MIAMI — As it stands today, the Indiana Pacers are the second best team in the Eastern Conference.
The Friday night 98-86 loss to the Miami Heat might have moved the Pacers into that position, but this isn't simply the work of one blown opportunity inside American Airlines Arena, where last season ended less than a year ago in an Eastern Conference finals Game 7 thumping.
Though the Pacers starters looked more fluid than in previous showings, they still carelessly gave away possessions, as they have since last June. The Pacers offered up 16 turnovers for 20 Heat points. (If that sounds familiar, remember that in Game 7, Indiana committed 21 mistakes that led to 15 Miami points.)
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Also, the lingering issue of the shot-making affecting the defense showed up as the Pacers flinched on the offensive end, allowing the Heat to blow open the third quarter on a 20-2 run. Again, in that Game 7 nightmare, the Pacers drew blanks near the end of the first half while Miami piled up and put them away.
That is why the Pacers (54-26) desired the top seed so badly, to set up a possible Game 7 on the friendly floor of Bankers Life Fieldhouse. But if things remain the same and the Pacers somehow return to the conference finals against the two-time champion Heat (54-25), there will be no home-court advantage.
"Now it's not in our hands," Paul George said, "and we're perfectly fine with that."
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The final result: A locker room, seemingly for the first time, embracing the destiny of the runners-up.
Yes, in previous weeks the Pacers have cooled from their public and proud pursuit of the top seed in the Eastern Conference. However, even as coach Frank Vogel has slammed the brakes on that talk, before the game at least George boldly restated the team's focus on the seed.
"It's an important game," George said hours before tipoff. "It's a game that we have to go out and go get. (The top seed) is what we preached about all year and we have an opportunity to seal it tonight. We got to take advantage and come out and play hard."
Then, somewhere in the third quarter, that confidence disappeared, and later, the conversation changed. Minds shifted and goals were revised. Suddenly, No. 2 did not look so bad for a team that spent months desiring something greater.
"We all right, man. I feel like we're better as the underdog and we just got to keep playing hard and stay positive with each other," Lance Stephenson said.
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If the Pacers "preached" about the No. 1 seed — as George described it — then apparently they're listening to a new sermon.
"Whatever God put us at, I feel like if he puts us in the second place or he puts us in first place, we got to live up to the challenge," Stephenson said. "But I like us as underdogs and us coming after people. I feel like we got to get used to playing under pressure and being on top."
More than just playing under pressure, the Pacers can do themselves a favor by stepping up in big games.
After the Pacers worked to cut a 23-point deficit to nine points in the fourth quarter, Evan Turner sabotaged momentum by picking up a technical foul that led a three-point possession. Then George, who made 7-of-17 shots, forced a pair of 3-point attempts that further pulled the Pacers down into the hole.
Also, George Hill did not attempt a shot nearly 33 minutes on the court, thoroughly outplayed by Mario Chalmers (6-of-14 for 13 points, five rebounds and five assists). Afterward, Hill sat motionless in front of his locker as Vogel approached and placed his hand over his bowed head. But before Vogel played grief counselor, he fielded a question from a television reporter who wondered about Roy Hibbert's health as a way to explain how he could only grab one rebound from the center position.
"Just I'm boxing out, but I just got to go after them some more," Hibbert said. "Just got to work on that."
Now the Pacers must work to salvage a season that once showed great promise by showing up in the postseason. Even if that means promoting a new reality: "We're No. 2."
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