The NBA's Eastern Conference has had a fairly pathetic 2013-14 season so far, with only three teams over .500 through January 2. Among that trio, the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat stand out as obvious frontrunners, two teams that would presumably have to suffer serious setbacks not to meet again in the conference finals this spring. It seems like a foregone conclusion, despite the fact that we're still more than a month from the All-Star Break.
However, professional athletes don't have the luxury of looking that far ahead. For the Pacers and Heat, the season will continue to be a series of minor challenges, with unforeseen pitfalls and injuries potentially popping up along the way. As David West explained to Zach Lowe of Grantland, they're not focusing too much on the Heat when so much could happen over the next few months:
Is it hard not to look ahead to the conference finals against Miami?
I don't think it's hard. We gotta be mature about it. We know there's a long road to get there. A lot of things have to happen for us, in terms of being able to get home court — obviously, just continuing to stay healthy, continuing to rack up wins.
Health is just such a huge variable every season.
When I think about how you guys match up with Miami, you've always struck me as even more centrally important than normal in that series. They trap pick-and-rolls so aggressively, and you can slip the screen, make a catch near the foul line, and suddenly you're in a 4-on-3 — with shooters around you, a pass that might be there, a jumper, a driving lane. Do you feel like you're tailor-made for that matchup and that situation?
I don't think I look at it like that. We just try to scheme against them, because we know, particularly, in their building, they'll be a little more aggressive on defense.
In Miami, specifically?
Yeah. They'll play a different style there, in terms of how active they are with their voices, their hands, and their feet. The biggest key for us is to try to establish ourselves down there. We felt we did that two years ago, when they knocked us out, and then last year, taking them to Game 7.
There are two ways to take West's comments. The first, which I basically already explained above, is that so much can happen from now until May that focusing on one matchup is a fool's errand. The other, which is more complicated and therefore probably more accurate, says that, if the Pacers want to beat the Heat — one of their eventual goals — they will have to focus on winning the minor battles leading up to that series.
It's not so much about getting distracted by looking ahead as realizing that winning the Eastern Conference Finals will require improving everyday. The only way to do that is by taking each individual game as its own battle to be won. As West's answers show, the Pacers have a clear sense of the Heat's strengths and weaknesses while also understanding that the season contains other challenges. Both tasks occupy their thoughts at the same time.
In other words, besting Miami and focusing on each individual game are not separate issues — they are different stations on the same path. The challenge of the season isn't just in deciding where to focus the team's attention, but in making sure that the players don't lose sight of how each game connects to their broader goals.
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