This easy breezy stretch of the Heat’s regular season couldn’t have come at a better time.
With future Hall of Famers out of commission, things could have been much different for the defending back-to-back champions. Instead, the team has improved dramatically with Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen on the bench.
The Heat has won four consecutive games and positioned itself as the top team in the Eastern Conference for the first time this season.
In football, teams practice against scout units to fix their problems. In the NBA, you play the Milwaukee Bucks twice during a three-game span.
The Heat capped off its most recent road trip with a blowout win in Milwaukee and on Wednesday Miami ran through the scrubs of the Eastern Conference once again, defeating the Bucks 96-77 at AmericanAirlines Arena.
The victory moved the Heat one game closer to a potentially epic regular-season showdown against Indiana on April 11.
“We’re sharpening our swords,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “The battle is coming.”
The Pacers won on Wednesday as well, edging out the Detroit Pistons.
With eight games left in the Heat’s regular season — and five games until it plays the Pacers in Miami — the top two teams in the East are in a virtual tie atop the standings. At stake is home-court advantage through the Eastern Conference finals.
The Heat of course, needed seven games to knock off the Pacers in an unforgettable Eastern Conference finals last year. Game 7 was in Miami, and the Pacers walked away from that blowout believing home-court advantage was the difference in the series.
Between now and April 11, the Heat is hoping Dwyane Wade returns to full strength. The Heat’s starting shooting guard strained his hamstring last week and hasn’t been cleared for five-on-five work.
But with Wade out, the Heat (52-22) turned in one of its most balanced scoring efforts of the season and looked like a team rounding into postseason form. Nine players scored at least six points and the Heat shot 50.6 percent from the field with 46 points in the paint.
“We’re playing good basketball right now,” said LeBron James, who led the Heat with 17 points, four rebounds and eight assists in 30 minutes of work. “When we defend we’re a very, very good team.”
Chris Bosh added 15 points, going 7 of 13 from the field in less than 27 minutes. Mario Chalmers, in his second game back from injury, showed no signs of that bruised thigh that forced him to miss games. He was 6 of 8 from the field and 2 of 3 from three-point range for 14 points. He also had three assists to one turnover.
As a team, the Heat committed just 10 turnovers and looked sharp on both offense and defense for the fourth game in a row. Milwaukee (14-61) shot 43.8 percent from the field and 22.2 percent from three-point range. Guard Ramon Sessions led the Bucks with 19 points. Brandon Knight of Fort Lauderdale had 11 points.
“We know what’s ahead of us and we know the habits that we have to have down pat,” Bosh said.
Said Spoelstra: “Specifically, what we wanted to take care of were the areas that were hurting us and costing us wins, and that’s not defending with consistency, having too many games where it was inconsistent and empty possessions defensively, and then the turnovers. Guys have been making conscious efforts in the shootarounds to work at full speed and do it with concentration and not throw the ball all over the place.”
The Heat has lost 11 games this season to teams below .500, but those careless days appear over. Finally, the team is taking things seriously on a nightly basis.
James Jones once again provided instant offense from behind the three-point arc. Filling in for Ray Allen, Jones went 3 of 5 from distance and finished with nine points in 25 minutes.
Udonis Haslem again started at center for injured Greg Oden. Haslem had six points and five rebounds and one massive shove that sent Bucks forward Jeff Adrien to the floor in the third quarter.
There was a perception that Adrien targeted James during last week’s game and apparently he did so again on Wednesday.
“U.D. brings toughness,” Spoelstra said. “That wasn’t anything.”