The Miami Heat have had several opportunities over the last few weeks to lock up the first seed in the Eastern Conference. After their 1-point road loss to the Indiana Pacers on March 26th, they made up some ground, rattling off four consecutive wins while the men in gold continued to plummet into the earth’s core. With the Pacers’ post-All-Star break slide and the Heat’s mini-resurgence, the tables were beginning to turn. Even after a run of nail biting losses to the Minnesota Timberwolves, Brooklyn Nets and Memphis Grizzlies–all were decided by a total of seven points–a victory at the American Airlines Arena against their Midwest foe put the Heat back in the driver’s seat, and the opportunity to hold home court advantage through the Conference Finals was theirs to lose.
Then the Heat dropped a gimme, losing by 13 points to the brittle Atlanta Hawks. Then the Indiana Pacers took care of business at home and got a much needed win against a Western Conference powerhouse in the Oklahoma City Thunder. Then the Heat, with an opportunity to put some pressure on the Pacers to win their final game of the season, sat LeBron James and Chris Bosh in a matchup against the Washing Wizards. And now, the race is over, which puts the Pacers face-to-face with the goal they set out for themselves from day one of training camp: ensure that if there were to be another game seven against the Heat, it would be played on their own home floor at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, a place where they have lost just six games this season.
For a team that had an easy opportunity to close the year out with a trio of wins, the Heat didn’t play with the sense of urgency you’d expect from a two-time defending champions. Not only that, they practically conceded last night’s game, sitting two of their best players in what ended up being a 21-point blowout. Nevertheless, the shift of focus from chasing the first seed to taking a back seat by resting players and ensuring that everyone (namely Dwyane Wade) is healthy is undoubtedly by design, so they can establish some sort of optimism heading into the post-season.
The Heat’s 12-point victory over the Pacers last week was all the momentum they needed in the days leading up to the big dance. Without Dwyane Wade and Greg Oden, they forced 16 turnovers, scored 18 fast break points and ran circles around Roy Hibbert in the paint to the tune of 44 points. If anything, the victory was a middle finger to the world–a statement that they can get it done without everyone in uniform. And in the midst of that, they may have found themselves a series changer in Udonis Haslem, who played Roy Hibbert (the person who has a history of giving the Heat fits) to a standstill in the last two games. It was a kind reminder that, even with a player or two missing from the lineup, they’re still that team from South Beach that is pretty good when it comes to performing in meaningful games. And as for that “well, we’ll just win in six” attitude, that win sure helped their cause.
There’s another caveat to all of this, which may be the most important of all: the team that falls to the second seed will avoid entering the bloodbath that is having to play either the Chicago Bulls or Brooklyn Nets in the second-round. The Heat have lost all four games to the Nets this season, and while LeBron will shrug off any concerns that they are, potentially, their biggest roadblock in making history, there’s no denying that they matchup well, which would make for a gruelling seven-game series. After all, their four losses at the hands of the Nets this season were decided by a total of 12 points–a small margin to say the least. Similarly, a Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls team doesn’t pose as a huge threat to the Heat, but playing them is a pain in the ass, to put it bluntly. The Bulls have always have great regular season success against the Heat and are a team that won’t back down until they’re officially out of the count.
Securing a date with the Toronto Raptors or Washington Wizards instead would be like taking a daily dose a Tylenol–the aches and pains would go away just long enough to complete the task at hand. The Raptors are one of just four teams this season that boast a top-10 offense and defense in terms of efficiency, yet the Heat swept the season series and matchup well with their high octane backcourt. Ultimately, for a team that is fresh off of three consecutive appearances in the finals, avoiding either the Nets and Bulls until the Conference Finals could be the difference between keeping their heads above water or nose diving into the inhabitable depths of the ocean.
The Heat had an opportunity to steal the number one seed right out of the tight grasp of the Pacers, but they never wanted it as much. “A marathon,” is the way Chris Bosh described it–a knock at the Pacers’ obsession at securing the first overall seed as they went pedal to the metal right out of the gates. Besides, the situation they are in works more in their favor anyway. Now, the final game of the season carries no meaning–nothing, a win or loss, would change the course of the post-season standings. Instead, they can rest LeBron, get Wade the burn he needs to regain his form, and iron out all the creases to prepare themselves for another title run. As Dwyane Wade told fellow HP-er Robby Kalland, for them to find their best rhythm, they all need to be out there, healthy.
With the playoff format changing from 2-3-2 to 2-2-1-1-1, the lower seed in the series has a better chance of pulling off an upset. Even if the Heat were to drop the opening two games to the Pacers (that is, assuming the Pacers make it that far), three of the next four would be played at home, with one road game in between. One would expect any momentum gained in those home victories to carry over, and thus give them a shot on the road with less pressure before a game seven. But even for a team like the Heat, that knows how important having that final game on the home court is–they’ve played three game sevens in Miami over the last three years–they’re more worried about getting everyone on the same page than wasting energy on a race they could care less about. It seems like the best thing to do, especially with the way the Pacers are playing right now.