Everyone raves about the NBA’s regular season being an extensive journey. After an execrable loss in November or December, fan bases of all 30 teams would spit out the inevitable, tedious statement.
“It’s a long season.”
You never fail to hear it each year, and it’s a phrase that has often played it’s role in dismissing, or forgiving, a team for early season mishaps.
I must be included in the minority that believes the 82-game schedule should be left alone, but that’s in another sea of stories worth diving into later.
There’s not a hardcore NBA fan or analyst on this planet that wants this level of basketball to come to it’s summer conclusion. Meaning, the regular season has nearly reached it’s finale, in a fashion that has us startled to the likes of Jeff Ayres and Tim Duncan being spooked by crying babies.
With the preparation of a regular season’s end comes the thrilling races for playoff seeding. It happens every year. Just one season ago, the Los Angeles Lakers won a playoff tug of war over the Utah Jazz on the last night of the schedule.
This April, however, eyes will turn toward the Eastern Conference ….. but not to see if Phil Jackson‘s Knicks make the cut.
Instead, the one seed that the Indiana Pacers have depicted as a pirate’s coveted treasure will be at stake for the final 11 games.
Who would have guessed that the Eastern Conference leader that accumulated a 35-9 record in their first 44 games would fall flat on their face three months later?
Well, probably quite a few folks, considering “it’s a long season,” right?
Nevertheless, Indiana has been through obstacle after obstacle since the Feb. 7 win over Portland — the last time they truly appeared to possess a championship sense of urgency — and have witnessed their Eastern Conference lead diminish to just two games. It’s not Philadelphia’s style of problems, but it’s more than alarming that the Pacers own a 7-7 record in the month of March. In those seven losses, their average margin of defeat has reached 12.6 points, which includes two straight road blowouts to the hands of Charlotte and Houston. One of those may be acceptable, considering the Rockets were out for revenge and own the West’s third best home record. A 22-point scorching by Al Jefferson‘s Bobcats was enough to make Larry Bird cringe, and even that seems far behind the Pacers’ newest line of struggles.
Part Three of The Saga
The 2013-14 schedule blessed the basketball world with four meetings between Indiana and their conference rival, the Miami Heat. Within an eight day period, the two squared off on each other’s respective home floors, splitting the season series thus far. The first matchup — in Bankers Life Fieldhouse — provided Miami pessimists with fire, as it saw Roy Hibbert exploit the interior weakness Miami’s had attached to their brand since the Big 3 joined in 2010. Hibbert was the offensive initiator, scoring 24 points on 10-of-15 field goals and doing his job of drawing fouls in the middle. This, of course, occurred before Pat Riley‘s savior in Greg Oden became available for the team, which just adds to the feeling of how long ago Dec. 10 truly seems.
In South Beach, it was a completely different tale, told by a different offensive star. Dwyane Wade, who couldn’t find a rhythm in the first matchup, answered the first of many questions about his knee health by exploding for 32 points on 15 made field goals. Indiana muscled their way through, despite Hibbert being restricted with foul trouble and contributing little to nothing offensively. If you recall, LeBron James entered the night in game-time decision status after rolling his ankle two nights prior to the over-hyped event.
For the first (but not the final) time this season, Indiana and Miami will clash head-to-head with both rosters intact for the playoffs. Just to put in perspective how far we’ve come since the last grueling battle, consider the fact that Danny Granger wasn’t even suiting up for Indiana during the December affairs. Flash forward to the end of March, and it’s the four-year Evan Turner that’s in the veteran’s place after departing the 76ers’ tank that blasts all within a 3,000 mile radius.
During that span of 46 games since they last met Miami, the Pacers have introduced their response to Oden, also known as Andrew Bynum. Two quality performances lasting 36 total minutes, and he’s out indefinitely with knee swelling.
Wednesday’s third go-around will not, by any means, be a guaranteed preview of what’s to come in the Eastern Conference Finals, if these two are even still destined for the stage. The bloody brick wall that has put Paul George, Roy Hibbert, and the entire Pacers’ offense on the ground isn’t likely to still be in the way come late-May. There is no general assumption we can make as to how Chris Bosh‘s “we suck” comments concerning Miami’s own struggles will ignite them out of their 5-7 drought in the last 11 games. If any takeaways can be drawn from James’ game-clinching performance vs. Portland on Monday, you better believe the psychological advantage goes to Erik Spoelstra’s unit for Wednesday.
The truth is tough to swallow, but it needs to be understood. In terms of figuring out their own internal problems, this is just another game for both organizations.
Hype is the single most attractive aspect of sports, especially with title contenders. The colossal media coverage for each meeting contributes immensely, as it doesn’t allow the players to act as if it’s just another day on the job. They can sound off all they want saying otherwise, but emotions and nerves are never fully defeated.
For both teams to get to the level they want (and need) to be by mid-April, Wednesday’s showcase could serve as the breakthrough for the victor. The ones hanging their heads will most certainly be under advanced scrutiny, and the popular “panic meter” question will likely arise immediately following the final buzzer.
The war of the one seed makes it difficult to classify the game as a regular season event, and the pressure may become insurmountable for Indiana if they taste defeat. One game ahead isn’t enough ….. but it will be the small cushion the Pacers have if they can’t take care of business.