Miami Heat

After slow March, Miami Heat can still grab No. 1 spot in Eastern Conference

At the end of one of its worst months since LeBron James joined the team, the Heat has a chance, finally, to move into first place in Eastern Conference.

A victory on Monday against the Toronto Raptors coupled with a loss by the Indiana Pacers to the San Antonio Spurs will put the Heat in first place in the East for the first time since the beginning of the season. Of course, the Heat (50-22) hasn’t earned this opportunity for first in the East insomuch as the Pacers are completely blowing it.

The Heat is 9-8 in the month of March, but the Pacers have been worse. Since defeating the Heat 84-83 last Wednesday, Indiana has lost two games in a row. The Pacers were blown out 91-78 by the Washington Wizards on Friday. On Sunday, the struggling Cleveland Cavaliers trounced the Pacers 90-76.

Indiana has scored fewer than 80 points in four of its last five games. The only victory during that span was against the Heat. The Pacers all but secured a tiebreaker against the Heat with that victory, but that slimmest of advantages will mean nothing of the Pacers continue to lose games.

Of course, the Pacers have been losing games all month, and the Heat has been unable to catch them. The Heat is 2-5 after Pacers’ losses this month.

The Heat’s two victories over the weekend against the struggling Detroit Pistons and the embarrassing Milwaukee Bucks have put Miami in position to possibly move into first place it the conference and secure home-court advantage throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs.

Surprisingly, those important wins came with three starters — Dwyane Wade, Mario Chalmers and Greg Oden — out of the lineup with injuries, and Ray Allen away from the team with a stomach illness.

“We have to get back to that swagger with whoever we have out there,” Chris Bosh said. “We know whenever we’re out that we’re going to play hard, tough-nosed defense. We’re going to be responsible. We’re going to be where we’re supposed to be, and we’re going to have each other’s back. The offense will take care of itself.”

The Heat has held its last three opponents to 76.3 points per game, but it’s no secret the Pacers, Pistons and Bucks were struggling on offense before running into Miami.

A truer test for the defending back-to-back champions will come on Monday against the Toronto Raptors. With one of the most athletic rosters in the NBA, the Raptors’ young roster has improved dramatically throughout the season and is now 27-16 since January. The Heat is 26-15 during that same time span.

All-Star guard DeMar DeRozen leads the Raptors in scoring with 22.8 points per game, but five players are averaging more than 10 points per game.

“It’s good for them,” Bosh said of his former team. “I’ve always been proud of DeMar. He was my [rookie] when I was there. Just to see him turn the corner and make not only the playoffs, but also the All-Star Game. It’s good for them to move on.

“It was good for them to kind of clean everything out and have a makeover of the entire organization. They’ve done a good job of bringing in the right players, and they’ve done the rest.”

This and that

• The Raptors (41-31), currently third in the Eastern Conference standings, are one game in the loss column ahead of the Chicago Bulls.

• Chalmers (thigh bruise) is expected to return to action on Monday, but Wade and Oden are questionable. Wade injured his hamstring against the Pacers and Oden strained his lower back.

• After missing the Heat’s final three-game road trip of the season, Allen is expected to return to the team for the Heat’s shootaround Monday morning.

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