Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Friday night's epic encounter between the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat from South Beach is no longer about Eastern Conference supremacy.
It has morphed into a referendum on the heart, health and true viability as contenders for two teams predestined to meet in late spring with championship hopes in the balance.
On its surface, Friday's main event is for top billing in the Eastern Conference. The Pacers are a half-game ahead of the Heat thanks to Indiana's bizarre victory Wednesday night coupled with Miami's stinging defeat.
Neither team is playing particularly well. The Pacers are 8-12 over their last 20 games and, if you believe some of the comments you hear, they have more in- fighting than the cast of a "Real Housewives" show.
The Heat are 10-11 since the beginning of March and injuries are piling up.
Dwyane Wade missed his eighth consecutive game Wednesday and Udonis Haslem, Greg Oden and Chris Anderson, three valuable bench bigs who could've banged with Memphis' bulky bruisers Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, also were absent.
All of these factors could make Friday's matchup for the No. 1 seed all the more intriguing, although neither side frankly seems to care all that much.
"It is a goal of ours to get the No. 1 seed, but at this point, playing well is our top priority. Being fresh going into the playoffs is our top priority," Pacers coach Frank Vogel said after practice on Thursday. "We feel good if we have the two seed. We can have all the success we're hoping to."
"We want to get healthy. That's all we care about," Miami's LeBron James said. "We've got more problems as far as health issues than the No. 1 seed. That's the least of our worries right now."
Both sides are right, but not totally.
The Pacers need to try to cure what's ailing them currently. They've lost the top spot in the league as far as opponents' scoring goes and offensively, they're a bigger disaster than new Coke.
During this poor run of 20 games, Indiana has scored over 100 points four times. They've been held under 80 five times. It would be easy to say this group was never great offensively, so why worry. Problem is, it's one thing not to be a good scoring team, it's another to be turnover-heavy and stagnant, which the Pacers have been of late.
The Pacers also face real problems with shot selection and that gets to the heart of Roy Hibbert's "selfish dudes" comments. Indiana has had trouble integrating Evan Turner into the lineup. Turner was used to having the ball in his hands in Philadelphia and there have been times that my own eyeballs have witnessed confusion on the court when Turner pounds the rock.
George Hill has always been a capable point man, but is he a good enough lead guard to win a championship? Paul George is an amazing talent who has regressed as the season has wound down.
Could George's problem be rooted in fatigue? His coach believes so in his explanation of sitting all five starters in Wednesday night's two-point win in Milwaukee.
"It's a weird thing - all of our starters have played every game. Lance has missed one. George Hill missed a handful. Paul, David and Roy have played every single game and that's rare," explained Vogel.
Late in the season is an odd time to come to terms with a team's tiredness.
"I probably should've chosen some games in March to give them days off. I didn't. I think there was a consequence to that," Vogel admitted. "I think getting some rest will make the fresher going into the playoffs. It's not the answer, but it's part of it."
Vogel is correct that the Pacers' starters' longevity is rare. With the exception of David West, the core group is not an old one, however. And, George is the only Indiana player in the top 20 in the league in minutes played.
And why on Earth would you sit them all at such a critical time? One theory certainly has to do with the opponent. The Bucks are the worst team in the league, so it offered a perfect time.
Or, you could choose to believe Stan Van Gundy's theory that Vogel sat them to avoid having their confidence obliterated in a loss.
Vogel can claim the Pacers don't need that No. 1 seed all that much, but it's false. Miami has proven it can win anywhere in any scenario. Indiana hasn't. The Pacers need that top seed far more than Miami does.
Vogel said the starters will be back on Friday, but he also left room for the possibility that some will sit at different times during the final games. He was non committal about his plan.
Maybe, he doesn't know what it is just yet.
This incarnation of the Pacers hasn't been wire-to-wire contenders before. The strain of this season has probably worn on them some, just like the weighted pressure of being talked about by everyone as a potential title team.
Things don't get much easier as Indiana hosts the Oklahoma City Thunder Sunday afternoon.
Vogel's task of getting them back to a championship pedigree is challenging. Getting everyone back in sync could take time, which is a luxury the schedule does not provide.
Miami's remedy might be simpler - just get healthy. But again, calendars work against them.
Friday will be Wade's 28th missed game this season. If you recall last season's run to a title, Wade looked bad, old and hobbled, dealer's choice on the ranking.
It seemed Erik Spoelstra's plan was to rest Wade more during the regular season to keep him fresh for the playoffs. It's a great idea, but missing about one-third of the season has been too much. And Spoelstra didn't make it sound like Wade's return was imminent, despite appearing ready to go at least twice during this latest absence.
"He's been making progress. He has to pass a battery of tests for us before we take him to the next level," Spoelstra said of Wade. "His body will tell all of us."
What if the Heat don't like the answer?
Wade is not out due to rest. His official injury is listed as a strained left hamstring, but his knee probably hurts and his Achilles has mentioned as well. It's no guarantee Wade is back before the playoffs. It sounds like Spoelstra and Wade both thought he'd be ready, but trainers won't clear him. Actually, Spo is right, it's Wade's body that's making the decisions.
Wade is still incredibly effective in his role. He's averaging 19.2 points per game and the reality is Miami doesn't have a great chance at a third straight title without him.
"We haven't played too many minutes together. You can have some type of worry about that," James said of the core unit for the Heat. "Our team is built on all of us being out on the floor."
He's right because what Wade's injury has done is make James log more minutes and carry a heavier load. It's premature to say that all is weighing on the two-time defending MVP, but he's putting up a brave front.
"I played pretty well," James replied when asked if the strain is getting tough to bare. "It is what it is. I don't make any excuses. It's been tough on all of us."
If James isn't fresh for the postseason, that could spell more trouble. If the Heat get into a matchup with the Chicago Bulls in the second round, their physicality could take further air out of the James sails.
So what all of this has left us is much more interesting viewing Friday night. Instead of two titans duking it out in a late-season struggle for supremacy, we have two very good teams trying to find their way.
It may not be what we were all hoping for, but, as LeBron said, "It is what it is."
- After that novel, I'll keep it simple this week.
- Movie moment - As a father, I watch a lot of children's movies. The "Toy Story" trilogy is brilliant and the third one is especially poignant. But I've always felt that if Andy brought Woody to college with him, it would not endear him to the ladies.
- TV moment - With Stephen Colbert taking David Letterman's place, posit this notion for Colbert's replacement - Rob Riggle. Lord knows if he wants it, but as a former "Daily Show" correspondent, Comedy Central could keep it in the family. Riggle is actually amusing on Fox's NFL pregame show and that's not common among the dreck that's been pushed at us for years.