The matchup between the Pacers and Heat is reliably intense and entertaining, full of subplots, and frequently carries substantial impact.
But there is nothing normal about tonight’s game, even by Pacers-Heat standards.
This certainly is the biggest game of the Pacers’ regular season, and may well be the biggest in any of their regular seasons, because it is not a stretch to suggest a championship could be on the line.
Should Indiana win, the Pacers would have a three-game lead over Miami with 10 remaining, effectively wrapping up the top seed in the East and homecourt advantage through the conference finals.
Beyond that, it would restore the Pacers’ self-confidence, give them a desperately needed lift heading into the final three weeks before the playoffs begin. There are many things wrong with this team at the moment, mostly on offense. But lack of ball and player movement, too much reliance on jump shots early in the clock and a general malaise all could be healed by one uplifting victory over their most bitter rivals.
It would also keep alive their hopes of chasing down San Antonio for the No. 1 overall seed.
“Only one thing should matter to the Pacers – that’s hosting Game 7 against the Miami Heat, because that’s where we’re going,” said former Pacer and ESPN analyst Jalen Rose in a conference call Tuesday. “Yes, the Chicago Bulls have been a terrific story this year – Joakim Noah, all-NBA performer. They have done a terrific job having that team show up and play, same with the Brooklyn Nets getting themselves together. But clearly it’s a two-team race.
“For all we say about the Pacers’ struggles, they’re still two games ahead of Miami and they play (tonight). So if they are going to continue to hold the number one spot, I think they have a great chance. Just like any team that (hosts) Game 7, 80 percent of the time that team wins, so that’s what they’re looking for. I think that goal is still in front of them.”
Of course, the inverse is also true – the road team only wins the ultimate game 20 percent of the time – and that’s where this game takes on exponential importance to the Pacers.
Should the Pacers lose tonight, their lead will be down to a single game, with the only remaining game against the Heat in Miami on April 11. Given their recent funk – seven losses in 12 games, one victory over a team with a winning record since Feb. 7 – a loss could also be a crushing blow to what remains of their confidence.
They have spent the past six months focused on a singular goal: finishing ahead of Miami, securing the top spot in the conference so they can host Game 7 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
For most of those six months, they have had that goal in hand.
If they lose tonight, for the first time, they will see it, feel it slipping from their grasp.
“The number one seed doesn’t mean you’re going to win a championship and that’s what we have to really focus on,” George Hill said Tuesday, sounding like a man preparing for the worst. “We have to focus on playing our best ball when the playoffs start. Right now we’re not and that’s what we’ve got to get back.”
Can they get it back?
Tonight may very well represent their last best chance.
Miami, which also has lost seven of 12, wants this game.
Indiana needs it.
“Two examples of when the destination becomes more important than a journey,” said Rose. “When you have an 82-game schedule, especially in an Eastern Conference that is littered with mediocrity beyond Indiana and beyond Miami, it’s really a two-team race.
“The difference in the two, however, is one has been to three straight NBA Finals and are back-to-back champions and they have LeBron James, who is a four-time MVP. The other is the Pacers, who lost in Game 7, but they also understand that if Game 7 is played in Indianapolis this year, their fortunes could change.”
Because of that monumentally big if, this is their biggest game.