- Bradford Doolittle, ESPN Staff Writer
What if the tortoise and the hare had both pulled up lame before the finish line? Aesop may not write any fables about them, but the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers seem to be engaged in a race nobody particularly cares to win.
The Heat and the Pacers meet Friday night, a matchup that will go a long way toward determining the top seed in the forthcoming Eastern Conference playoffs. For much of the season, a rematch between Miami and Indiana in the East finals seemed a near certainty. However, with the Pacers fading fast and teams heating up behind the East leaders, the bracket looks a lot more dramatic. Adding further intrigue, there is a rising debate that home-court advantage aside, both the Heat and the Pacers would very much like to avoid a second-round meeting with one of those hard-charging contenders, namely the Chicago Bulls.
Would a title contender really tank to avoid a No. 1 seed based on potential matchups? It doesn't seem likely, but with Pacers coach Frank Vogel resting all five of his starters in Milwaukee, and the Heat playing without a hobbled Dwyane Wade, it does seem like the beasts of the East aren't as concerned about seeding as those of us following the race. Indeed, Vogel has said his club's focus is "playing well" at the outset of the postseason, while Miami's LeBron James has pointed to team health as his team's top priority.
Once upon a time, you weren't really a serious title contender unless you finished first in your conference during the regular season. From 1978 to 1999, only three teams won a title without a No. 1 seed, and only one was lower than a No. 2. However, just five of the last 13 champions have finished first in their conference. The Heat won it all as a No. 1 last season, but also won as a No. 2 the season before, and lost in the Finals to West No. 3 Dallas the season before that. At this point in NBA history, you still don't want to be lower than a 3-seed, as only the 1995 Houston Rockets (the 6-seed in the West) have won with a lower slot than that, but that's not a factor for Miami and Indiana. So as long as you've got one of those top three spots -- and won't be playing at a road disadvantage against your conference's two top teams -- then matchups seem to matter more than seeding.
That being the case, we're left with two questions. Does landing the top seed matter more for the Pacers or the Heat? And is there something to this notion that no one wants to play the Bulls?