The Heat are still very much alive in the race for the East's top seed, even if their recent shaky play and LeBron-less loss to the lowly Celtics on Wednesday might suggest otherwise. Although the two-time defending champions currently face a three-game deficit to Indiana in the standings, and need to weigh the benefit of resting their stars and managing long-term health issues, it remains too early for Miami to go into shutdown mode. In fact, Indiana faces a stretch of tough games in the next seven-to-10 days that could easily wind up determining the seeding battle.
As noted back in January, Pacers coach Frank Vogel has made the push for homecourt advantage in the East a top rallying cry for his team. This wasn't a particularly complicated motivation: Indiana went 8-1 at home, compared to 3-7 on the road, in the 2013 playoffs, and their 2012-13 season ended on the road against the Heat in Game 7 of the East finals. Aiming for the top seed therefore represented a pursuit of consistent excellence, a way to maintain focus throughout an 82-game season, and a revenge mission, all rolled into one. So far this season, Indiana is 31-4 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, representing the league's best home record. Their interest in hosting a series-deciding game hasn't waned in the slightest, even though their play of late has been less dominant than it was earlier this season.
Interest in the No. 1 seed is a more complicated puzzle for the Heat, who have already played 363 games (including postseason) during the "Big 3" era, and face the prospect of another 16 regular season games and 20+ postseason games between now and June. We do know this: Miami has been a fearsome team at American Airlines Arena during both the regular season and the postseason during the "Big 3" era:
The Heat's general approach this season has been that of a marathoner biding his time and conserving energy (particularly on the defensive end), and a recent 1-5 stretch of play -- their worst run since 2010-11 -- led James to declare that Miami was facing the "defining moment" of its season. The Heat responded with back-to-back wins over the Rockets and Cavaliers, which kept them in reach of the Pacers and assuaged any concerns about their status as a title defender.
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But what's next? With less than one month to play in the regular season, Miami sits 8.5 games ahead of Toronto, the East's No. 3 seed. Facing no pressure from behind, the Heat must decide whether or not the extra effort it would take to close the three-game gap with the Pacers is preferable to extra rest and worth any injury risk. Let's dig into that decision.
How did they get here?
Indiana, owners of the league's best defense, hopped out to a 9-0 start this season and boasted a cool 16-1 record on Dec. 1. They have remained the pace-setters all season, although Miami, the league's best offense, kept within striking distance by shaking off a 1-2 start to put together a 10-game winning streak through November and December.
As it stands, the Pacers (50-18) are favored to beat out the Heat (46-20) for the East's top seed by projection systems run by Basketball-Reference.com, ESPN.com and PlayoffStatus.com. The following table compares Indiana and Miami by their offensive efficiency ranking, defensive efficiency ranking, point differential (MAR) ranking, their percentage chance at claiming the top spot in the East in each of the three projection systems, and the winning percentage of their remaining opponents.
What's striking is how closely these two teams' seasons have mirrored each other. Here's a look at Miami and Indiana's winning percentage game-by-game throughout the season. Since December, these two teams almost look like a pair of dancers locked into the same routine. You win, I win, step, step, I lose, you lose, step, step. Click here to enlarge.
Here's another chart that helps look at the stability of a race in which both Indiana (.735) and Miami (.697) have accumulated impressive winning percentages. Since December, Miami has fluctuated from between one game and four games back of Indiana, never pulling ahead but also never losing contact. Click here to enlarge.
Given that general stability, the fact that Indiana holds a three-game edge with just 14 games on their schedule, and Miami's desire for minutes management, one might assume that this race is over. But it's simply to early to reach that conclusion.
Here's a top-down look at what's facing the Heat and Pacers over the next month.
The best way to describe Miami's current position is "flexible." Although they must make up a three-game lead over the next month, they will have plenty of opportunities to do so. For starters, they have seven games against lottery-bound teams left on their schedule, compared to just four for Indiana. Entering Thursday's action, Miami's remaining opponents have won 49 percent of their games this year, while Indiana's have won 53 percent. Simply taking care of business in those extra games against the league's weakest teams -- including New Orleans, Milwaukee (twice) and Philadelphia -- will cut into Indiana's current advantage.
