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Pacers clinch East’s No. 1 seed, face Hawks in 1st round

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They didn’t exactly earn it. But they’ll take it.

With LeBron James and Chris Bosh sitting, the Miami Heat were trounced 114-93 by the Washington Wizards on Monday night, ensuring that the Indiana Pacers will have home court advantage through to the Eastern Conference Finals in the upcoming playoffs. Both teams still have one more game to play, but even if the Pacers lose (@Orlando) and the Heat win (vs Philly), Indiana will still earn the top seed by virtue of owning the conference record tiebreaker. It’s unclear at this stage whether Frank Vogel will rest the starters for the final game, but it seems probable that the starters will at least play very limited minutes even if they do suit up.

Finishing first in the East means Indiana will play the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the playoffs for the second straight year. The Pacers won a tough-fought series in 6 games last year, though the teams evened this regular season series 2-2, with each side winning once at home and once on the road. Their latest meeting on April 6 was the lowest point of the season for the Pacers as they lost at home by 19 and trailed by 30 in the first half.

The question a lot of people have asked is whether the Pacers would have been better off as the second seed. It sure seemed like Miami wanted that second seed and practically tanked to get there by resting James and Bosh. And it’s understandable. Miami is 4-0 against Charlotte and 2-2 against Washington, their two potential first round opponents, and 4-0 against Toronto, who can clinch the third seed and potentially face the Heat in the second round if they win their last game of the season in New York.

Many believe Miami has deliberately handed the top seed to Indiana because they would like to avoid either Chicago or Brooklyn in the second round. The Heat are 2-2 vs the Bulls and 0-4 against the Nets, and both are battle-tested, veteran teams who appear more dangerous in the playoffs than inexperienced opponents such as Toronto. So Heat fans are happy, and maybe rightfully so.

But make no mistake, the Pacers NEED this No. 1 seed. They should gladly embrace it with open arms.

First of all, getting the top seed has been their proclaimed goal all season. They pretended it wasn’t a big deal when the chips were down, but now they’ve got it they should be proud. It’s an 82-game season for a reason, and despite an atrocious couple of months they still won more games than any other team in the East. Reaching their No. 1 goal of the season is a big accomplishment, one that should give them confidence heading into the playoffs.

Secondly, the reason why they wanted home court advantage so badly is still there. They want a game 7 on their home court against Miami. People may laugh and say the Pacers, with the way they are playing now, probably won’t even make it that far. But they forget — this is an “all in” season for the Pacers. It’s championship or bust. So it doesn’t really matter if they lose in the first round, the second round, or against the Heat (which is not guaranteed either with the way the Heat have been playing) in the Conference Finals. If the Pacers assume that they will have to get past the Heat to get to the Finals, then having home court advantage matters. The Heat might not need it because they have LeBron James, but the Pacers certainly do, or at least they believe they do.

And the Pacers have every reason to be confident in any 7 game series with home court advantage. After all, they will finish the season with a league-best 35-6 record at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

So I don’t buy the idea that the second seed is better. It might be for Miami, but it’s not for Indiana. Sure, Atlanta and Chicago/Brooklyn might be a tougher road than Charlotte and Toronto/Washington on paper, but for a team that’s eyeing the championship and not just another Conference Finals loss, home court against the Heat is ultimately more important.

Besides, the Pacers are 2-2 against the Bulls but are 4-0 against the Nets this season. Should Toronto fall to the fourth seed (they’d have to lose and Chicago would have to win their respective final games) and get past the first round, the Pacers are also 2-2 against them. And in each of these match-ups the Pacers would get game 7 on their home floor.

So there you have it. The fun part is almost upon us. Can’t wait!

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