Despite a few stumbles, the Indiana Pacers have deftly maintained season-long control of the Eastern Conference.
They have, in fact, owned the NBA’s best record most of the year — no easy accomplishment with Miami, Oklahoma City and San Antonio within constant striking distance.
But with the All-Star break in their wake, the real work begins.
Cognizant of the target on their collective back, the Pacers understand that having the best record today guarantees nothing the rest of the way. More than anything, they realize that their chief East rival — Miami — concedes nothing and is sure to crank up the heat in the sprint for the No. 1 seed.
With 28 games to go, the Pacers are braced for the challenge.
“This is the time of year we’re built for,” forward David West said. “We’re deep. Again, we have to start putting the pieces together in terms of our defense and getting our offense clicking a little better.
“It’s all downhill from here.”
By that, West means the race for the top seed, in that it will be accelerated.
Heading into Wednesday’s game at Minnesota, the Pacers had a 2½-game edge on Miami and were a few percentage points behind Oklahoma City for the league’s best record. Although finishing the regular-season with the best record isn’t the objective in of itself, earning the top seed is.
Not having it last year, the Pacers have insisted, cost them the series in last year’s conference finals, with Miami winning Game 7 on its home floor.
To avoid a similar fate, the Pacers are emphasizing finishing the regular season they way the started it — with a vengeance. They opened with nine straight wins and won 18 of their first 20 before hitting a few rough patches between mid-December and the All-Star break.
For the only the first time all season, the Pacers lost back-to-back games on Dec. 16 (home against Detroit) and Dec. 18 (at Miami) and dropped two of three prior to the break, including their worst defeat of the season — an 81-73 home loss against Dallas — on Feb. 12.
But they returned from the All-Star break with a 108-98 home win Tuesday against Atlanta, an encouraging result for a team desperate to avoid anything resembling a slump.
“We started the season 9-0 and 16-1. We understood the dog days would be a grind,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said. “Now that’s behind us. We want to start the second half (of the season) as we did the first half.”
Yet the Pacers know it won’t be easy, especially with the two-time defending NBA champion Heat not far behind.
“We have to be cautious. The consistency of doing it (playing well) every day is what we’re looking for,” backup forward Luis Scola said. “If you want to make it to the finals and win a ring, you have to do it a lot of times. You have to do it every day.
“That’s what we’re looking for. We’re looking for consistency.”
Consistently the NBA’s best team all season, the Pacers are a league-best 25-3 at home and were, heading into the Minnesota game, 15-9 on the road. To head off Miami, they will have to continue winning on the road. Of the final 28 games, 17 are away from Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
“We’ll worry about us. We’re going to take this show on the road,” West said. “We talk about being a better road team. You have to be able to win tough road games in the playoffs.
“You have to come out with the right focus, the right intensity.”