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Bigger for Miami than those games against the also-rans are two remaining showdowns with Indiana. Those head-to-head games offer a clear chance for the Heat to swing the race and potentially gain a tie-breaker advantage. So far this season, the two teams have split the season series at one game apiece. If they split the final two games, Indiana would almost certainly hold a tie-breaker based on their better conference winning percentage (Indiana is currently 33-8 against East times while Miami is 28-13). However, if Miami wins the two remaining games against Indiana, they would take the season series 3-1 and hold the tiebreaker. Same thing goes if Indiana wins both remaining games, too, of course.
Let's cherry-pick these two items together to illustrate how this race is closer than it might currently seem. Say both teams win all of their remaining games against lottery-bound teams and Miami wins both remaining head-to-head games against Indiana. Where would that leave the race? With Miami at 55-20, ahead of Indiana (54-20) and in possession of the tie-breaker, forcing the Pacers to outperform them against the remaining playoff-bound teams on their schedule to claim the No. 1 seed.
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The flexibility of Miami's position is reinforced by the schedules both teams face over the next two weeks. By April 2, Miami will have visited Indiana and enjoyed four games against lottery-bound teams, while Indiana will have endured six out of seven games against playoff teams during that same stretch. Although the head-to-head game is obviously the one to circle on the calendar, the Heat have the potential to be in the driver's seat by early April if Indiana continues the up-and-down play that has produced a 4-5 record since March 4. The time for the Heat's push is right now, when the disparity between the two teams' schedules is at its greatest.
Conversely, this is "go time" for the Pacers: keeping the Heat at bay through this tough stretch in their schedule wouldn't guarantee the No. 1 seed, but it would make it significantly more difficult for Miami to dig out of its current hole. If I were Pat Riley or Erik Spoelstra and I still faced with a three-game deficit come April 2, I would think long and hard about ramping up the rest and relaxation during the season's final two weeks, especially if Indiana beats Miami on Mar. 26.
The biggest schedule quirk favoring the Pacers is that they have just two remaining back-to-backs, while the Heat have four and often use those as excuses to rest key players. Only one of Miami's four remaining back-to-backs includes two lottery-bound teams (Detroit and Milwaukee later this month) and their last two backs-to-backs are composed entirely of playoff teams (including an April 11 game against Indiana) and run in a four games in five nights stretch. That's rough, and even more incentive for Miami to push to make up their deficit over the next two weeks. If the picture isn't significantly rosier then compared to now, why even bother with the grind of that stretch when the playoffs will be looming just days away?
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It's worth noting that Charlotte and Atlanta are separated by only a half-game for the seventh and eighth seeds, with Atlanta sitting four games ahead of hard-charging New York for the final playoff spot. Considering the virtual tie between the Bobcats and Hawks, there won't be a way for the Pacers or Heat to manipulate their schedule to produce a desired first-round playoff match-up for quite awhile. For what it's worth, Miami is 4-0 against Charlotte and 2-1 against Atlanta this season; Indiana is 2-1 against both teams.
The real wildcard to keep an eye on when it comes to manipulating playoff match-ups is the Bulls, who have climbed to the East's No. 4 seed and are within a half-game of No. 3. Chicago would seem to top the list of "avoid if possible" teams in the conference, even though Miami has handled them in recent playoff showdowns. Both the Pacers and Heat could find themselves in a position to decide whether the No. 1 seed is worth more than being on the opposite side of the Bulls in the playoff bracket. On the other hand, Miami likely wouldn't be too excited about a second-round series against Brooklyn either. The Heat are 0-3 against the Nets this season.
Although a 3-6 stretch since Mar. 4 doesn't exactly scream "late-season push," the Heat still have every opportunity to come out on top of the Pacers. The projections currently favor Indiana for good reason, but Miami's slate of weaker opponents and the two remaining head-to-head match-ups keep this race wide open. The quickest way for this to end is for Indiana to rediscover its top form over the next two weeks, particularly by triumphing against the Heat next week. If that doesn't happen, the door could be flung wind open for Miami, who may or may not be totally committed to rushing through it.