Though they trail the Heat by just one game in the season-long quest to secure the top seed in the Eastern Conference playoff bracket, with a potential showdown game looming Friday in Miami, the Pacers seem resigned to their current fate.
“I don’t think we’ve played well enough to earn it,” said David West, “and you don’t want things you don’t earn.”
With seven losses in nine games, the Pacers (53-25) head into their own final four (games left in the regular season) at something of a crossroads. Do they put all their energy into one last-ditch shot at the top seed? Or do they dial it back, get some rest and use the next 10 days as a sort of pre-playoffs training camp?
“For one, we just can’t panic. We can’t panic,” Paul George said. “We’ve just got to be loose about it. We’re putting too much pressure where pressure doesn’t need to be brought. We just need to do what we do.
“We’re in a great position right now, we’re in the second seed, we’re not playing for positioning other than one and two so we’ve just got to take a lot of pressure off that knowing we’re in a good spot where we’re at, just go out there and play basketball.”
All things considered, the No. 2 seed would be a pretty attractive consolation prize.
As things stand, it would bring a first-round matchup against No. 7 Charlotte, a franchise that has never won a playoff game and has just one series under its belt, in 2010.
The second round presently offers the winner of the 3-6 matchup, currently Toronto and Washington. The Raptors (17-8) and Wizards (15-10) have both been strong since the All-Star break and pose matchup difficulties for the Pacers, but neither has been to the playoffs since 2008.
The top seed, on the other hand, is bracketed against the 4-5 winner in the second round, which looks to be either the Bulls or Nets, both surging teams loaded with playoff-hardened veterans.
Of course, with just six games separating the five teams currently holding seeds three through seven, things could change in the final week but the Pacers might be better off focusing on themselves at the moment, rather than the Heat.
“We’re just trying to stay encouraged. We feel like where we are is OK,” West said. “We’re a competitive group. We feel like our defense is going to hold up. Obviously our offense has been wishy-washy at best throughout the year but we’ve got all the confidence in this group that we’re going to make a push. We don’t feel we’re in any different situation than we were in a year ago at this moment. We were picked to lose in the first round, picked to lose in the second round. …
“I’m just not going to look at this thing and say this is all bad. This is humbling for some of us. Some of these guys have only been in a winning environment, winning situation, playoffs every year since they’ve been in the NBA. I’m not one of those guys, so I understand you have low points. But we’ve got 50-something wins, we’ve got a strong, strong group. We’re just going to continue to work on our mentality and our mindset over this next week-and-a-half to get ourselves in a good position to make a push.”
After a traumatic 107-88 loss to Atlanta Sunday in which the Pacers scored a franchise record-low 23 points in the first half and fell behind by 35 points before cutting into the final margin, the team needs to regroup.
Coach Frank Vogel benched all five starters midway through the first quarter, and left center Roy Hibbert in the locker room at halftime, saying his All-Star looked “worn down.”
When asked if Hibbert would start Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee, Vogel said “I don’t know.”
He gave the team Monday off and they return to practice today. Perhaps then we’ll get some answers about the team’s intentions for Hibbert as well as these final games.
“We’ve got to figure out what our plan is,” Vogel said. “Look, our whole starting five looks worn down to me so we’ve got to figure out rest vs. rhythm.”