Shift of Focus: Top Seed No Longer Top Priority for Pacers

by Manny Randhawa | @MannyRsports

April 3, 2014 | 12:05 a.m.

The Pacers announced to the world at the start of the 2013-14 season that their No. 1 priority would be to capture home court advantage throughout the playoffs by securing the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.

One hundred and forty-nine days ago, they took over the East’s top seed and focused intensely on holding onto it every day for 147 of those days. Meanwhile, the team they kept looking at in the rearview mirror, the two-time defending champion Miami Heat, made it clear that the top seed would take a back seat to the health of the roster.

And despite these polar extremes in attitudes regarding who would play a potential Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals on their home floor, Indiana’s hold on the top position in the conference was broken Monday night after they were thoroughly dominated by the San Antonio Spurs.

The Heat moved percentage points ahead of the Pacers after defeating the Toronto Raptors. And suddenly, the Pacers’ collective mindset about their bold mission changed.

And it was perhaps that change in attitude that contributed to a hard-fought 101-94 win over the Detroit Pistons Wednesday night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, a game in which the punchless Indiana offense suddenly came to life midway through the second quarter and finished with a 49 percent shooting performance.

“Now we’re just playing,” said Paul George, who had a game-high 27 points to go along with 13 rebounds and seven assists. “We’ve gotta take it one game at a time. We know, either-or, we’re going to finish 1 or 2. So it’s really no pressure there as far as us having any uncertainty about making the playoffs. We’ve just gotta take it one game at a time and understand that at some point, Coach is going to have to be on the fence of whether to rest guys or continue to push for a No.1 spot.”

That’s a far cry from “No. 1 seed or bust,” which had been the mantra throughout the season to this point. But George said that while it was draining to go into each and every game with the burden of retaining control of the top seed over the Heat, the team’s new mindset takes some of the pressure – and edge – off.

“We’ve just gotta play and have in the back of our minds that regardless, we’re going to have to play on the opponents’ floor,” George said. “Now we’re kind of at ease about the whole situation.”

For the Pacers, the goal now is to get right for the playoffs with just six games remaining in the regular season. If they’re able to win home court advantage – and winning the top seed may come down to the final meeting of the regular season between Indiana and Miami on Apr. 11 – that’s great. But now the Pacers have more pressing issues, like ensuring their average-at-best offense is, indeed, average going into the playoffs.

“We’re just trying to get ready for the playoffs,” Roy Hibbert said. “We’re trying to do what’s best for us in terms of doing that. So we’ll see how the next six games go. … Obviously, we would love to have the No. 1 seed and have that pressure on us, but we’ll see what happens the rest of the season.”

Lance Stephenson echoed Hibbert’s sentiment about using the final six contests to gear up for the postseason, regardless of whether they recapture the top seed.

“If we don’t get it, we feel like we’re gonna have to go into another opponent’s arena anyway,” Stephenson said. “ … We just gotta play ball. That’s just gonna come. If we just play Pacers basketball and play together and win the six games that we’ve got left, whatever happens, happens. But we just want to go into the playoffs playing together, playing smart basketball, hitting the extra man and start scoring 101 points again [like tonight].”

David West, the steady, veteran voice of reason in Indiana’s locker room, said that fixating on the No. 1 seed, though a worthy goal, took the Pacers out of their game.

“We can’t focus on it,” West said of the top spot. “We worked ourselves [to the point where] we’ve gotten out of sorts trying to focus on that and we haven’t played good enough basketball over the last month or so to claim it. So now it’s up for grabs and we’re behind the eight-ball in terms of that. We just have to play ball, man. Either way we’re going to have to win some tough playoff series. We’ll have to win some games on the road whether it’s early in the series or late. That’s just what it is.”

Much has been made about whether Frank Vogel’s goal for this team to claim the East’s top seed caused it to lose its way over the past couple of months. But all of that is in the past now, and the Pacers are looking to build on a night in which they looked more like they did in November and December following a very difficult stretch of basketball, particularly since the All-Star break.

Ironically, the same rationale behind the obsession over the 1-seed has the Pacers now focusing on returning to what got them there in the first place for those 147 days at the top. George summed up just how critical it will be for this group to reorient itself over the regular season’s final days.

“We’ve just gotta be positive about one another and positive about this game,” he said. “We’ve got so much riding on this year and so much work that we put into this year. There’s no point for us to be down.”

The Pacers have been down. But after hitting the mat Monday night, they picked themselves up off of it with their performance Wednesday.

And the battered, but still-standing former residents of the East’s pinnacle are now concerned only with playing to their potential when it counts most.

As for home court advantage, they’ll let the chips fall where they may.

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