The Miami Heat have lost four of their last six games and will likely finish the season as the two-seed in the Eastern Conference, despite a similarly rough stretch endured by the Pacers to close out the season. The Heat — in search of their fourth consecutive trip to the Finals and third consecutive championship — find themselves in the position of trying to balance resting players to get healthy and at the same time trying to be in good form once the playoffs start.
“Every team [approaches the end of the regular season] differently,” said Ray Allen. “Even on the same teams I’ve been on you do it differently based on what you deal with at the end of the year. I don’t think you can predetermine it. You have to assess the health of your team and obviously what your record is.
Obviously you want to go in healthy, so, I don’t think there’s really anything to think about other than sticking to what you’ve done and what you’ve been doing. You know, you got five to ten games left in the season, you just play how you play. You want to have some kind of rhythm going into the playoffs and when you have moments you give guys a little bit of a rest because the playoffs is two months of another really long season.”
The Heat’s primary concern with this team is health. Like every team, they would like to be playing well when they get into the playoffs, but they are confident that if healthy, rhythm won’t be an issue.
“No [I'm not worried about rhythm], I just want to be out there on the floor with them,” said Dwyane Wade. “That’ll take care of itself right there. You know, we didn’t have no rhythm our first year together and we went to the Finals. That’s not a big worry of mine. The best rhythm for us is for all of us to be out there on the floor and giving ourselves an opportunity to win every night.”
The entire team shares that confidence and cockiness — well earned cockiness, I might add — in their ability to just flip the switch come playoff time, and are not concerned about added pressure of going for a three-peat.
“We’ve had a target on our back since we all signed here so ain’t nothing changed,” said LeBron James.
For some, like LeBron, the rest isn’t necessarily physical, but mental. James has played in all but three games this season, but to keep himself from being mentally exhausted, he won’t fully focus until the playoffs begin.
“I just zone out,” said James. “When the playoffs start I lock in. I get into the studies of my opponents even more, and just kind of go into a bunker mentality when the playoffs start.”
Wade has played just 52 games this season, and has most recently been sidelined with a hamstring injury. For him, rest has been necessitated by injury rather than being a choice. While getting healthy, Wade has made a concerted effort to stay a part of the team’s activities, to ease the transition back into the lineup and make rhythm less of a concern.
“As you get into this part of the season you’re really gearing up for the playoffs, and not being able to be out there with the guys I try to stay in tune with the team and what we’ve been doing,” said Wade. “You stay in tune by being there, being a voice, being in the ears [of teammates], and being in the huddles, etc. So I’ve stayed in tune in games by sitting next to the coaches and talking to them, what I see in the game and feel in the game. Just staying involved and knowing what’s going on. You know, when you get on the court once you get tired everything goes away, but for the most part the only thing you can do when you’re not playing is trying to make sure that you haven’t stepped back from the team and you still feel where they at right now and what they’re going through.”
The Heat are not alone in placing health over rhythm towards the end of the regular season. The Spurs have made resting their players a priority for years, and do so throughout the season not just at the end. Having the kind of experience those two teams do, particularly with their core groups of players, they are able to be less concerned with rhythm and chemistry.
However, unlike the Spurs who appear to be at their best heading into the playoffs, the Heat appear to have legitimate potential problems. The Heat may be able to right the ship come playoff time and it may be as simple as flipping that switch, but, for the first time since the Big Three got together, the Heat’s road to the Finals seems like it is less than a formality.