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Pacers brace for stretch run

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Life at the top hasn’t been a fleeting experience for the Indiana Pacers.

They’ve had the NBA’s best record virtually the entire season, and they intend to maintain it the rest of the way.

Yet as they have discovered throughout, it won’t be easy.

Because with 25 games left, the race for premium playoff seeding is in overdrive. At stake is not only the No. 1 seed in the East, but home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, including the NBA Finals.

That advantage would belong to the Pacers, should they still have the league’s best record at season’s end — and accomplish their oft-stated objective of winning the conference finals.

Consequently, the Pacers (43-13), can — and do — expect premium efforts from all challengers, including the league’s worst teams.

“You can’t look at records,” said Pacers coach Frank Vogel, alluding to Thursday night’s scare against Milwaukee. The Bucks have the NBA’s worst record but flirted with an upset until the final minute, when Indiana hung on for a 101-96 win.

“Every team plays at a different level at different points in the season,” Vogel said. “Cleveland went into Oklahoma City (on Wednesday night) and won.”

West-leading Oklahoma City is, along with Miami and San Antonio, among the Pacers’ nearest challengers for the best record. Cleveland, like Milwaukee, is one of the league’s worst teams.

At this stage of the season, taking aim at the league’s best is one of the few motivations the league’s worst have to play for.

Winners of three straight, the Pacers are keenly aware of that fact heading into tonight’s game at Boston (20-39)

“(The Bucks) played like they have nothing to lose, and that’s the way the NBA is,” said center Roy Hibbert, who had 24 points and 12 rebounds for his 14th double-double of the season. “Cleveland beat the Thunder at home, and they (Thunder) play really well there.

“Anything can happen.”

Especially when you’re the hunted, as the Pacers are in both conferences. But their priority is superiority in the East, where two-time defending NBA champion Miami is heating up.

Miami (41-14) has the NBA’s second-best record, is on a six-game winning streak and is repeating its recent propensity for saving its best for the post-All-Star break sprint.

But for their part, the Pacers aren’t looking over their shoulders or peering past the next opponent. That’s been their approach all season, and it’s worked to near-perfection so far.

They have the NBA’s best record to prove it.

“We just want to keep winning games, getting better and peaking toward playoff time,” Hibbert said. “Despite what other teams are doing, we just treat it like every game is a game that’s going to get us over the hump.”

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