INDIANAPOLIS — The Pacers finally have a chance to relax.
With nothing at stake Wednesday night in Orlando, coach Frank Vogel plans to rest three of his starters and limit the minutes for the other two. Players and coaches are smiling again, and the stress of 5½ grinding months of tracking standings and scores seems to have vanished, literally overnight.
It’s a welcome respite for the Eastern Conference’s top playoff seed.
“I think now it’s time to just play basketball,” All-Star starter Paul George said Tuesday, less than 24 hours after the Pacers locked up home-court advantage through the conference finals. “We can really focus on basketball and focus on our other goal.”
That would be winning a title, and home-court advantage should help Indiana after it had an NBA-best 35-6 home record this season. The next quest begins this weekend when Atlanta comes to town for a best-of-seven playoff series for the second straight year.
But it was a rugged path getting here, something George was reminded of Wednesday.
Exactly one year ago, he and three of his teammates stood at the finish line of the Boston Marathon before leaving to get some food. About 30 minutes later, two bombs went off.
“We were right there,” George said as expressed condolences to the people of Boston on the one-year anniversary of the tragedy. “That day could have turned out bad for all of us.”
Instead, George and the Pacers went on to a successful playoff run — beating the Knicks in the second round and pushing Miami to seven games in the conference finals.
They returned this season with one regular-season goal — to make sure they would host Game 7 instead of playing at Miami, a feat that looked increasingly plausible after a 33-7 start and even probable when they took a three-game lead over Miami on March 26.
A late-season swoon threatened everything.
On March 31, the reeling Pacers surrendered the lead, trailing the Heat by mere percentage points. Indiana retook the top spot last Wednesday before giving it right back with a loss at Miami two nights later. Another loss by the two-time defending NBA champs, at Atlanta on Saturday, again gave Indiana the inside track and this time the Pacers took advantage by beating Oklahoma City.
The Heat (54-27) then conceded the top spot Monday night by keeping LeBron James and Chris Bosh on the bench at Washington.
Indiana (55-26) enters the playoffs as the East’s top seed for the first time in a decade and only the third time in the franchise’s NBA history — and all this despite going 11-13 since March 1 and failing to win consecutive games since a four-game winning streak ended March 19.
Indiana has looked fatigued and out of sync for most of the second half.
But with the regular-season race over, the Pacers seem more at ease.
“We’re feeling good,” Lance Stephenson said with a smile, noting that the Pacers are starting to have fun. “We worked hard all season to get it, we deserve it and we’re ready for business.”
Vogel believes what his team needs most now is rest.
He said George, Stephenson and David West would rest against the Magic, while Roy Hibbert and George Hill will log something less than their customarily heavy minutes.
Vogel hopes the decision will help Hibbert and Hill get jump-started before the playoffs. Hibbert missed all nine of his shots in Sunday’s victory over Oklahoma City, while Hill has taken just three total shots in Indiana’s last two games.
Vogel made a similar decision last week, benching all five starters against the floundering Bucks. Indiana’s backups still managed to win the game, giving them a confidence boost in the run up to the playoffs, and after looking rusty at Miami, the rested starters appeared to be re-energized Sunday.
Now the Pacers have the luxury of starting over.
“The last month or so, we weren’t really focused on outcome as much as we were focused on the process,” Vogel said. “Today was no different from that standpoint, but we started to get that playoff juice going.”
The question, of course, is whether some extra rest and a new purpose can propel the Pacers into their first NBA Finals since 2000.
“We set our goal at the beginning of the season, and we accomplished the job,” Stephenson said. “Now we’ve got to take it to the next level and finish the job.”