Ethan J. Skolnick

If Heat can end Charlotte series quickly, it will benefit veterans in long playoff run

Goran Dragic had an icepack on his knee but a smile on his face after Friday’s practice, all fairly typical for players in the postseason.

“I feel good,” Dragic said. “I feel alive.”

So does the Heat as a whole, after taking a 2-0 lead in its first-round series, but Miami’s players and coaches are too savvy to declare the Hornets dead. Not even after Miami scored 238 points in two games, or with Charlotte’s most versatile player, Nicholas Batum, lost for at least Game 3 with a foot injury.

Instead, they spoke of the perils of the road, and the worthiness of the Hornets, both of which are true, and don’t change the reality:

It’s critical, for the sake of the Heat’s potentially lengthy postseason run, to bury this team quickly. Doing so in four games would guarantee at least four days off prior to the second round, and doing so in five would guarantee at least two. And in both cases, it might be more, if the series between Toronto and Indiana goes at least six games.

That rest would be welcome.

“That’s always true,” Dwyane Wade said.

Still, he wouldn’t let himself, or his team, go there.

“Nah, not yet,” Wade said. “It’s only 2-0. It’s a long series left in our minds. You get to that point if you are up 3-1, or you are up 3-0, then, you say, ‘OK, let’s try to finish it.’ But right now, we’re only up 2-0. To me, we haven’t done nothing that we should be feeling overly good about. You feel good when you get one on the road.”

Joe Johnson was even more adamant.

“Once you start thinking ahead is when you lose focus and you have slippage and make mistakes, and next thing you know, you’re in a Game 6 or a Game 7,” Johnson said. “Just got to go game by game.”

Correct, but as both veterans know, the fewer playoff games you play early, the better it is later. That is especially true for a team like this, a team that features four 30-somethings in its eight-man rotation, with Goran Dragic just a couple weeks from becoming the fifth.

The requirement for rest is something coach Erik Spoelstra understood from season’s start, which is why he took more of a Spurs-ian tactic than the Heat’s customary approach under Pat Riley’s reign.

Spoelstra masterfully managed minutes, not an easy task when given a roster of timeworn veterans and unproven youngsters, with few reliable in-prime options in between.

Miami started the season with four of the top-40 active players in career minutes — Chris Bosh, Wade, Luol Deng, Amar’e Stoudemire — and still has four playing in this series, with Johnson (seventh) replacing Bosh, to join Wade (23rd), Deng (24th) and Stoudemire (36th). Johnson has averaged more than 40 minutes in four different seasons, has played at least 79 games in nine different seasons and even led the NBA in total minutes in 2004. Deng led the league in minutes per game twice. Both Wade and Stoudemire have had well-documented injury issues.

So Spoelstra needed to nurse.

“He said all year, ‘Play your minutes, I’m not going to overplay guys, our depth is good enough,’ ” Wade said. “Allow others to come in and play their role. It’s been great for us all year that we haven’t had to play guys 37, 38 minutes.”

Wade’s 30.5 average was a career low. Deng’s 32.4 average was the lowest since his rookie season. Johnson, after averaging 33.9 in Brooklyn, dipped to 32.0 with Miami; his overall minutes-per-game of 33.4 ranked first among Heat players but just 34th in the league, with Dragic and Deng ranking 42nd and 47th, respectively. Stoudemire played just 762 minutes; just five seasons ago, for New York, he played 2,870.

Spoelstra essentially trusted rookies Justise Winslow and — after the All-Star break — Josh Richardson to sop up minutes and get the team’s grizzled group to the playoffs in good shape. Already, the postseason provides an advantage — no back-to-back sets, which is especially beneficial to Wade and Dragic, both of whom suffered major drops in their shooting percentages on the back ends this season.

This is one reason that Heat players have argued all season that they were built for this time of year.

“Definitely,” Deng said. “I’ve always said it, when it comes to the playoffs, that’s where everyone talks about experience. But what no one really talks about is that the experienced players are rested. That’s the key.

“In the regular season, a lot of times a younger player has an advantage in terms of fatigue over the older players. Because it’s back-to-back, and they catch you with a lot of energy. And during the playoffs, the experience comes in because the fatigue is not there as much.”

For the Heat, it’s quite a time to be alive.

Best not to let this series live too long.

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