The Miami Heat have overtaken the Indiana Pacers for the top record in the Eastern Conference with nine games left in their season. After trailing Indiana all season, Miami has put itself in prime position to land home-court advantage throughout the East's side of the postseason bracket.
Still, whether or not Miami's slim lead holds (they lead by merely .06 winning percentage points), the Heat will undoubtedly enter the playoffs as the favorites to earn their fourth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals.
There was a time when it was conceivable for some to view the Pacers as the most likely league Finals representative from the East.
Their size and incredible defense have long made them a tough matchup for Miami. The Pacers took the Heat to seven games in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals and have proven to be a better team than they were a year ago, already exceeding last season's win total by three games.
But as teams should be finding their stride nearing the postseason, Indiana is playing its worst basketball of the season.
The Pacers offense, while never great, has been an atrocity lately. Indiana scored over 100 points just three times in March and has topped 80 points once in its past six games. Indy now finds itself ranked 22nd in points per 100 possessions, per Basketball-Reference.com.
There are numerous reasons for this.
After a blazing hot start to the year, Paul George has regressed to the sometimes inefficient scorer he's proven to be throughout his career. He's shot an absolutely putrid 38.4 percent from the field in February and March. As pointed out by Ethan Sherwood Strauss of TrueHoop, a lot of George's struggles are coming close to the basket, which is pretty remarkable.
George is shooting only 47 percent on layups this season, worse than Ricky Rubio. So much focus is on his 'shooting woes,' but a lot of the shots George is shanking are right at the rim. His lack of balance around the hoop is the principle difference between George and other elite offensive wings.
Compare that to LeBron James, who's converting 78.2 percent of his shots within five feet of the basket, according to NBA.com.
Also, while Roy Hibbert dominated Miami for a half on March 26, the Pacers big man isn't making a grand offensive impact lately (just 9.7 points per game in March). Although Indiana's not doing a great job of getting him the ball, Hibbert's also not capitalizing on the touches he does get.
It's not just those two guys who aren't playing their best, though. The Pacers, as a whole, are collapsing. Their spacing and ball movement are laughable at this point. Their key acquisitions (Evan Turner, Luis Scola and Andrew Bynum) have all been busts.
And as the losses pile up (11-10 in their last 21 games), the players are turning on each other. Lance Stephenson and George Hill had to be separated after an extremely heated exchanged during Indy's 103-77 loss to the San Antonio Spurs on Tuesday, according to ESPN.com's Brian Windhorst.
Hibbert also called out teammates for being selfish after the loss to the Washington Wizards on Friday, according to David Aldridge of NBA.com, and added after the blowout to the Spurs that Indiana doesn't deserve the East's top seed, according to Bob Kravitz of the Indianapolis Star.
The Pacers better hope they become deserving of that top seed, because if they don't earn it, their chances of topping Miami in a potential Eastern Conference Finals matchup are slim. One could make the case it's a necessity for Indiana. The Pacers put so much importance on landing the No. 1 seed; not landing it could be emotionally crippling.
Ethan J. Skolnick of B/R writes of the Heat's quest for the No. 1 seed:
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.
Even while Miami is on the verge of delivering that blow, it isn't playing its best basketball, either. LeBron James and Co. had a stretch earlier in March in which they lost five of six games.
But we know the Heat have another gear they can go to in the playoffs; they'll clamp down and stifle teams defensively and beat teams with incredible ball movement and efficient shots on the other end. We know Miami is being extremely careful with Dwyane Wade's health right now to make sure he'll be at his best for playoff time. We know the Heat still have the best player in the league in LeBron.
However, the Pacers don't have another gear. While we know they're obviously capable of better play, effort is not an issue right now. They're playing hard, desperately craving that No. 1 seed. And they don't have two future Hall of Famers, like Wade and Allen, who aren't playing right now to come and save the day. And George most certainly isn't James.
No. 1 seed or not, Indiana is in deep trouble. That once-seemingly inevitable Eastern Conference Finals matchup between the Heat and Pacers isn't a lock. It wouldn't be stunning at all to see Indiana knocked off by either the Chicago Bulls or the Brooklyn Nets in a possible Round 2 matchup.
The Pacers (at their best) are the only team in the East capable of beating the Heat in a playoff series, and if someone else were to take them out early, Miami would be as close as to a lock for another Finals appearance as one can be.
With Indiana as vulnerable as it is right now, the Heat are looking pretty close to a sure thing, regardless.
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