The Indiana Pacers have clinched the No.1 seed in the Eastern Conference. They will face Atlanta in the first round.— Eye on Basketball (@EyeOnBasketball) April 15, 2014
That means the Heat—without LeBron James and Chris Bosh, throttled by the Washington Wizards on Monday night, 114-93—will most likely square off against the No. 7 seed Charlotte Bobcats when the playoffs begin later this week.
While most assume the Heat and Pacers will still find a way to follow up their epic conference-finals showdown from a season ago, both teams have plenty of causes for concern.
As Bleacher Report’s Kelly Scaletta recently outlined in terrific detail, Indy’s problems in particular—highlighted by recent locker-room unease—could be ripe for a reemergence:
The problem with the Pacers isn’t injury. It’s not as easy to fix as having a player come back to make everything fine again. In fact, it’s not even a singular problem. There are a number of factors compounding each other, and it’s all amplified because the pressure Indiana put on itself to start the season is now splintering the team.
Contrastingly, Grant Hughes argues that, for all the hype and hullaballoo we heap upon teams “peaking at the right time,” the phenomenon is actually quite overstated:
A team trending up at the end of a season didn't have a greater chance of performing well in the playoffs than a team "trending" down. Basically, the concept of "peaking at the right time" is a myth insofar as its predictive value is concerned. If you think about it, isn't this the sensible way to approach teams like the Pacers?
Indeed, what matters to the Pacers, at this point, is having home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs—something they lacked in bowing out to the Heat in the two’s seven-game slugfest last spring.
Asked last week whether securing the No. 1 seed was his top priority heading into the final slate of games, Pacers coach Frank Vogel was crystal clear in his priorities:
"No," Vogel told Zak Keefer of The Indianapolis Star. "We're two games back right now. Obviously it was a goal, it is a goal of ours, but at this point, playing well is our top priority. Part of that is being fresh going into the playoffs.”
They might not be playing their best basketball, but the Pacers did wind up getting a bit of the best of both worlds: a little bit of much-needed rest for the team’s core, and the security in knowing a showdown with Miami will start—and perhaps end—in their favor.