fact that Game 7 of the conference finals wasn't in our home building we felt was the difference in a trip to the Finals, and we're going to do everything in our power to get a Game 7 in our building. And we have to start from the beginning of the season."
That's a strong statement.
"Everything in our power" doesn't leave much wiggle room, and it's a sentiment that Frank Vogel confirmed that same night.
"If we're going to have playoff success, having home-court advantage would give us an edge," the head coach espoused after beating the Brooklyn Nets. "We were 8-1 at home in the playoffs last year. To lose a Game 7 on the road, that's a tough environment. We're trying for that No. 1 seed. We're going for it."
They were going for it during early November, and that hasn't changed throughout the season.
"We look at it as if we're playing the Heat every night because we expect them to win every night and we've got to win to keep ahead of them," the big man told Windhorst.
Throughout the season, it's just been more of the same.
The Pacers have kept their eyes on the prize, and in this case, the prize is the top record in the Eastern Conference. After all, that No. 1 seed would allow them to play Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals at home, should the seemingly inevitable clash with Miami even last that long.
Different Mentalities by the Two Teams
The narratives surrounding the two elite squads in the East are quite different.
Indiana has been playing with an edge throughout the season. It feels as though the team has motivational posters lining the locker room in Bankers Life Fieldhouse, because Vogel has convinced his players to think that nobody believes in them.
Effort basically defines these Pacers.
They pride themselves on shutting down the opposition, and they do so with a swarming defense that steadfastly refuses to allow effort-created lapses. 50/50 balls belong to the team wearing yellow, and you can always expect to see plenty of players hitting the deck when the occasion arises.
And on top of that, Indiana has attempted to add pieces to the puzzle, even at the risk of its much-vaunted chemistry. Signing Andrew Bynum and trading the shell of Danny Granger to the Philadelphia 76ers for Evan Turner were both moves made to increase the chances of winning this season.
Indiana understands that it's operating on a one-year title window, seeing as the roster next season is inevitably going to be worse. And through both roster movement and effort level, it's acted accordingly.
Miami, however, stands in stark contrast.
While the criticisms of the Heat's effort have been largely overblown—no team is going to completely waltz through an entire NBA season—the defending champions have still appeared to be in an unmotivated state at various points of the 2013-14 campaign.
"Sleepwalking through some games is nothing new for Miami," wrote B/R's Zach Buckley back in January, when the Heat were displaying some especially lackluster efforts. "But it doesn't always even try to flip the switch to steal a come-from-behind win anymore."
And Buckley wasn't the only one to notice this phenomenon:
This effort is the worst I've seen from the Heat in a season of subpar efforts.— Ethan J. Skolnick (@EthanJSkolnick) January 16, 2014
I'm not sure how much schedule strength matters per the Heat. They sleepwalk against bad teams sometimes— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) January 27, 2014
But perhaps the most hurtful claim of all:
Andrew Bynum would do a lot to improve Miami's effort issues this season.— J. D. Hatings (@basquiatball) January 15, 2014
Don't think for even a single second that the Pacers are blissfully ignorant when it comes to perception of Miami's effort levels. There's no way they've avoided hearing that while they're playing their butts off, the Heat are sitting on theirs.
And this can have a significant psychological impact, especially if Miami ends up claiming the No. 1 seed.
It would be one thing if the effort disparity had resulted in a significant gap between the two teams. But for the Heat to be No. 2 in the Eastern Conference only by virtue of having played fewer games? That's problematic for the psyche of the challengers, and it's allowed Miami to position itself nicely heading into the postseason.
Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun Sentinel makes that quite clear:
Yet amid this season-long crusade by Frank Vogel for the top seed in the East, the Heat find themselves after the trade deadline, after the buyout deadline, close enough that the two remaining games against the Pacers could become winner-take-all, with the season series currently 1-1.
The Pacers' approach had been that it would be over by now, the Heat to revert to full-on maintenance mode, regularly sitting regulars, with nothing left but a No. 2 seed reality.
Now? Now the Pacers are chum, not necessarily playing any worse than the Heat, but also not any better. They have allowed the Heat to catch up, allowed Dwyane Wade to rest his knees through the season's first four months, allowed Greg Oden to shake some of the rust, heck, even allowed Michael Beasley to regain confidence on both sides of the ball.
For the two-time defending champions, nothing would do a better job of disheartening a supremely confident Pacers bunch than earning the No. 1 seed while making all that progress. Not only would it guarantee home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference Finals, but it would also be akin to spitting in the face of the Pacers' primary goal and appropriate levels of desire and effort.
Just think about the message it sends.
Could the Pacers overcome falling out of the No. 1 spot in the Eastern Conference standings?
The Pacers might have trouble turning it up another notch when the postseason rolls around, as they've been expending energy and playing at 100 percent no matter which opponent shows up on the schedule. The Heat, on the other hand, clearly can go up a few ticks—maybe even more than that—as they've been taking it easy and waiting to unleash their full fury until games really matter.
As B/R's Joel Cordes mentioned during a discussion on this very topic, the marathon analogy applies here. The best runner isn't always the one who spends the first three quarters of the race in first place, but instead it's often the one who hangs around near the front of the pack and takes the lead right before the finish line.
Anyone else think Erik Spoelstra has used that analogy in the Miami locker room?
Memories of Miami's 99-76 destruction in Game 7 of last year's playoff series are becoming all too familiar in Indiana.
That's what should be haunting the Pacers' dreams right now, not worries stemming from a three-game losing streak.