As it stands right now, the Pacers hold a full three-game lead over the Heat with just about a month left to go—comfortable, but by no means safe.
Now comes the more challenging calculus: whether Indiana ought to rest some of its stars—Paul George in particular—even if it means risking losing its seat at the top of the heap.
As Pro Basketball Talk’s Brett Pollakof points out, George’s recent struggles suggest the possibility of exhaustion catching up with the fourth-year forward following a breakout first half of the season.
Over his last three games, George is shooting 11-of-44 from the field — 25 percent. And over his last four, he’s gone just 6-of-27 from beyond the arc — 22.2 percent. Vogel may be right in wanting to stick with his star, and he might not have any other choice. But George’s numbers over his last four games would appear to indicate that something is going on, and it may just be simply that fatigue has set in more than usual during this recent stretch.
When pressed on the issue, Pacers coach Frank Vogel, though cognizant of the importance of minutes management, was non-committal over what his approach might be down the stretch.
I agree with [Spurs coach Gregg Popovich's] approach to managing guys. I think there’s a compound effect, because you get some of your key players rest, but the other guys, (a) you get them work, and (b) you see when they rest guys, the other guys usually win games... I think it’s a very, very strong philosophy. We just haven’t crossed a bridge where it’s necessary for us yet.
Pollakof cites another article by CBS’ Ken Berger which notes—thanks to metrics provided by NBA.com—George has run the fourth-longest distance of anyone in the league this season: 172.4 miles, or the equivalent of 6.5 marathons.
This is a real concern for George and the Pacers. After what happened a season ago, the last thing they want is to cede home-court advantage to the Heat. At the same time, Indiana stands little to no chance without a fully energized George in the fray—regardless of who hosts Game 7.
The good news for the Pacers: With at least one day between playoff games, George—who is only 23 years old, remember—might be able to get enough rest on the fly, especially during the first round.
The bad news: Despite having won five of its last six, Indiana looks nowhere near the basketball juggernaut that began the season 20-3.
The Pacers have all the pieces to challenge for an NBA championship. But it might all be moot if the most important among them ends up broken.