Why the Indiana Pacers Desperately Need No. 1 Playoff Seed

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Why the Indiana Pacers Desperately Need No. 1 Playoff Seed
Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

Nothing has diverted the Indiana Pacers from their transparent pursuit of the Eastern Conference's top seed.

Not the vulnerability shown during a 2-4 start to the month of March. Not a trademark switch-flipping 15-2 third-quarter run by the two-time defending Miami Heat or their 8-0 spurt in the fourth. Not even Lance Stephenson's ill-timed showing of immaturity, LeBron James' 38-point barrage in a defensive slugfest, George Hill's empty crunch-time trip to the charity stripe or a grotesque 37.0 field-goal percentage.

On a night when Murphy's Law seemed to have a stronger say than Pacers coach Frank Vogel, Indiana found a way to rally to a (potentially) season-saving 84-83 win over the standard-setting Heat.

"They're the champs, they're going to bring out the best in us," David West said, via Michael Marot of The Associated Press. "They bring out the best in anybody. I thought we just had enough fight."

The Pacers weren't just fighting to topple their nemesis—regardless of what those buckets of bad blood might suggest.

This was about fulfilling a personal conquest. About dreaming big, playing big and, ultimately, winning big.

Even the mighty Heat, who've never met a regular-season game they couldn't play down, admitted this contest was different.

"I know everybody was trying to make the games back in December," Chris Bosh said Monday, via B/R's Ethan Skolnick. "Well, now they're important."

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Important was an understatement. A gross one at that, as far as the Pacers were concerned.

"Lose this game? They would have been doomed," Bob Kravitz of The Indianapolis Star wrote. "They would have lost the No. 1 seed (eventually), would have lost home-court advantage against their likely Eastern Conference foes, the Heat, and would have blown their best chance to get to the NBA Finals."

They would have wiped away months of back-breaking work in 48 minutes.

The Pacers (52-20, three games clear of the Heat for the No. 1 seed) have been openly gunning for the top spot in the East all season. Their blitzkrieg 16-1 start to the 2013-14 campaign built up a cushion that they've been protecting like San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich handles his veteran roster.

Indiana hasn't forced its way to the top of the conference standings by accident. This path to home-court advantage was plotted in June 2013.

"When we lost Game 7," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said, speaking of the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, via Skolnick. "In the locker room, we decided. ... 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."

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Everything the Pacers have done since has been a part of that pursuit.

Over the offseason, they addressed their offensively challenged second team through free agency (Donald Sloan, Chris Copeland, C.J. Watson) and a trade (Luis Scola). They parted ways with longtime Pacer Danny Granger to bring in scoring swingman Evan Turner (who supplied two of Indiana's biggest buckets in Wednesday's win). They took a flier on what's left of Andrew Bynum, whose balky knees have allowed him all of two appearances so far.

Everything as part of this public crusade.

"We believe in this locker room that we can get the No. 1 seed and we started the year with that attitude," West said in November, via ESPN's Brian Windhorst. "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."

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Now, there are no guarantees that come with securing the top seed.

The San Antonio Spurs crashed the NBA Finals as a No. 2 seed last season. Both 2012 Finalists (Miami and the Oklahoma City Thunder) were second seeds. The 2011 champion Dallas Mavericks were a No. 3 seed. The 1995 champion Houston Rockets worked out of the fifth seed, while the 1998 New York Knicks began their playoff run as a No. 8 seed and ended it in the NBA Finals.

Seeds don't determine playoff outcomes. But home-court advantage can help decide a series.

Like Vogel pointed out, it means more than simply hosting a Game 7. Just by scoring one road win, the Pacers would have to drop two games on their home floor to lose a seven-game series. They've lost just four home games—and won 33—all season.

And if the series lasts seven games, hosting that final contest is a tremendous edge.

That's not a feeling or a hunch, either—that's what the numbers say. NBA home teams "are 91-23 all-time in Game 7s," per ESPN Stats and Information, a record strengthened by the Heat, who scored a pair of Game 7 wins in South Beach en route to the 2013 NBA championship.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

But it doesn't take number-crunching or identifying trends to see why the Pacers desperately need that No. 1 seed.

They need to fulfill a promise they made to themselves. To complete a journey some nine months in the making. To know that they can aim for the stars and actually hit that astral target. To do what they've planned on doing all along.

After climbing this high for this long, stumbling now would be a debilitating goal they might never recover from.

 

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