The Heat’s Chase of the Pacers Gives the East a Rare Race for First Place

Dec 18, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Indiana Pacers small forward Paul George (24) walks off the court after Miami Heat defeated them by 97-94 at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 18, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Indiana Pacers small forward Paul George (24) walks off the court after Miami Heat defeated them by 97-94 at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /
Dec 18, 2013; Miami, FL, USA; Indiana Pacers small forward Paul George (24) walks off the court after Miami Heat defeated them by 97-94 at American Airlines Arena. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports /

It’s impossible to know for sure, but you’ll have to take my word on it. I’ve heard the term “one seed” more times throughout this season that I can ever remember, particularly concerning the Eastern Conference.

Then again, this is the first time in 12 seasons that we’re headed for a one-game margin between the top two teams in the East. You have to go back to the 2002-03 campaign and find the race between the Detroit Pistons and New Jersey Nets in order to match the excitement of this year’s Pacers and Heat. Of course, we’re talking about a time that wasn’t as media driven, and one that didn’t include a team as star filled as Miami. It was also an era that enjoyed stiff competition, as a 50-32 record (held by Detroit) was enough to secure home-court advantage throughout the playoffs.

Both the Pacers and Heat leapt past the 50-win mark many games ago. With both on pace to finish with 55 wins or more, the discrepancy in the two seasons that the East had a tightly contested race is enormous. In 2002-03, the conference leader obtained just a two-game advantage over the four seed by the end of the season, and an eight-game lead over the final playoff seed.


Indiana and Miami have taken the money and ran all season, locking up the first two seeds in the 2014 playoffs early last week and only keeping an eye on one another as the season’s window begins to close. The Pacers, currently the East leaders after Chris Copeland’s game-winning runner in Milwaukee, are 7.5 games ahead of the third-seeded Toronto Raptors, and a staggering 18.5 games up on the eighth-seeded Atlanta Hawks. Correct, that’s the same team that came into Bankers Life Fieldhouse and outscored Indiana by 32 in the first half just a few days ago.

That’s just how uncanny this season has been for folks in Indianapolis, as their boys have played two completely different seasons; one of eminence, then disaster.

From a context Indiana can relate to, however, perhaps that 2002-03 season is relatable to their recent on-court performance.

Detroit rounded out their season by winning just 11 of their final 20 games in 2003, which included a four-game rough patch that opened up opportunities for the Nets, which were right on their tail. This season, Indiana has a 8-12 record in their past 20 matchups, due to a four-game losing streak in early March and a three-game slide to close the month. Eleven years apart, but the Pacers wouldn’t be the first one seed to nearly lose their way during the last stretch of a season.

In the last six seasons, the Eastern Conference has been suspect to early clinching of the top seed. Here is a rundown of which teams took first and how they did it.

2007-08 Celtics: The Boston Three Party
7-game advantage over two-seeded Pistons.

2008-09 Cavaliers: King’s Court
4-game advantage over two-seeded Celtics after LeBron’s first 66-win season.

2009-10 Cavaliers: Watch the Magic 
2-game advantage over two-seeded Magic, despite Orlando pulling out all their tricks for a 9-1 end to the season.

2010-11 Bulls: Every MVP Has It’s Thorn 
4-game advantage over two-seeded Heat, in Derrick Rose’s first and only run to the East finals before the ACL tear.

2011-12 Bulls: Shorter Season, Same Results
4-game advantage over two-seeded Heat, garnering a league-high 50 wins.

2012-13 Heat: The Streak
12-game advantage over two-seeded Knicks after riding a 27-game winning streak, to go 37-2 in the final 39 games.

For the first time since 2003, the Eastern Conference appears as if it’ll come down to the final two games of the season, with both leaders on a collision course.

In 2009-10, Cleveland’s near-surrender of the top seed was what some may call a fluke. LeBron James sat the final four games for Cleveland, nursing bumps and bruises and resting for the playoffs. Orlando began its hot streak a little too late, and it didn’t matter that the Cavaliers dropped each of those four matchups. That was the last time the East lead had a chance to switch hands on the season’s final day in over a decade.

It’s only fitting, because this Indiana/Miami rivalry is earning it’s place in the list of most suspenseful rivalries in recent memory.

With Indiana up 2-1 in the season series, the two goliaths will meet in South Beach on Friday for the final matchup before the playoffs. Of course, everyone covering the league has anticipated six or seven more intense battles between the two in May’s conference finals. Paul George — fresh off of resting in Milwaukee along with the other four Indiana starters — will go full force on Friday to help ensure that potential seventh game be in Indianapolis.

Other than the head-to-head square off, the remaining schedules for the Pacers and Heat can be considered fairly even in terms of difficulty to “win-out.”

Heading home from Miami, Indiana faces the soon-to-be-MVP, Kevin Durant, and the Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday. This is one of those cross-conference matchups that gives fans two delightful treats in a season; one near the beginning, the other at the end. On December 8, the Pacers visited the Thunder to finish off a five-game Western Conference road swing, and it wasn’t pretty.

Indiana allowed over 110 points just twice during December, with one of those being to the Thunder, who thrashed the Pacers 118-94. It’s rare that Indiana’s defense — which ranks first in defensive rating at 99.1 points allowed per 100 possessions — gives up 30 points in a quarter. Okay, maybe not recently — but take the season in it’s totality.

Still, Oklahoma City nearly broke the 30-point mark in all four quarters in the previous game, lighting up the Pacers for 28 in three quarters and 34 in the third. It’s time to understand the facts:  when Durant and Russell Westbrook combine for 62 points on 25-of-40 shooting, you’re not beating that duo.

Indiana actually stormed into that night hot, coming off an impressive double-digit win in San Antonio. Paul George did his best to match Durant’s 36 points with 32 of his own, but we don’t see much of that anymore. George has only surpassed the 30-point mark one time since Evan Turner’s debut on February 25.

The Pacers’ last opponent is set to be the Orlando Magic, a team sitting 13th in the East standings that’s just been playing for fun for the last three months. 2-1 in the season series thus far, Indiana has outscored the Magic by a margin of 9.4 points in their previous three meetings, holding Orlando to just 86.3 points per game.

The worst thing Frank Vogel and company can do is somehow squeak by Miami and Oklahoma City, only to tumble at Orlando to close out the year. Arron Afflalo is taking a page out of Nick Young’s book of “player haters ball” and leading the way in upsets over Brooklyn and Minnesota. They don’t lay down to anyone, which eliminates any chance of the Indiana starters resting unless they have the top seed clinched heading in.

Miami, fighting to regain their own momentum and shrug off the two consecutive losses, have matchups with Atlanta, Washington, and Philadelphia following the showdown with the Pacers. That places them up against a total winning percentage of .393 (92-142) for their last three games, which is obviously skewed by the tanking 76ers.

Washington, dropping two straight games after locking up a playoff berth, is still on the hunt for a six seed, and the backcourt of John Wall and Bradley Beal has been a nightmare for opponents due to their ability to push the ball in transition and attack you from either penetration or the pull-up perimeter game in fast breaks. Miami has their hands full with a division rival, and it doesn’t help the Heat for it to be in the nation’s capital.

We already know what Jeff Teague and the Hawks are capable of doing to a contender in the East. For reference, ask the hundreds of booing fans that witnessed history in Bankers Life Fieldhouse last Sunday.

People may believe the one-seed discussions are overhyped, but they are the same ones that could be watching a particular game seven in May, wishing Indiana or Miami played their hearts out to end the regular season.

That’s what the two are going to do, so buckle up for the last seven days of the adventure.