When the Indiana Pacers rested their starters Wednesday, there was speculation that it might prepare them better for their showdown Friday with the Miami Heat. That they would spend the time off getting themselves in a mental state to take down Miami, give it their all, win the season series, and effectively lock up home court.
That did not happen.
Instead, the Pacers came out as if Friday's game was any other Tuesday night in February, another game against another opponent, and their lack of intensity wound up costing them. They hit shots early, things normalized, the Heat blew the doors off in the third quarter, and the Heat won easily, 98-86, leading by 23 at one point.
Indiana had the extra rest, Miami had the extra gear.
The loss wasn't shocking. Miami was at home, and even without Dwyane Wade, there's a reason they are still considered the best team in the East. But it was how effortlessly Miami picked Indiana apart. Paul George (22 points, five rebounds, five assists) had a strong game, finally, and David West contributed 18. But George Hill had no shots, no free throws, no points, and no rebounds in 32 minutes. Roy Hibbert was beaten at both ends, as the Heat decision to sick noted post defender Udonis Haslem on him paid huge dividends for Miami.
The Pacers didn't give hard fouls in transition, they didn't push the ball relentlessly. It wasn't a playoff attitude, environment, or performance from either team. In many ways it felt like both teams were holding themselves back to a large degree, with the playoffs a week away. And yet Miami blew Indiana out.
The effects are huge on the race for the No. 1 spot in the East, which Indiana has pushed for all season long and now stands on the doorstep of losing in the final week of the season. The loss continues an epic collapse that the Pacers cannot seem to pull themselves out of. What's the psychological damage if the Pacers fail to secure the top seed they pushed so hard for the entire season and which they enjoyed such a huge lead for just two months ago?
Meanwhile for Miami it's back to business as usual. They just dismantled the Pacers by slowing the game down and grinding it out. It was superior guard play (Mario Chalmers and Toney Douglas combined for 20 points and eight assists) combined with the usual LeBron James brilliance (36 points, six rebounds) and sound ball control (just nine turnovers for Miami). They needed only three minutes from Shane Battier, just sixteen hyper-effective minutes from Chris Andersen, just ten points from Chris Bosh.
And they blew out Indiana. In a six-minute span to start the second half that featured Heat starters vs. Pacers starters, the Heat outscored the Pacers by 18 points, by 1.44 points per possession. They scored eleven fast break points in that first six minutes of the third. They had 18 fast break points for the entire game.
It was a blitzkrieg that the Pacers simply weren't up to face.
There is approximately six weeks before the Eastern Conference Finals. Two months ago, Indiana vs. Miami was all but assured, and the question seemed like a legitimate coin flip of who would win. Instead, the question is if the Pacers will make it past a tough Charlotte Bobcats team, or a dangerous veteran-laden Wizards team in the first round, let alone survive the second round.
They had a chance Friday night to get right, to correct all their chemistry issues, to feel good about themselves again. They could have captured momentum headed into the playoffs with home court. Indiana can still take the No. 1 seed, but it will take a loss from Miami to Atlanta, Washington, or Philadelphia, and that will feel more like Miami letting them have it than taking it.
They had all these chances. Indiana just wasn't up for it. And the defending champs assuredly were.