A strange thing happened when the Heat was ready to give up its chase for the No.1 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. The Pacers forgot how to win.
As terrible as the Eastern Conference has been for most of the season, it is only fitting that here, at the end of it all, the Heat (51-22) would back its way to the top of the standings with a lineup that changes from one game to the next. If the Heat makes the Eastern Conference finals, and it comes down to Game 7 in Miami, it should be remembered now that home-court advantage was earned in a span of five days with the Heat trailing by three games in the standings and resting three starters.
“Nothing surprises me anymore,” said Chris Bosh, who has proven his value repeatedly, especially with Dwyane Wade missing, at last count, 22 games. “You just got to keep playing. When we lost to [Indiana] … we still felt that we had a chance to control our own destiny with that date upcoming on April 11th, but you just keep playing.
“And when teams are struggling, you just hope they keep struggling and do your job to turn it around.”
And the Pacers have been struggling. Indiana has lost six of its past eight games, and its offense has fallen. Since its March 19th loss to the Knicks, the Pacers are averaging 80 points per game.
But, despite all that, Indiana defeated the Heat last week.
The Heat played terribly in Indianapolis and not only lost to the Pacers, but also lost Wade, Mario Chalmers and Greg Oden to injuries. With the tiebreaker against the Pacers unlikely, and essentially trailing Indiana by three games in the standings, the Heat then made the decision to get healthy for the playoffs instead of continuing to pursue the No.1 seed.
Two days after the loss to Indiana, Wade, Chalmers, Oden and Ray Allen were out of commission against the Pistons and the Heat inserted James Jones and Toney Douglas into the starting lineup alongside Udonis Haslem. With some hungry bodies on the court in addition to stars Bosh and LeBron James, the Heat finally began showing some signs of life.
After committing 19 turnovers against the Pacers, the Heat had just three giveaways in the first three quarters in Detroit. Meanwhile, the Pacers trailed by 19 points to the Washington Wizards entering the fourth quarter at Verizon Center.
From there, the Pacers just kept losing.
Indiana lost in stunning fashion to the Cleveland Cavaliers on Sunday. On Monday, the Pacers lost at home to the streaking San Antonio Spurs.
Since March 4, the Pacers are 6-10.
“It was just one of those things where you see the same situations over and over, and it would be a shame not to capitalize,” Bosh said.
The Heat plays the Milwaukee Bucks for the second time in three games Wednesday and is expected to win easily. The Pacers will be favored against the Pistons on Wednesday, but Indiana still has four games against teams bound for the playoffs (Raptors, at Miami on April 11, Thunder), or still fighting for a spot in the postseason (Hawks).
In other words, after its most inconsistent and confounding season since 2010, and after Pacers coach Frank Vogel mortgaged his team’s morale on the earning the No.1 seed, the Heat is set up to waltz into the postseason atop the East.
Now, to just figure out Spoelstra’s rotation.
In the past week, the Heat’s coach has benched Shane Battier, elevated Haslem to starter, brought Rashard Lewis back into the fold and lost Oden and Wade for extended periods. Haslem appears to be the answer at center heading into the playoffs with Chris Andersen logging important and heavy minutes off the bench.
“He has a much better idea of what we’re doing,” Spoelstra said of Andersen. “Last year he was just running around wild and trying to make plays, which was great, and to try to teach him our system fully, it really took until probably the second round of the playoffs where he had a comfort level of what we’re doing.”
Oden’s body, meanwhile, might rule him out of consistent playoff minutes. That he injured himself in his first quarter of the season against Pacers center Roy Hibbert was not a good sign. Luckily for the Heat, Haslem’s commitment to the team never wavered after he was benched at the beginning of the season.
“He just has a way of when it really matters and you start to get ready for the playoffs, he has a way of kicking doors open,” Spoelstra said of Haslem. “His impact is so much more than whether he’s making jump shots or shooting jump shots or getting offensive rebounds. It’s all those toughness, intangible, gritty-type plays that he makes.
“But when you need him to, he has proven time and time again that that corner jump shot is as reliable as anything.”
More importantly, Haslem’s defense has provided the Heat with consistency at a crucial time in the season. Offensively, the team has been out of sorts with Wade and Allen out of the lineup and Battier and Michael Beasley seemingly out of favor.
James expects the rhythm to return relatively quickly when Wade and Allen are healthy, but the back-to-back MVP said on Monday he never wants to take anything for granted, especially this close to the playoffs.
“I mean, obviously, we’ve done been together now for four years, but you can’t take those opportunities for granted,” James said. “We haven’t practiced as much. We haven’t played as much. We’ll see what happens when we’re on the floor, and it’s going to be very challenging, but I think it’s something we can figure out.”