With Al Jefferson hurting, Heat take charge

April, 20, 2014
Apr 20
9:31
PM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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MIAMI -- Arguably the biggest underdog in any series of these NBA playoffs, the Charlotte Bobcats knew they had to make the most of their shots in their first-round matchup against LeBron James and the two-time defending champion Miami Heat.

Those shots came midway through Sunday’s game.

But they certainly weren’t the variety the Bobcats had in mind.

Instead, Charlotte big man Al Jefferson needed two injections to numb the excruciating pain in his left foot just to get his team through a 99-88 Game 1 loss to the Heat. Jefferson made his first four shots and led the Bobcats to a surprisingly comfortable lead against the sluggish Heat before he planted his foot on a cut to the basket late in the first quarter, heard something pop and felt sharp pain shoot through his leg.
[+] EnlargeBobcats/Heat
Issac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty ImagesAl Jefferson was helping the Bobcats prove a tough challenge until foot pain limited his effectiveness.

Jefferson took the first of two injections immediately after he was helped to the locker room once he left the game late in the first quarter. He came back to play nine minutes in the second quarter and received another shot to kill the pain at halftime.

By the time the game was over, Jefferson had stumbled his way through a contribution of 18 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks in 35 minutes. Then, the 6-foot-11, 290-pound franchise cornerstone limped his way out of AmericanAirlines Arena in a walking boot that was a bit too small for his size-18 foot.

Jefferson said he has been through enough injuries and recoveries in his 10-year career to accept that there are some things he’s had “to suck it up and play through” and some other times when he’s had to “just be a man and say you can’t go.”

Considering how Charlotte finished 20-9 since the All-Star break just to get to the playoffs for the first time since 2010, this qualifies as more of a case of the former than the latter for Jefferson.

“I really don’t know all the details, but it’s just something I’ve got to play through,” Jefferson said. “I don’t like needles, so it was very uncomfortable for me. I got one right when it happened. From a scale from 1-to-10, it [the pain] was probably a 6. Then I got one at halftime and it felt a lot better in the third quarter. We’re just hoping to keep it at that level going into Wednesday.”

Even with the Heat entering the postseason as vulnerable as they’ve ever been since James and Chris Bosh arrived to join Dwyane Wade in 2010, the Bobcats needed a near-perfect brand of basketball with uncharacteristically strong balance just to extend this best-of-seven series to the "if necessary" stage.

Now, they’re a team with a star player who barely has a leg on which to stand.

Jefferson will be treated through the start of Game 2 on Wednesday night for what the team believes is a case of plantar fasciitis. Between now and then, coach Steve Clifford’s job is to convince his young and feisty team that its chances to stun the Heat haven’t been downgraded from improbable to impossible.

That process started the moment he adjusted the microphone to start his postgame news conference after Charlotte dropped its 17th consecutive game to the Heat, a streak that coincides with the arrivals of James and Bosh to Miami to join Wade.

“We’re a totally different team,” Clifford said of the prospects of dealing with an ailing or diminished Jefferson for what’s left of this series. “I think if any team loses their best offensive player, they become a different team. I don’t know if there is one team in the league that is more dependent on one guy than how we are dependent on him.”

A strong case can be made that not even James has that level of burden to carry for the Heat. During a game in which James was able to pick his spots and ease his way into a 27-point performance, Wade was there to provide 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting along with five assists. The Heat went deeper than expected into a rotation that was never truly established this season. Miami used 10 players against Charlotte and got a surprising boost from seldom-used James Jones, who scored 12 off the bench.

With Jefferson barely able to change ends of the court at times during the game, the Heat used a 23-8 run that started with a 3-pointer from James at the end of the third quarter to open a 20-point lead. The Heat didn’t necessarily play well, especially early.

James and Bosh were playing for the first time in a week after sitting out the final two games of the regular season. And it was only the second time Wade shared the court with those two in nearly a month after dealing with a nagging hamstring injury that forced him out of nine consecutive games before he returned for the final three games of the season.

“I think we were all gassed in the opening minute; it felt like we hadn’t played in two weeks,” James said. “It felt like we hadn’t been out there in a long time, but the playoffs are back. We didn’t have any rhythm when we started the game, but we got it back.”

