The Pacers have made no bones about it - they want the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Earlier in the week, ESPN's Brian Windhorst did a superb job of chronicling the league’s last remaining unbeaten squad’s desire to stay on top of the playoff standings for the long haul. In his article, Windhorst paints a vivid picture of the Pacers' players taking time out from celebrating their latest win to monitor the Boston Celtics' victory over the Miami Heat. After Jeff Green splashed in a Robert Horry-esque game winning three, Windhorst documented the Pacers' reactions as follows:
"The Celtics just beat the Heat by one," it said. "In Miami."
The heads went back to the phones.
"Wow, they shot 58 percent and lost."
"Jeff Green with a 3 at the buzzer."
"Whoa, what are they now?"
"I think 4-2."
Let's face it, if this were any other team, the above conversation amongst the Pacers would be interpreted as just that - conversation. What spectator would not want to mull over Dwyane Wade's baffling decision to purposefully miss a free throw that would have put his team up by three with 0.6 seconds remaining? Who would not be mesmerized by Brad Stevens' calm and stoic reaction to Jeff Green perfectly executing his end-of-game play?
Yeah, if the Boston Celtics would have beat the Minnesota Timberwolves, Sacramento Kings, Charlotte Bobcats, Atlanta Hawks, or, alright any of the other 27 teams (Celtics, Heat, and Pacers excluded) in the league, the Pacers' aforesaid dialogue likely would not have even been written about by Windhorst. It would have gone unnoticed as idle talk.
But this was not just any team; the rebuilding Celtics upset the reigning champs in Miami. Translation - the Pacers (with their win over Brooklyn) would be moving up a full game over the Heat in the Eastern Conference standings.
It is not exactly a shock that the Pacers have a vested interest in the Miami Heat's record. Every contender in the East knows that the path to the NBA Finals goes through Miami. A much bigger revelation is that the Miami Heat's players have their eyes focused squarely on Indianapolis.
According to Shandel Richardson from the Sun Sentinel, the Pacers' 8-0 start to the season has piqued the Heat's interest:
"It's early but the Heat are still paying attention to the Indiana Pacers, who started the season with eight straight wins. The Pacers are the only unbeaten team in the league, making them an early favorite as the biggest challenger to the Heat's three-year reign atop the Eastern Conference."
It is not just speculation that the Heat are, ahem, feeling the heat from the Pacers' hot start. Richardson reported that Chris Bosh admitted as much, stating:
"Yes, they do get our attention. They're playing confident basketball right now but I still feel like we're the champs and we're going to put it together."
Bosh later added:
"We're going to be up there in the conversation very soon. We just have to put in the work right now. They have that chip on their shoulder. They have that hunger that we don't have because we won last year. We have to find different motivations and make sure that we're constantly challenging ourselves."
Chris Bosh is accurate in his remarks. The Pacers are hungry and motivated - mostly because they have not forgotten their Game 7 loss to Miami in the ECF. If the Heat are truthfully feeling paralyzed by a state of malaise, then there is no greater time than the present for the Pacers to continue to capitalize on Miami's early miscues.
Perhaps, the only downfall to the Pacers coming out of the gates so formidably is that their dominance has awoken the Heat out of their self-proclaimed, unchallenged slumber (as demonstrated by their resounding 118-95 victory over the Bucks). They poked the league's sleeping giant that had previously somnambulated through losses to Philadelphia and Boston. They have piqued the Heat's interest, and, no doubt, the race to the top of the Eastern Conference standings just got that much more interesting (no wonder Charles Barkley wanted TNT to cover the Heat @ Pacers game on December 10).
Even so, there has been one notable difference between the two presumed title contenders thus far. Nowhere is this distinction easier to see than in this quote from David West relayed by Brian Windhorst:
"The fact that Game 7 of the conference finals wasn't in our home building we felt was the difference in a trip to the Finals, and we're going to do everything in our power to get a Game 7 in our building. And we have to start from the beginning of the season."
The East is not going to be won exclusively after the All-Star break. Earning the Eastern Conference's top seed is an incremental process over the course of an entire 82 game season. Losses that are the direct result of lethargy stemming from apathy could later on be the difference between second and first, between home or away or between winning the East or going fishing. While one of the contenders is searching internally for challenges and motivation, the other has a hunger that can only be satiated with a trip to the NBA Finals.
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