Caught in the Web Indiana Pacers blog: Pacers face huge weekend in Sunshine State

Pacers face big weekend in Sunshine State

March 9, 2012 - For most of us, a weekend in Florida, especially this time of year, would be a nice getaway to rest, relax and recharge.

Not so for the Pacers. With back-to-back games Saturday in Miami and Sunday in Orlando, they have quite a bit of business to conduct. It's not much of a stretch to suggest the ultimate playoff fate of this team is on the line.

At 23-14, they carry a two-game losing streak to the Sunshine State. They've lost six in a row against winning teams. They've been smacked around twice by the Heat, trailing by at least 35 points in each game. They already have dropped two of three to Orlando, the team currently in third in the Eastern Conference.

In other words, the Pacers' margin for error, already slim in a tightly compacted race in the East, is approaching razor thin.

"The challenge is high," Coach Frank Vogel said, "but our guys are up for it, looking forward to it."

With a drubbing in Chicago fresh on their minds, the Pacers can ill afford another blowout in Miami. Their collective confidence has been wavering ever since that five-game losing streak in February and was not bolstered substantially by the recent six-game win streak built against teams with losing records.

Miami has come back to Earth just a bit since that eight-game blowout streak (average margin of victory: 16 points), losing two on the road to the Jazz and Lakers but bouncing back to beat the Nets and Hawks at home.

"We've just got to understand you're going to have bad nights in the NBA and we happened to have two bad nights the two times we played Miami," Vogel said. "We know we're a very good team right now. We're trying to become a great team and it starts with the challenges in front of us. We've got to improve and we've got to put together a better basketball game against Miami than we have the first two times. It's that simple."

The Bulls and Heat clearly have separated from the pack in the East. The Pacers' dual goals are to be the best of the rest while narrowing the gap on those two dominant teams. A victory, or even a strong showing, in Miami would be a step in that direction.

"It's big," George Hill said. "We let two good games slip away from us in Chicago and Atlanta. We know that Miami beat us by 30 almost both times. It's kind of like a game to let people know they were just bad nights. Every team has them. Unfortunately, we caught them on both ends of bad nights. I feel like we have a good team here. We just need to continue to trust one another and hold each other accountable."

The bigger game comes Sunday in Orlando. A loss would give the Magic the season series tie-breaker, a potentially critical advantage. The Pacers already are 1-2 against Atlanta and 0-1 against Philadelphia, their most immediate competition for homecourt advantage in the first round.

This week has sent the Pacers a very important message about the sense of urgency that comes with each game. They entered the week sitting third in the East. The loss to Chicago dropped them to fifth. The loss to Atlanta left them just one-half game out of sixth.

Another couple of losses and the Celtics will be in their rear-view mirrors. A couple of wins, however, and they could not only improve their standing dramatically, but rebuild their collective confidence.

"It's huge," Vogel said. "Every game right now is big but in particular the games against Atlanta, against Philadelphia and against Orlando, the teams that we could end up in the mix with or tied with. Tie-breaker games have bigger implications so it's a huge game for us."

To their credit, the Pacers are not hiding from the challenge. They aren't trying to minimize the importance of the games with one-game-at-a-time rhetoric. They know the weekend offers danger, but also opportunity.

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