When Dwyane Wade finally returns to the court for the Heat, he will be joining a team that earned first place in the Eastern Conference without him.
Just another benefit of playing on the same team with LeBron James and Chris Bosh.
With Wade out once again with a hamstring injury, the Heat mowed through the Toronto Raptors and defeated the NBA’s improved but still overmatched Canadian basketball ambassadors 93-83. The Heat (51-22) swept the Raptors 4-0 this season and could meet up with Toronto in the second round of the playoffs.
Of course, if the playoffs ended Monday night, that wouldn’t be the case. The Heat is now the top team in the Eastern Conference on percentage points after the Indiana Pacers lost to the San Antonio Spurs. Projecting ahead to the postseason is a foolhardy endeavor at this point, but know that with nine games left in the regular season the Heat has a clear path to East’s top seed.
“Guys will look at the standings,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We’re not naive to it. Guys are aware. The results will take care of themselves. That’s just ancillary benefit of the work we’re putting in.”
Coach-speak at it finest, to be sure, because for all the words spoken in Miami following the Heat’s victory, it was actually a one-liner by Pacers center Roy Hibbert in Indianapolis that resonated throughout the league.
“Good for them,” Hibbert said of the Heat taking the top spot in the East. “We don’t deserve it.”
So, with the Pacers in disarray and losing confidence in their offense daily, the Heat dismantled the East’s No. 3 team with relative ease and without Wade, who injured his hamstring last week against Indiana. The Heat’s defense allowed 32 points in the second half with the Raptors shooting 40.6 percent from the field in the game’s final two quarters. Raptors starting point guard Kyle Lowry left the game with a knee injury with 3:12 left in the third quarter.
“It’s not easy to do in this league — to beat a team four teams,” Spoelstra said. “The second half was much better. The start of the third quarter was where we are right now with our defense.”
And that’s an encouraging sign with the playoffs looming. Defense, of course, is the team’s hallmark in the postseason.
“I think the defense always comes faster than the offense,” LeBron James said. “Defensively, you start talking and start communicating and start flying around, you can cover up for a lot of mistakes.
“As far as the rhythm of our defense, we look like our old selves once again. We got guys that’s out there that know the system, and that’s big time that we’ve been able to play that side of the floor at an all-time high right now.”
James led the Heat with 32 points, going 11 of 20 from the field, 1 of 6 from three-point range and 9 of 11 from the free-throw line. He also had seven rebounds and eight assists, but also committed six turnovers.
A steal and dunk by Chris Bosh in the open court gave the Heat an eight-point lead with three minutes to play and Toney Douglas, playing for Wade rattled, down a three-pointer from above the break to give the Heat a 91-80 lead. From there, James finished off Toronto.
Undeterred by a hard foul in the lane from Amir Johnson, James finished a layup and then made the and-one free throw to put the Heat ahead 93-81.
Bosh finished the game with 18 points and four rebounds. Mario Chalmers, back in the starting lineup following two games on the shelf with a thigh bruise, had 12 points, four assists and three rebounds. Chris Andersen had 13 points, seven rebounds and two blocks on the bench.
James sliced through the lane with 3:55 left in the third quarter for a thunderous right-handed dunk that triggered a wave of appreciation from the sold-out crowd. The basket gave the home team its largest lead of the game to that point (14 points), but the feisty and young Raptors battled back.
A four-point swing by Steve Novak put the Raptors back in the game early in the fourth quarter. Novak made a three-pointer and, after the play, Rashard Lewis was whistled for a technical foul. Novak made the free throw to cut the Heat’s lead to 78-73. After a missed layup by Mario Chalmers, Raptors center Jonas Valanciunas scored a short jumper to make it a one-possession game.
Reserve guard Greivis Vasquez led the Raptors with 17 points. All-Star DeMar DeRozan had 16 points.
James Jones didn’t start this time, but his sharpshooting off the bench helped the Heat out of its funk in the second quarter. An unconventional four-point play by Jones and Chalmers cut the Raptors’ lead to 42-36 with 5:26 left in the first half and Jones’ three-pointer with 37 seconds left in the second quarter gave the Heat a one-point lead, 52-51.
The four-point play was a momentum changer. To that point, the Raptors’ were out-hustling the Heat to the ball and shooting 69.2 percent from the field (4 of 8 from three-point range). During Jones’ corner three-pointer, Chalmers was fouled by Raptors reserve Steve Novak away from the play. Following Chalmers’ free throw and a miss on the other end by Raptors reserve John Salmons, Jones then made two more free throws to complete a six-point swing.