When the Heat begins the playoffs in three weeks, it will do so as the most rested, and perhaps the healthiest, team in the NBA.
The countdown is on to the postseason — only nine games remain in the regular season — and if you thought the Heat’s “maintenance program” started in San Antonio, you haven’t seen anything yet. The Heat defeated the Spurs despite LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Mario Chalmers sitting out with minor injuries. The trend of resting players is expected to continue.
And why not? The Eastern Conference’s No.1 seed is already in the bag, the Heat has a three-losses lead on the Spurs for the best record in the NBA and James could sit out for the rest of the season and still win the Most Valuable Player Award. Truly, there is nothing left to accomplish this season other than resting up for what players and coaches around the NBA call the “second season.”
For the defending champions, that’s the only season that counts.
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“You’re getting to this time of year and virtually every team is dealing with something, and we had a stretch of 17 games and this will be our 18th in the month and so, knock on wood, we’ve survived that stretch pretty well,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said before Sunday’s victory. “But guys have gotten a little nicked up, and we’ll manage that every day.”
Since before the All-Star break, the Heat has attacked its schedule with a historic run of regular-season greatness rarely seen in the NBA. Since the beginning of February, the Heat (58-15) has won 29 of 31 games. In the span of two months, sandwiched between road losses to the Pacers and Bulls, the Heat won 27 consecutive games.
Now, the Heat has earned the right to take it easy. If James and Wade were held out of a game against the team with the best record in the Western Conference, you think they’re going to play in road games against Charlotte, Washington and Cleveland? It doesn’t seem likely.
The final month of the season has lined up perfectly for an extended rest period for the Heat, which, in the words of Spoelstra, used a similar “maintenance program” last season to prepare for the playoffs. Six of the final nine games of the regular season are at home. The three road trips are single-game swings and, after Tuesday’s game against the Knicks, the Heat doesn’t play again until Friday.
Asked how important Tuesday’s game was against the Knicks, Spoelstra emphasized that the health of his players was perhaps more important than knocking off New York in the final regular-season game between the rivals.
“We’re going to have to see who’s available,” Spoelstra said. “But we’ll come in with the same type of mentality.”
As a point of pride, the Heat has a chance to even the season series against the Knicks, which won the first two games by large margins. The Heat won Game 3 in the season series after trailing by double digits.
The Knicks have won eight games in a row and, along with the Pacers, are 11 1/2 games behind the Heat in the standings. In the fight for second place in the East standings, New York has a better winning percentage than the Pacers (.639 to .635), but Indiana leads the season series 2-1. The teams meet for the final time in the regular season on April 14 at Madison Square Garden.
“We know they’re hot, and they have a very dangerous game with the shooting and [Carmelo] Anthony playing with a lot of space,” Spoelstra said. “We felt that all the way they were a legitimate, contending team. The way they’re put together, the way they’re coached, they just went through an incredible stretch of a rash of injuries.”
By and large, the Heat has avoided the injury bug and with nothing left to prove during the regular season, would like to keep it that way.