INDIANAPOLIS — The Miami Heat covered their eyes and counted slowly to 10, then 20, then 30. They gave the Indiana Pacers every chance to flee, scatter and hide, before starting to seek. The Pacers could have gotten so lost, so far away, that the Heat would have called off the search, at least until late spring.
Instead, upon opening their eyes, the Heat find Indiana—having stumbled backward—slouching right in front of them.
"I miss the Pacers," Chris Bosh said late Monday night, after Miami's win against Portland and Indiana's loss to Chicago pulled the Heat within two games of the East's top spot, and just one in the loss column. "It's coming down to a photo finish. We have a unique opportunity. No matter what's happened this whole season, we're within striking distance. We've been putting the No. 1 seed off. It's here. And it will be a great playoff atmosphere. And I can't wait to play there Wednesday."
Photo finish? Perhaps, though lately, neither horse has had much gallop in its gait. Each team has dropped seven of its past 12. The Pacers, at times, can't score. The Heat, at times, don't defend.
"As many chances as we had, we kept playing with it. We were struggling; they were struggling. We had our chances. We still have a chance with two showdowns with them," Bosh said. "So, I know everybody was trying to make the games back in December. Well, now they're important. Everybody's getting what they want."
Yet this isn't as much about what the Heat would be getting—if they passed the Pacers for the top seed—as what they would be taking. The actual advantage of top seeding is fairly negligible. In fact, since the turn of the century, No. 2 seeds have made the most appearances in the NBA Finals (11), with No. 1 seeds making 10, No. 3 seeds making five and No. 4 seeds making two. In fact, only twice during that span (2000 and 2008) have two No. 1 seeds faced each other.
Heat players, notably LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, have felt the sting of failing to reach the NBA Finals after their teams finished first in the East. It comes with no guarantees. That's among the reasons it's been so hard to motivate this group over the past six months.
Why risk much, or rile yourself up, over so small a reward?
And while many—including myself—figured the Heat would be energized by the Pacers plummeting back to the pack, that has actually appeared to have the opposite effect. The more vulnerable Indiana seems, the less daunting a Game 7 on the road becomes.
So why care now?
Well, all season, the Pacers have openly lusted over the opportunity for that extra home game in the expected Eastern Conference finals. No team in recent memory has been so transparent about the necessity of one more night in its own building. They made this their mission in the losing locker room in AmericanAirlines Arena last June, enunciated it throughout training camp, reiterated it before the teams' first and second of four regular-season meetings and doubled down on it at All-Star weekend.
As Pacers coach Frank Vogel said, "We just know. We know what the odds are. Look at the odds over history of what Game 7's look like. I think it's 80 percent the home team wins. We just know that can be important. But it's not just about Game 7, either. If you win a game on the road, they've got to win twice in your building. And that's really hard to do. We just felt it could be one of the difference-makers. It's not everything, but it could be one of the difference-makers."
|Eastern Conference standings|
|1. x - Indiana||51-20||0.718||-||Lost 2||5-5|
|2. x - Miami||48-21||0.696||2||Won 1||5-5|
|3. Chicago||40-31||0.563||11||Won 2||6-4|
|4. Toronto||39-31||0.557||11 ½||Lost 1||5-5|
|5. Brooklyn||37-32||0.536||13||Lost 1||7-3|
|6. Washington||36-34||0.514||14 ½||Lost 1||5-5|
|7. Charlotte||34-37||0.479||17||Lost 1||6-4|
|8. Atlanta||31-38||0.449||19||Lost 3||5-5|
|9. New York||29-42||0.408||22||Lost 2||8-2|
|10. Cleveland||28-44||0.389||23 ½||Won 2||4-6|
|11. Detroit||26-44||0.371||24 ½||Won 1||2-8|
|12. Boston||23-47||0.329||27 ½||Lost 1||3-7|
|13. Orlando||20-52||0.278||31 ½||Won 1||1-9|
|14. Philadelphia||15-56||0.211||36||Lost 25||0-10|
|15. Milwaukee||13-58||0.183||38||Lost 8||1-9|
|x-clinched playoff spot|
So what if they don't secure it?
What if they don't secure it after Wade missed more regular-season games than Indiana's starting five combined (19 to seven so far), after the Pacers allegedly upgraded their roster midseason (with Evan Turner and the now-sidelined Andrew Bynum) while the Heat stood pat, and after Miami has hardly mentioned the standings while the Pacers have obsessed over them?
Bob Kravitz, a longtime columnist for The Indianapolis Star, used another word during a recent appearance on my South Florida radio show: "Devastating."
So that's what this "race" is about.
It's about denying the Pacers—a team Miami does not much like—something they deeply desire. It's about dealing them another psychological blow when they've already shown signs of fragility, struggling to adjust to being hunted. And since the Heat's shot at the top spot hinges on a win Wednesday, it's about showing Indiana again that they can handle Bankers Life Fieldhouse, something that's been a struggle in the regular season, but something the Heat did three times total during the past two postseasons.
"I mean, technically, they've had home-court advantage every year we've played 'em," Bosh said. "Because they beat us (in Miami). Just putting that out there."
The Pacers won Game 2 in Miami in 2012, then won Game 3 at home to take a 2-1 lead. Miami won the next three, including two in Indiana to close it out in six.
The Pacers won Game 2 in Miami in 2013. Miami won Game 3 in Indiana, then each team won on its home floor the rest of the way.
Miami advanced each time.
The Pacers haven't stopped thinking about the top spot since their last elimination.
"We think about it, but you know, you might as well not think about it, because you know the season is going to be like this, and we're trying to get back up here," Bosh said, lowering his hands, then raising them. "But it's all about taking it. They're not gonna just give up easily, we're not going to give up easily. That's just something that has to happen. You can't like, plan for it, and be like, 'They will be damaged.' They're still going to come after us."
Still, from Miami's perspective, the more Pacers wounds, the better.
James seemed to relish this situation, as he spoke with a smile on Monday night:
"Who wants to be second?"
No one, naturally.
But especially not a team that claimed it needed to be first.
Ethan Skolnick covers the Heat for Bleacher Report.