Utah Jazz: Pacers covet East's top seed, homecourt advantage
Indianapolis • Don't worry about reminding Paul George that the Miami Heat are rolling, or that LeBron James, who has only taken on a more super (hero or villain, depending on perspective) appearance with his new black carbon-fiber mask, has been playing like a man possessed.
George keeps an eye on South Beach.
"Of course we worry about them," the Indiana Pacers' All-Star forward said last month. "We're very aware of what they're doing."
The sea of white T-shirts on that early June night last year, the taunts and jeering waves goodbye as he fouled out, the feeling of fighting to the brink only to be pushed back have stuck in George's mind.
So while the Miami Heat seemed to sleepwalk through a 94-89 loss to the Jazz last month in Salt Lake City, the Pacers aren't likely to let their guard down.
A Game 7 loss in Miami cost the Pacers a chance to play in the NBA Finals last year. This time around, the Pacers want to play host to any deciding games. And that means, in their quest for the East's top seed, each game matters.
"It's not everything," Indiana coach Frank Vogel said of his team's goal to earn the No. 1 seed. "We always make sure we're understanding that. But we do feel like it can be one of the factors that helps us get over the hill. It is important."
Coming into Sunday's game with the Jazz, the Pacers have a two-game lead on the Heat for first place in the East, with about 25 games before the playoffs begin.
It's been a season of growth and increased relevance for Indiana. For the first time in his career, George was named an All-Star starter. Center Roy Hibbert, meanwhile, is a favorite to earn Defensive Player of the Year honors.
But the Pacers' style and commitment to defense remains the same. Indiana's 94.2 defensive rating is the best in the league. The Jazz, at 107.3, are the league's worst.
"We don't change what we do," Hibbert said. "We try to impose our will on other teams. We don't play small ball."
The Pacers showed off their brand of hard-nosed basketball in last year's playoffs, rolling through Atlanta and New York in the first two rounds. In Game 6 of the conference finals, the Pacers held the Heat under 80 points and outrebounded Miami by 20 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
But that decisive Game 7 in southern Florida broke the other way. The Pacers turned the ball over 21 times and watched as James went off for 32 points, pushing the Heat to their third straight NBA Finals.
The loss only reinforced what the Pacers already knew after going 8-1 in Indiana in the postseason: There's no place like home.
"It's real important," George said. "We don't feel like because we'd play at home it's going to be easy. We just like our chances playing a Game 7 on our floor. â¦ It's always tough playing Miami. They're always going to be a challenge for us. But we play well on our floor. It's not going to be easier. We just like our chances."
Jazz at Pacers
P At Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
Tipoff • Sunday, 4 p.m.
TV • ROOT Sports
Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz 21-37; Pacers 44-13
About the Jazz • Opened up their longest road trip of the season (six games) with a loss Friday to Kyrie Irving and the Cavs. â¦ Indiana native Gordon Hayward leads the Jazz in scoring at 15.9 points per game. â¦ Forward Jeremy Evans rolled his left ankle in practice and is a game-time decision.
About the Pacers • Beat the Jazz 95-86 Dec. 4 in Salt Lake City. â¦ Traded forward Danny Granger to Philadelphia for Evan Turner at the trade deadline. Turner scored a combined 21 points in the team's wins over the Lakers and Bucks.