The Indiana Pacers have spent the better part of the past five weeks trying to rediscover what made them one of the best teams in the NBA while still keeping themselves in the hunt for what they set out to do from the start: beat the Heat for home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs.
And now, despite losing 12 of their past 20 games, fighting through major offensive struggles and even some finger pointing by center Roy Hibbert, the Pacers (54-25) can essentially deliver the knockout blow to the Heat (53-25) in the battle for the No. 1 seed Friday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Indiana’s starting five is well-rested. Coach Frank Vogel benched them in Wednesday’s win over the lowly Milwaukee Bucks, a move he said Thursday was intended to be only part of the solution to the Pacers’ woes. The rest — improved rhythm, timing and execution on the offensive end — could show itself Friday with fresh legs. That’s what Vogel is banking on, anyway.
“Fresher legs and sharper minds will lead to better execution,” Vogel said Thursday as his Pacers practiced on the same court the Heat do. “I believe in this group. I believe in myself. I believe [in] what we’re doing — our system, our culture, our approach. I believe in all of that very, very strongly. It’s never going to be smooth sailing.”
All-Star swingman Paul George, who along with fellow Indiana starters Hibbert, guards George Hill and Lance Stephenson, and forward David West will have had four days off by Friday’s tip, admitted it has been hard to grasp how the Pacers fell from having the best record in the NBA at 46-13 on March 3 to suddenly having some question if they’ll survive past the second round. But he said nothing is fundamentally wrong.
“We still got the same chemistry. Nothing’s been broke,” George said. “In the beginning of the year we were the up-and-coming Pacers. Once we started rolling teams really started to lock in where we were the team to beat. We went from the hunters to the hunted. It’s very similar to what [the Heat] went through.”
The Heat, though, has been doing it since the Big 3 came together and has three Eastern Conference titles and two NBA championships to show for it. The Heat has proven it can flip the switch in the playoffs and win on the road if need be.
That’s why winning the No. 1 seed was so vital for Vogel, and why he set that out as the team’s first goal: to avoid having to play another Game 7 in Miami.
“We were hungry after the loss in Game 7 [last season],” Hibbert said. “But after a while we couldn’t sustain that high level of play. Obviously, the playoffs are [a] different feel. I’m sure once we start winning in the playoffs people will probably forget about this last month.
“Right now our mind-set is getting ready for the playoffs. So these last couple games, like Coach says, we’re going to manage rest and play and get back on track to get ready for the playoffs. So that’s our biggest mind-set. It’s a fresh start.”