INDIANAPOLIS -- The thought process started last June as LeBron James and the Miami Heat celebrated their third straight trip to the NBA Finals at center court in American Airlines Arena. As Roy Hibbert and David West, out of frustration and dislike for the Heat, walked off the court and through the tunnel to the locker room without shaking hands with any of the Miami players. It continued during the offseason while the Pacers were working out in different locations around the country.
The Indiana Pacers didn't want to have to play another Game 7 on the road, likely in Miami again, this season. If a Game 7 had to be played, they wanted it at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in front of their home fans. They said it so much early in the season that you got tired of hearing about it.
It was basically No. 1 seed or nothing for the Pacers.
Now, in the midst of a significant collapse that has seen more finger pointing in the past month than there's been in the past three years combined, the Pacers have jammed a pole in the ground with a white flag at the top conceding the No. 1 seed to their Eastern Conference rivals. Pacers coach Frank Vogel essentially delivered that message when he said he plans to rest different starters during their final four regular-season games.
"We're two games back right now," Vogel said. "Obviously it was a goal, it is a goal of ours, but at this point, playing well is our top priority. Part of that is being fresh going into the playoffs. We feel if we have the No. 2 seed, and we still feel we can attain the goals we have."
Vogel floated the idea to rest his players during a team meeting the day after their 26-point loss to the San Antonio Spurs, sources told ESPN.com. The process started Monday when he cancelled practice and then gave the starters Tuesday off. Hibbert, who did not speak to the media, watched practice in street clothes.
The timing of Vogel's decision comes at a peculiar time. The Pacers are only a game behind Miami for the No. 1 seed despite their dysfunction and 2-9 record in the past 11 games. They also have the tiebreaker over the Heat.
The Heat host the Brooklyn Nets, who have been the best team in the East since the All-Star break, on Tuesday and travel to Memphis to take on the Grizzlies, who are trying to catch Phoenix for the eighth seed in the Western Conference, on Wednesday. The Pacers play at Milwaukee, which has the worst record in the league, on Wednesday. Beat the Bucks and get some help from the Nets and the Grizzlies and Friday's game between Indiana and Miami has significance again.
That's not how the Pacers view things anymore, though. It's all about being ready for the playoffs no matter where they're seeded -- especially if one of the benefits of finishing second could be avoiding Chicago in the second round.
"[We played] 18 games in a month, 11 road games," Vogel said. "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, and I think our guys look worn down. Getting them some rest will make them fresher heading into the playoffs."
Fresh legs don't automatically cure the internal issues the Pacers have been dealing with. They don't solve Hibbert sitting slouched on the sidelines, seemingly not wanting any part of things after being benched during the second half of their 19-point loss to the Atlanta Hawks Sunday. It was less than two weeks ago that Hibbert told NBA.com that the Pacers have some "selfish" players on the team. He was the one being selfish on the bench Sunday, pulling the Pacers further apart during a time when they need to be coming together.
A strong bond is what helped Indiana have the best record for most of the season; it's why Vogel was the Eastern Conference All-Star coach. That bond has weakened, just like the Pacers' desire to be the No. 1 seed.
Vogel downplayed Hibbert's benching by telling him the "media overreacted to his body language" when the two talked. But this could easily have a lingering impact on the 7-2 center, who has been frustrated over the Pacers' reluctance to play inside-out at times this season. Vogel had to show he's able to hold his players accountable. He just happened to do it to the player whose mental toughness is often questioned. This isn't the time for Hibbert to have one of his yearly mental and physical breakdowns. He's the one clear advantage the Pacers have over the Heat if, and that's a big if at this point, the two teams meet in the conference finals.
Now you're left wondering if Hibbert will be the player who has shot almost 58 percent from the field and averaged 17 points in three games against the Heat this season or the player who hasn't shot above 50 percent from the field in 10 straight games and sulked on the bench against the Hawks.
"He's very encouraged by what we can be," Vogel said. "We still have a lot of work to do. I think he's on board."