Pacers' Only Statement: One Game at a Time

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by Mark Montieth | askmontieth@gmail.com

December 11, 2013 | 12:55 a.m.

Miami downplayed it the most beforehand. The Pacers downplayed it the most afterward.

That, as much as anything, explains the Pacers' 90-84 victory over the Heat at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Tuesday. It also explains why the Pacers are a legitimate threat to take the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, now more than ever. It just works out better when you downplay wins instead of games.

So, while a sellout crowd was celebrating a win observed by a playoff-worthy number of national media members, one that improved the Pacers' record to 19-3, the players were sitting quietly in their locker room, uttering nothing that could find its way to a Miami bulletin board before next Wednesday's rematch in American Airlines Arena.

“It feels good, but it's just one game,” Roy Hibbert said after playing the role of difference-maker with a game-high 24 points on 10-of-15 shooting.

“We've been there before, that's the biggest thing. We're not going to run around chest-bumping and stuff like that. It's not like three years ago, when if we got a win like this it was the highlight of our season. We just have to move on.”

David West, a steadying influence down the stretch when the game threatened to unravel on the Pacers, was asked if he thinks Miami is worried. After all, the Pacers have the better record by three games in the standings now, and took this one despite an awful start that spotted the Heat a 13-point first-quarter lead that was apparently the combined result of the hangover from the just-completed five-game road trip and their excitement over playing the Heat again.

“Nah,” he said. “They won 20-whatever games (actually 27) in a row last year. They've already gone on a 10-game winning streak. We know they're capable of winning 10 or 15 games (in a row). That's almost inevitable in our minds. We have to continue to take care of business.”

So there you have it. It wasn't a statement game. It wasn't a statement win. But they did speak more loudly than the Heat, who are finding it difficult to get excited about any game in December.

It's human nature, and it's practical for a two-time defending champion. Miami's primary focus is preserving its established talent for the playoffs, particularly Dwyane Wade, who was a questionable participant on Tuesday but finished with 17 points, six rebounds and six assists. His tender knees, which barely held up through last season's title run, are more important than wins at this early stage. The Heat have won a championship without having homecourt advantage in the Finals, and they've lost a championship despite having it, so they're not nearly as obsessed with it as the Pacers, who continue to feed off the sting of last season's Game 7 conference finals loss in Miami.

“I've been in this league long enough not to make too much of certain regular season games,” LeBron James said before the game.

Nor does James consider whatever the Pacers and Heat have going to be a rivalry. That popular media concept was offered up to him, and he swatted it away with with disdain.

“What is a rivalry these days?” he questioned the questioner. “A rivalry is Celtics-Lakers (in the 1980s), when you meet four out of five years. Bulls-Pistons. Those are rivalries. We've played (the Pacers) two years in the playoffs and you guys make it into a rivalry. There's no rivalry in the NBA these days. You don't see the competition enough. It's two really, really good teams striving to win a championship.

“Rivalries? There are no rivalries.”

A followup question yielded no more of an admission.

“It's the truth,” he said. “There's no rivalries. There isn't. Cowboys-Redskins is a rivalry. Ohio State-Michigan is a rivalry. Duke-North Carolina is a rivalry.”

“Bears-Packers!” Wade piped up from across the room.

“Bears-Packers is a rivalry,” James agreed.

The soliloquy completed and the media departed, James turned his back toward his locker stall to change into his game jersey.

Norris Cole, sitting at the adjacent stall, began cackling quietly. “You told 'em!” he said.

James just shook his head.

OK, it's not a rivalry. But it will become one if the Pacers can eliminate the Heat in the playoffs, and that has to be regarded as a more realistic possibility than ever given the season's early returns. The Pacers keep on inching forward – consistent, balanced and free of ego and assumption, but also free of worry.

A few reporters were asking after the game if the Pacers' sharp early-season focus might lead to burnout by the end of the season. A few Miami players had talked about that last season after their second-half win streak, claiming it had taken something out of them.

“Welllll, uh, didn't they win a championship?” West asked, smiling.

“We're not going to let up,” he added. “We've got a smart group in here. I honestly don't feel we're playing that balls-to-the-wall, all out. Guys' minutes are down. We don't have a 40-minute-a-night guy. I feel our best basketball is ahead of us. We're just going to continue doing what we're doing. I don't think peaking too soon is going to be part of the conversation with this group.”

The schedule now turns favorable for the Pacers, as does the injury report. They finish December with six of their eight games at home, and six of them against losing teams. Only one exceptionally difficult road trip remains after that, another five-game journey that takes them to Golden State, Phoenix, Sacramento, Denver and Los Angeles, to play the Lakers. After playing seven back-to-back sets in the first five weeks of the season, they have just 12 more in the remaining 18 weeks – relevant, because all three of their losses have come on the back end of back-to-backs.

They are on pace to win 71 games, just one short of the NBA record held by the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. But they never talk of that sort of thing.

“Every game is a must-win for us,” Hibbert said.

Even more encouraging for them, Danny Granger is due back soon, quite possibly on Friday when Charlotte comes to the fieldhouse. The former one-time All-Star and five-time leading scorer hasn't played a real game since the Pacers were eliminated by Miami in the second round of the 2012 playoffs.

If a 19-3 team can have a desperate need, Granger fills it, if he recaptures his previous form. Luis Scola and C.J. Watson are playing well off the bench, but there's need for another scorer. Orlando Johnson – shooting .363 from the field and .229 from the three-point line – has lost the shooting touch he held through most of last season, rookie Solomon Hill doesn't appear ready to keep up with the kind of run the Pacers are on, and Chris Copeland is stuck behind West and Scola at power forward.

Granger can take the minutes going to Johnson (20 on Tuesday) and perhaps a few of those going to Paul George and Lance Stephenson. The Pacers could be just one weapon short of having enough to beat the Heat in a playoff series. And Granger could be it.

Granger's teammates, however, downplay that as well. Miami played without key reserve Michael Beasley on Friday, and could have center Greg Oden by the end of the season, giving it a crucial piece to pose against Hibbert. So you never know.

They'll just move on and deal with whatever comes their way.

“We trust who we are,” West said.

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