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Pacers IMO are saying all the right things
Pacers Dueling Kings
for NBA’s Top Seed
By Conrad Brunner
Indianapolis, March 15, 2004
The ultimate regular-season goal is within reach. For the first time in franchise history, the Pacers could finish with the best record in the NBA, thus assuring homecourt advantage for the length of their postseason.
Seems like a pretty big deal, right? It’s the kind of thing a team might just beat its chest about.
The thing is, the Pacers didn’t get where they are by talking about it. And they’re not about to start.
Asked how high a priority the team was placing on earning the No. 1 seed, Coach Rick Carlisle said, “Right now, we’re just going to worry about the next game, try to win as many as we can, count ‘em up later and see where we are.”
Then, after a brief pause, he smiled and said, “How’s that for a bad answer?”
Pretty good, actually.
And he’s not the only one sidestepping the question.
“I don’t even want to answer that one because last year we talked about it an awful lot,” said Jermaine O’Neal. “What’s most important to me is to take one game at a time and however the pins fall when the season’s over, I’m fine with it. That’s what we deserve. If we win the games we’re supposed to win from here on out, obviously the No. 1 seed is feasible, but if you try to look ahead and do the numbers you’ll lose sight of what you should be focusing on.”
It might not make headlines, but that conservative train of thought has made for a spectacularly successful regular season. The Pacers need to go 11-5 in the final 16 games to reach 60 wins for the first time in franchise NBA history. The schedule favors them in the duel with Sacramento for the top seed overall, and it does appear to be a two-horse race. The Pacers’ closest pursuer in the East, Detroit, is seven games back. The Kings have a 3½-game lead on Minnesota in the West.
While the Pacers play 10 of their final 16 at home, the Kings play 10 of their final 16 on the road. The Pacers will face eight teams with records of .500 or better; the Kings will face 12. Of course, it all could boil down to Friday night, when the Kings come to Conseco Fieldhouse. If Sacramento wins that game and sweeps the season series, it will have gained a significant advantage.
“We’ve never even talked about the No. 1 seed this year,” said O’Neal. “We never talked about the record or anything. We only talk about the next game. It makes it extremely tough for us to look past anybody. Right now, you have a number of teams with a legitimate chance and they’re one or two games from finishing anywhere from sixth to 11th or 12th in the Eastern Conference. We’re in a dogfight, playing a lot of teams that are fighting for position.
“So we’ve got to be very careful how we approach these games. That’s why it’s so important for us to take one game at a time – to think about the next game and getting prepared. The coaching staff has done a great job of selling us on the gameplan and the task at hand. We haven’t been talking about anything except the team we’re playing next.”
Finishing atop the NBA guarantees nothing, but it beats the alternative. Of the last 10 top seeds, six reached the NBA Finals and five won the championship. Only one (Seattle, which was shocked by Denver in the opening round in 1994), didn’t advance at least as far as the conference finals.
Pacers associate head coach Mike Brown experienced the advantage of the top seed last season, when he was an assistant with the Spurs. In their first-round series, the Spurs promptly lost homecourt advantage in the first game when Phoenix pulled a 96-95 overtime shocker.
“As you know in the playoffs, anything can happen, but it does give you a boost of confidence,” said Brown. “It helped us out last year because we lost a game early at home to Phoenix, but we didn’t panic. We felt like we were the No. 1 seed and we were confident enough we could come back and win the series so we just went about our business and played.”
The Spurs won the series in six games. In both the conference finals and the NBA Finals, they lost one of their two opening home games but came back strong to win the series, also in six games.
“At that point,” Brown said, “You literally take them one game at a time and keep pressing and pressing and pressing until somebody wins.”
The Pacers don’t have to reach back too far in their history to find a scenario in which having the homecourt advantage might’ve meant a championship. In the 2000 NBA Finals, they won two of three home games from the Lakers, but dropped all three games in Los Angeles.
What if the Pacers had been the top seed that year?
“It would’ve helped – a lot,” said franchise president Donnie Walsh.
“You always try to get every advantage you can, and that’s the most advantage you can get out of the regular season,” said Walsh. “So from that standpoint, it fulfills your goal from the beginning of the year. We all know you have to start over again in the playoffs but, going in, it does give you the best advantage you can have.”
It is an advantage, however, that could be negated if the cost to attain it proves prohibitive. O’Neal has been battling chronic tendinitis in his right knee most of the season, and has been hinting that it might be necessary to take some time off late in the regular season in order to be at full strength for the playoffs. Jeopardizing O’Neal’s postseason status – or that of any player -- in pursuit of any regular-season goal is something not on the Pacers’ agenda.
But it might not come to that. O’Neal has started a new treatment therapy that has made him optimistic about the coming weeks.
“Hopefully, that stops the pain and I can keep my rhythm, rather than taking some time off going into the playoffs,” he said. “The best record in the NBA isn’t going to be settled two weeks before the season is over with. It’s going to go down to the buzzer and I think it’s very important for me to be out there every single game.”
No matter how significant the top seed is, the Pacers know what it is not: the ultimate goal. That’s why their focus remains narrow. As long as there is a next game, the dream remains alive.