Sometimes, though, exotic thinking prevails over everyday rationale. First place is always good. Second place, on occasion, can be better. Its upside can drub its drawbacks in so many different ways, especially in the Eastern Conference. That's less conventional wisdom than it is a reaction to a medley of awkward and clumsy teams that disarms traditional thought.
At least, that's what the Heat are left hoping. For all their poise and nonchalance, they crave the optimal path to a championship. Every non-tanking team does. Better is better, easier is easier.
Usually it's better and easier to begin the playoffs from the highest point of power, lording over everyone else not just in theory or past precedence but in postseason position.
Miami must hope that this time, this one time, it pays to be "second-best."
Second place isn't all bad. Or even close to bad.
By nabbing the No. 2 seed, the Heat have set themselves up for a first-round matchup against the Charlotte Bobcats or Washington Wizards as opposed to the Atlanta Hawks. Upon first glance, the Hawks are the more favorable matchup because, well, they're the Hawks.
Miami is just 2-2 against Atlanta this season, but on paper, the Hawks have the most vulnerable playoff team without Al Horford. They don't even look like a legitimate playoff team should. Yet they're in the playoffs anyway, because: Eastern Conference.
But you'll have to forgive the Heat if they don't loathe themselves too much. In all likelihood, they're going to face the Bobcats, who close out their season against the Chicago Bulls while the sixth-place Washington Wizards have the pleasure of facing a tanking Boston Celtics team.
Al Jefferson is a one-man wrecking crew, but the Bobcats aren't going to beat the Heat. They haven't won against them all season: Charlotte is is 0-4 against Miami. Two of those games saw the Bobcats fall by at least 15 points. That series, despite the 'Cats' dangerous defense, will end in five games.
Not that it matters. Hawks, Bobcats, Wizards—the Heat don't care. The difference in difficulty is negligible. Not one of those three teams is capable of staging an upset.
Second-round scenarios are more the Heat's speed. As the first-place team, they would be more likely to face the Brooklyn Nets or Bulls in the semifinals, against whom they're a combined 2-6, four of those six losses coming courtesy of Brooklyn. Add in the Heat's 2-2 record against the Pacers, and it isn't pretty.
While the Heat won't have to see the Pacers until the Eastern Conference Finals, you have three teams in Chicago, Brooklyn and Indy that Miami must "worry" about. Being forced to go through Brooklyn or Chicago only to meet Indiana after that would be murder on the Heat's bodies.
Each of those teams plays physical, unforgiving basketball. You avoid all three of them for as long as you possibly can. And it's easier for the Heat to prolong the inevitable or evade all three of them entirely from second place.
Only the No. 1 and No. 8 matchup is currently settled. Everything else is technically up in the air. As of now, Chicago and Brooklyn would square off in the first round as the No. 4 and 5 seeds. Both teams have an opportunity to move up or down one spot. It's best for the Heat if they don't.
There's a better chance the top-seeded Pacers—assuming they beat the Hawks—face the winner of No. 4 and No. 5. If sixth place upsets third place, that changes. Otherwise, in that scenario, one of Brooklyn and Chicago eliminates the other, setting up a second-round fight with Indy in which another Miami "rival" is shown the door.
Under those circumstances, at least two of Miami's three biggest threats are neutralized while it enjoys matchups opposite the Bobcats and Toronto Raptors, neither of whom the Heat lost to all year. Talk about ideal.
Nothing is permanent, of course. Not in the East, not even this late in the season. But a potential Bulls- and Nets-less path out of the Eastern Conference is far likelier from where the Heat are currently sitting: behind the Pacers.
Pretend finishing first in the Eastern Conference is a bad thing if you're into that sort of misguided twaddle. The rest of us will dutifully acknowledge the Heat did miss a golden opportunity to some degree.
The Pacers wanted first place. Like, really, really wanted it. They wanted it so badly, head coach Frank Vogel was stressing the importance of first place to Bleacher Report's Ethan Skolnick in February:
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.
February. Months before the No. 1 seed would be determined.
But the Pacers' interest in first place predates even that. They've been consumed by the race for No. 1 since last season.
"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 explained to ESPN's Brian Windhorst in November. "And we have to start from the beginning of the season."
Imagine investing so much in one goal, one accomplishment. Picture being so close to actualizing said dream.
Then envision it being ripped away by the party that inspired your obsession.
Securing first place would have been huge for Miami, dealing a major psychological blow to the first-place-or-nothing Pacers, who began running scared and backtracking on previous intentions once the going got tough.
For a while, the Heat had bilked the Pacers out of everything they wanted, everything they once claimed they needed, spelling potential doom for their championship hopes, as CBS Sports' Matt Moore further explained after Miami's most recent win over Indiana:
The Pacers didn't give hard fouls in transition, they didn't push the ball relentlessly. It wasn't a playoff attitude, environment, or performance from either team. In many ways it felt like both teams were holding themselves back to a large degree, with the playoffs a week away. And yet Miami blew Indiana out.
The effects are huge on the race for the No. 1 spot in the East, which Indiana has pushed for all season long and now stands on the doorstep of losing in the final week of the season. The loss continues an epic collapse that the Pacers cannot seem to pull themselves out of. What's the psychological damage if the Pacers fail to secure the top seed they pushed so hard for the entire season and which they enjoyed such a huge lead for just two months ago?
The Pacers have been touted as Miami's greatest threat all season. And the Heat had an opportunity to beat them again, to remind the Pacers they've never bested them in anything meaningful. They could have destroyed a team that was crippled by lethargy and static and lifeless offensive sets.
But they failed, ceding first place to their biggest conference rival, giving the Pacers exactly what they wanted.
Mistake Is a Strong Word
There is only one downside to missing out on first place.
LeBron James and the Heat aren't worried about which opponents they will face as the No. 2 seed. They won't think twice about not guaranteeing themselves home-court advantage through the Eastern Conference playoffs. They aren't intimidated by playing a possible Game 7 in Indiana.
Avoiding first place is better for them.
Failing to inflict additional damage on the Pacers' already shaken psyche isn't anything to lament for long. The way the Pacers have played over the last month or so—11-13 since March—they may be ousted long before the Eastern Conference Finals by way of a potential matchup against Chicago or Brooklyn.
The Heat, meanwhile, are sitting pretty.
Dwyane Wade is playing again. Chris Bosh and LeBron James have been given some much-needed, well-deserved rest. Their path to a fourth straight Eastern Conference title and third consecutive championship has never seemed more favorable, more certain.
Second place has never felt more like first.
Second place has never felt like less of a mistake.
*Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
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