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November 26, 2014
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Falling Off Pace

The Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers began 2013-14 with two distinctly different approaches to the season, both with the ultimate hope of winning the NBA Finals.

The two-time defending champions Heat, confident that they could once again three-peat if healthy, were quite clear with their intentions to frequently rest starters and key players.  After reaching the Final three years in a row, Miami wanted to make sure that they’re players had adequate energy come the beginning of the playoffs in April.

Even if it meant their regular season record would relatively suffer, and they wouldn’t have the top seed, along with crucial home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, the Heat were positive that their trio of four-time MVP LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh could beat any opponent, regardless of what arena or city they played in.

Meanwhile in Indianapolis, the Pacers devised the exact opposite approach.  After losing to the Heat in the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals in seven games – in which they lost Game Seven in a blowout on Miami’s home floor – the Pacers’ strategy was simple: gun for the one seed.

In their view, the only thing that swung the conference finals was the Heat’s home-court advantage.  If they played their hearts out and finished the regular season with the best record in the East, home-court advantage throughout the playoffs would make them unbeatable in a seven game series.  After all, they had only lost one of their nine home games during the 2013 playoffs.  Even if the Heat have the league MVP, two other top-tier stars and one of the most talented cast of role players in the league, Indiana believed the extra game advantage at home in Bankers Life Fieldhouse could elevate them past Miami.

This meant that while Heat players were often taking games off to rest, the Pacers were giving 100 percent every night of their grueling 82-game season.

“We think it could be a difference-maker come playoff time against some of these teams,” said coach Frank Vogel earlier in the season.  “We feel like every single night could be the difference between having home-court advantage and not having it.  So our guys are really keeping that laser focus.”

Well, with two weeks to go in the regular season, the Heat just overtook Indiana for poll position for the one seed, as the Pacers have unraveled.  Despite beating Miami in their latest matchup, Indiana has lost five of their last seven games – failing to score even 80 points in each of the five losses – while Miami has won four straight.

Whether a product of physical fatigue, mental fatigue or both, Indiana looks like a completely different team, after starting the year 16-1 and holding the top spot in the East throughout the year.  That nightly “laser focus” seems to have exhausted the team’s physical capacity, as well as their chemistry.  After a 103-77 point loss earlier this week to the San Antonio Spurs, center Roy Hibbert said the team was “in a downward spiral” and could benefit from sitting down as a group with the team psychologist to “figure out some of our grievances.”

For the first four months of the season, Indiana looked like the best team in the league and their energy and focus showed on the court.  Last week when they did beat the Heat proved that they still do have that capacity.

However, it could be useful for Indiana to take a hint from the Heat’s management of their players to remember that home-court advantage is worthless in the playoffs if their players are already burnt out.  Though clichéd, it is no less true that the NBA season is a marathon, not a sprint.  You would think a team called the Pacers would know better.