With Heat on their Heels, Pacers Keep Focus Within

by Manny Randhawa | @MannyRsports

February 28, 2014 | 12:00 a.m.

The Pacers’ 101-96 win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday night was just that: a win.

It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t what it should’ve been: a solid double-digit victory reminiscent of wins Indiana has notched over much higher-grade teams like the Spurs, Rockets, and Clippers. And it was far from a signature Pacers win, something that we’ve seen glimpses of over the past two months, but not on a consistent basis.

Meanwhile, some 800 miles east of Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Heat were in the process of laying waste to the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden, 108-82, LeBron’s Dark Knight mask and all.

Miami has won 14 of its last 17 contests, including victories over the Thunder, Mavericks, Warriors, Suns, Clippers and Spurs. Over that period, LeBron James is averaging 29 points per game, including 31 in Miami’s blowout at The Garden Thursday.

It’s no coincidence that Dwyane Wade, whose knee issues have sidelined him a good chunk of the season, seems to be feeling better as of late, and showing flashes of – despite dumping the nickname a few years ago – “Flash” circa 2010. Wade poured in 23 points on a tidy 10-of-13 from the field Thursday in New York, coming off another 23-point performance in Miami’s win over Chicago Sunday.

He’s averaging 21 points per contest in February while shooting 59 percent from the floor, even playing 12 minutes in the All-Star Game. He’s missed two games this month after missing five in each of the prior two months. And his progress has to be encouraging for those in South Beach.

But back in Indianapolis, after a less-than-satisfying five-point win over the lowly Bucks (11-46, 5-23 on the road), the Pacers – while acknowledging there are always improvements to make – are also remaining grounded when it comes to looking over their shoulders.

“I don’t care what Miami’s doing,” said Roy Hibbert, who had a game-high 24 points against Milwaukee to go along with 12 rebounds.

Wait. You don’t care? What’s this whole “get the number one seed in the East” thing all about, then? And what about the fact that Miami is only a game behind you in the loss column?

Within the answers to these questions are kernels of the Pacers’ perspective of their stated mission this season. Yes, the number one goal for the campaign is to capture the top seed in the Eastern Conference. And that means having at least one more regular season victory than Miami has when each team has played 82 games.

But that doesn’t mean the men in the home locker room Thursday night were concerned about what the Heat were doing, or even thinking about it.

“Despite what any other team is doing,” Hibbert continued, “we just treat it like every game is the game that’s going to get us over the hump.”

So there you have it. It could be any team chasing them from behind in the Eastern Conference standings, and it wouldn’t matter. The Pacers’ goal remains the same: home court throughout the playoffs is what does matter.

When asked about the Heat, George Hill had a similar response to Hibbert’s: Miami is immaterial right now.

“Who knows the way it’s going to unfold?” he asked. “We know that we’ve got to continue to win games. All our focus is on everybody in this locker room. We’re not worried about any other team. We can only control the Pacers.”

David West echoed Hill’s sentiment that the simple, bottom line is that the Pacers can only control what they do on the court, and that means the focus has to be within, not without. But he also said there’s work to be done because of who the two-time defending champs are.

“We can’t control what the Heat are doing, but we obviously know they’re a great basketball team,” West said. “It’s imperative that we play better down the stretch because we know that they’re out there. We know what they’re capable of.”

One game last June sparked a franchise’s mission that would span 82 of them in this campaign. Night-in and night-out, the Indiana Pacers have to play as if tonight’s contest – even when it’s against the Milwaukee Bucks – could mean the difference between playing a potential Game 7 in Miami again in four months, or having that game played at The Fieldhouse.

For the Pacers players who were here at this time last season, the stakes are incredibly higher now than they were 365 days ago, even though it’s just the end of February. But this team has grown up fast, and West says the strength of this group is commensurate to the challenge.

“Last year we were just trying to get the highest seed possible,” West said. “Right now we’re in a similar boat, but we’re a much stronger team. Obviously, we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us. We’ve got to continue to build what we’ve started.”

So even an uninspiring win over the Milwaukee Bucks on a Thursday night in late February is another step in furtherance of Indiana’s goal.

“We’re going to take wins,” West said. “Wins are hard to get in the NBA. Every time we get one, we’ll take it.”

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