In My Opinion

Linda Robertson: Top seed good for bragging rights, but Miami Heat has eyes on bigger prize

The No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference has plunged in value the way stocks crashed in 2008. The Heat and Indiana Pacers appear to be trying to dump it.

After taking a half-game lead over Indiana with a 12-point victory on Friday, Miami gave it right back like a hot potato with a 13-point loss to Atlanta on Saturday.

How will the Heat treat the No. 1 seed in its last two regular-season games at Washington on Monday and against Philadelphia on Wednesday? If this one-time prize has become a cockroach in its death throes, will the Heat snatch it or, repulsed by its squirming proximity, beg the Pacers to please dispose of it?

Strange, how home-court advantage in the NBA playoffs has suddenly become so worthless.

Players and coaches from both teams are taking turns seeing who can shrug most animatedly. The top seed isn’t that critical, and we never really cared about it, even though we pretended to, they’re saying. Playing Game 7 on the road isn’t that bad, they’re saying. We are concerned with health and team chemistry, not some number, even if it happens to be No. 1, they’re saying.

“It’s all about the process,” LeBron James said when asked about the importance of winning the No. 1 seed. He sounded more like Noam Chomsky than the best basketball player in the world, a guy who prides himself on competing night after night through the drudgery of long trips and back-to-backs.

Spring malaise

In theory, there is a reward at the end of the 82-game trek. But the Heat and Pacers are confirming what many critics of the NBA argue: The regular season is much too long and much too meaningless. Too many teams get into the playoffs, and the league urgently needs realignment to account for the disparate quality of the miserably weak East versus the entertaining, energetic West.

Both the Heat and Pacers have been stuck in a spring malaise. The Pacers’ bizarre unraveling has been more extreme than the defending champs’ problems with inconsistency. Boredom has something to do with it: Eight of the 15 Eastern Conference teams have losing records.

Summoning enthusiasm for the Milwaukees and Orlandos of the league is like getting psyched for pulling weeds. Injuries and fatigue caused by the brutal wear and tear of the season is another factor.

But the San Antonio Spurs — famous for conserving energy for the two-month second season — managed to lock up the No. 1 seed and the best record and efficiency rating (plus-8.6 points per 100 possessions) in the NBA.

“It’s a big plus,” Danny Green said. “It’s not something we were focused on, but we know it will help us. We’ll be at home for most of the playoffs.”

Home-court advantage is a quantitative edge and not mere psycho-babble about the comfort of one’s own bed. The NBA playoff advantage adds up to 4.51 points, according to Ed Feng, founder of The Power Rank, a sports analytics company. Feng calculated this number accounting for the fact that stronger teams have more home games. The playoff advantage is significantly higher than the regular season advantage of 3.17 points. If all playoff games are included in Feng’s method, the home team wins by an average of 5.05 points.

Advantages of home

Research by authors Tobias Moskovitz and Jon Wertheim in their book Scorecasting showed that crowd effect on referees contributes to home-court advantage. The larger and louder the crowd, the bigger the influence on statistics, they found. Close judgment calls tend to favor the home team because of referee bias.

Driver’s seat

With the Pacers’ home victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday, Indiana is in the driver’s seat with a road game left against Orlando because it holds the conference tiebreaker. Will the Heat aggressively pursue the No. 1 seed in its final two games?

More likely, James will take deserved rest, and Dwyane Wade, who has missed a third of the season because of various injuries, will see light tune-up duty.

The Heat insists top seeding is nice but not essential, and by doing so it avoids looking like it has lost anything if it finishes No. 2. The way things are going, the anticipated Game 7 showdown against Indiana might not happen. Miami’s players are concentrating on a much bigger picture and a much bigger trophy.

Read more Linda Robertson stories from the Miami Herald

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