For much of the year, it's looked as if the Heat were content ceding home-court advantage throughout the playoffs to the Pacers. Miami has made health and energy preservation their top priorities this regular season, much to Indiana's benefit.
But the Heat have a real opportunity here. They have a chance to completely demoralize the Pacers, who've openly stated that the No. 1 seed is key to their postseason success.
The question is: Will Miami take advantage? While the Heat have been slumping lately, it's certainly possible.
The Pacers are not the same dominant team they were a few months ago, and find themselves having lost five of their last 10 games.
After some proclaimed him the NBA's third best player early in the season, Paul George has regressed a great deal offensively. Not the efficiency monster that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are, George finds himself in the company of Ricky Rubio regarding shooting percentage during 2014.
Since January 1st: Ricky Rubio is shooting 40.5% from the field. Paul George is shooting 40.4%. Goodnight.— Zach Harper (@talkhoops) March 20, 2014
But it's not just Paul George's drop-off that makes the Pacers vulnerable down the stretch; center Roy Hibbert is playing far from his best basketball, especially on the offensive end. His shooting percentage in the restricted area is down to 50.52 percent. To put that in perspective, Wade, a shooting guard, is shooting 66.8 percent in the restricted area this season.
Shane Young of 8points9seconds.com wrote the following on March 7:
While nobody expects Hibbert to ever become Hakeem Olajuwon on the block — or even Al Jefferson — he needs to provide something. And for the past two months, he has arguably been doing more damage than good on the offensive end.
The Pacers aren't exactly poised for a big finish to the regular season, and they continue to open up the door for Miami. Also good news for the Heat: they will have a chance to take on this less formidable Pacers team twice down the stretch, once in South Florida on March 26 and once in Indiana on April 11.
Still, even with the Pacers falling, Miami may come up short. While we can expect the Heat to be at full strength for those matchups against Indiana, it's likely they won't be in top form for at least a few of the other 14 games.
Even with the No. 1 seed becoming more of a possibility as of late, Miami has stuck to its guns and remained focused on health. A perfect example of this came on Wednesday when Miami played the lowly Boston Celtics.
The Heat rested LeBron (back spasms) and they ultimately lost 101-96. A win would have put the Heat just two games back of Indiana, as the Pacers lost that same night to the New York Knicks.
Miami has also utilized a maintenance plan with Wade that sees him sit in back-to-back situations. He's missed 17 games this season, most recently sitting Tuesday against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Don't get me wrong—it's the smart move for the Heat to play it safe with its star players. But there's a chance that caution, and playing down to their competition (a result of their semi-coasting approach), will cost them the No. 1 seed.
Take a look at the Heat's schedule and you'll see that they play seven teams with sub-.500 records the rest of the way, while the Pacers play just three.
But Miami isn't a lock to win those games. The Heat have lost 11 games to teams below .500 this season. To put that in perspective, Miami lost just three games to teams under .500 in 2012-13.
It's for those two reasons that it's difficult to call Miami favorites, even with the Pacers flailing right now.
The Heat certainly have a chance at the No. 1 seed, but actually earning it would require Miami to put an emphasis on winning regular season games, something they've been unwilling to do thus far.