For the first time all season, the Pacers are staring up at the Heat, watching everything they've openly worked for, everything they once thought they needed slip away.
On a night when they needed to stand tall and protect territory they deemed their own, they collapsed, bending to the San Antonio Spurs, who extended their win streak to 18 games with a 103-77 slaying of the Pacers.
It was the Pacers' third straight loss, and their fifth in six games. More importantly, it ended their tenure atop the Eastern Conference.
"The No. 1 seed is the last thing on our minds right now," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said after his team's loss to San Antonio, per The Associated Press' Tim Reynolds (via ABC).
Nice try, Frankie V.
We know better.
Trouble in Paradise
Forfeiting first place is a psyche-shattering blow to the Pacers' playoff hopes.
If their pursuit of becoming No. 1 were a secret, it would be the worst kept secret of anything ever—worse than Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie's "secret" second-round draft pick obsession, worse than Kendall Marshall's "covert" love for Vine-ing.
Securing first place has been a transparent goal for the Pacers, who have stressed the importance of regular-season dominance and home-court advantage on numerous occasions.
"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," David West told ESPN's Brian Windhorst in November. "And we have to start from the beginning of the season."
November. That was months ago. That was nearly a half-year ago. The Pacers have been chasing first place for that long, obsessing over their Game 7 loss in Miami that hard.
And we're supposed to believe that's changed?
Not even two months ago, Vogel himself explained the importance of first place to his Pacers to Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick:
When we lost Game 7. In the locker room, we decided. We just know. We know what the odds are. Look at the odds over history of what Game 7s 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.
Does that read like Vogel heads a team disassociated from the race for first?
Not at all.
Now that the Pacers are unraveling at the seams, of course he's downplaying its significance. And the Pacers are unraveling, distancing themselves from dominant team-first basketball and the five-star chemistry that put them in position to be something more than Miami's only Eastern Conference gadfly.
Where there was once fight, there is now in-fighting. Intrepid optimism has been replaced by blank, melancholy and defeated stares.
Conviction, an unflappable belief in their championship hopes, has submitted to distrust and doubt.
Coming from Hibbert, that means something—only because it shouldn't mean anything.
Scoring and passing aren't Hibbert's strengths. Offensive vanishing acts are more his speed. Yet there he was, questioning Indiana's offensive acumen, ironically and truthfully.
That same night, a peeved and perturbed West sounded the alarm on his team's season, per the Indianapolis Star's Candace Buckner:
First-place teams don't panic. They make adjustments. They change course.
They solve problems.
The Pacers, though, are panicking. Not in a running scared sort of way, but in a desperate-for-answers, lack-of-direction type of struggle.
Burned By the Heat
Nothing the Pacers do is working.
Per Pacers.com's Scott Agness, players-only meetings haven't yielded results:
Group-therapy sessions could now be on the way:
Windhorst also says Lance Stephenson and George Hill had to be separated during the loss to San Antonio. It doesn't matter if it's happened before. It happened again. It happened now.
It can't happen again.
While all this is unfolding, while the Pacers are relinquishing their poise and control, the Heat are making things worse.
Indeed, the Pacers could snag first place back from the Heat. There is plenty of basketball left to play and these two teams meet again on April 11 in a showdown that could determine who finishes No. 1.
But who honestly believes the Pacers are, as is, equipped to steal back what they want the most?
Nonchalant as ever, the Heat have bilked the Pacers of first place, relegating an already browbeaten team to the doldrums. They, meanwhile, have never once expressed interest in first place. When they say seeding means nothing to them, it actually means nothing, or at least very little.
"It doesn't feel like anything," LeBron James said of first place, via Reynolds. "The standings are what they are. We want to play the best we can and the fact that we are in first place, I think that's pretty cool but we've got so much work to do."
Not only are the Pacers in danger of missing out on first place, they're in danger of losing it to a team that, for lack of a better phrase, doesn't care.
Recovering from that type of loss may not be possible.
More Than Just About First Place
Whiffing on something you want is one thing. Handing that something over to a less-interested party is another feeling entirely. It creates this inferiority complex, one the Pacers were battling even before now.
First place isn't just important to them for home-court advantage. The Heat keep beating the Pacers to where they want to be. They put the Pacers in their place in 2012 before doing the exact same thing last season by finishing atop the East and winning a second straight championship at Indy's expense.
"Good for them," Hibbert said of the Heat jumping to first place, via Agness. "We don't deserve it."
Though the Pacers may not deserve it, they need it.
They must have it.
But they don't have it.
The Heat have what they want.
Everything about the Pacers rivaling the Heat is just talk at this point. A few regular-season victories mean nothing. The Pacers have yet to beat the Heat in any meaningful competition.
Nabbing first place could have been that meaningful something.
It could still be that meaningful something.
Or, more tragically, it could be another squandered opportunity and blow to the Pacers' delicate, infirm state of mind delivered courtesy of the one team they've yet to actually beat at anything.