This first-round series was likely never going to be much more than a tuneup for the Heat as they begin their quest to become the first team since the Shaq-and-Kobe Lakers to win three straight titles. For a half Sunday, the Bobcats proved capable of pushing the Heat for a few days.

They were on the verge of giving themselves a shot against the Heat in Game 1.

Then, amid the promise and progress, their best player took two injections to cope with the pain.

The Heat endured with balance against an underdog that will struggle this series to regain its footing.

Are the Heat more vulnerable than ever?

April, 19, 2014
Apr 19
6:52
PM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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MIAMI -- LeBron James has little interest in knowing the official human odometer reading.

But the physical and psychological wear and tear accumulated from his championship journeys with the Miami Heat certainly have added up over the years. Considering three straight runs to the NBA Finals through June, which produced consecutive titles the past two seasons, James and the Heat essentially have played the equivalent of four basketball seasons in the span of three years.

James has the championship hardware to prove it.

The scars, too.

“Obviously, I’m not 26 going into the playoffs like I was three years ago,” James said. “So as far as miles, we’ve got a lot more miles on our bodies because of how much basketball we’ve played. But I don’t feel more weight going into these playoffs than I felt last year or the year before, or the year before that.”

The Heat open their first-round playoff series against the Charlotte Bobcats in Miami on Sunday. But James and his teammates have already advanced deep into their toughest battle of the postseason.

As James suggested, the Heat are fighting off any notion they are weighed down by the task of trying to become the first team in nearly 30 years to reach the Finals four straight seasons and only the fourth franchise to win three consecutive championships.

Having finished 54-28, the Heat endured their lowest winning percentage of any season since James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh came together in 2010. They’ve survived a seven-month grind during which nagging injuries forced Wade out of the lineup for 28 games and coach Erik Spoelstra to sort through 21 different starting lineups to fill the voids.

Now, the two-time defending champions enter the playoffs older -- six of their top nine players are in their 30s -- and arguably more vulnerable than they’ve been at any point. In addition to those factors, Miami limped into the postseason having lost 14 of their final 25 regular-season games and failed to secure home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, which proved to be essential last season.

Yet as defiant as they’ve ever been, the Heat insist none of those potential warning signs matter.

“On the outside, there’s more doubt,” said forward Udonis Haslem, who along with Wade are the lone players who have been with the Heat since their first championship season in 2006. “Within here, we're still confident in one another. We still know what we can do. We still understand what needs to be done and we know how to get it done. From the outside looking in, people might have a different opinion.”

Those opinions range from former Chicago Bulls guard Steve Kerr suggesting earlier in the season the mental and physical fatigue from the past three years would be too much for the Heat to overcome this season to win a third straight title the way his Bulls did twice in the 1990s with Michael Jordan.

Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale, who starred on the last team that reached the Finals four straight years in Boston, said last month that the Heat have the perfect combination of talent and postseason experience to fight through all of the issues they’ll face along the way to their ultimate goal.

Standing between those two vantage points is a Heat team trying to maintain perspective.

Following a regular season where every decision was focused on the bigger picture, they now reach the postseason in which the collective mindset is all about taking care of the small details along the way.

“The regular season, the last part, was pretty rough on us with injuries, different lineups and just playing every other day for two months,” said Bosh, amid his least productive month of the season in April. “It was turning into a real difficult grind. But this is what you play 82 games for, and we have another opportunity to defend our title. There will be a lot more urgency. We're out of time. We can't really make many excuses or mistakes anymore. It’s easier to hold each other accountable in the playoffs.”

Having watched his team sputter down the stretch, Spoelstra was asked Saturday if he felt his team was capable of shaking off the recent struggles and reaching a consistently dominant level of play.

“There better be another level for us,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t talk about a [flipping a] switch or anything. We're grinding through the last six weeks, we were trying to figure it out and we couldn't get over that hump. But we have a clean slate right now. Our guys have a good perspective about it. They love this time of year. And that’s what I hope. I hope the competition will bring out another level in us.”

Wade subscribes to the switch-flipping theory, but only in the sense that each player should raise his individual levels of intensity and sacrifice to address the team’s larger priorities.

“It is a switch, but it ain't the switch everyone thinks it is and … flip the switch to be champions in the first game of the first round,” Wade said. “That’s impossible. Obviously, the bigger picture, we understand what we're playing for. But we have to play for today. And we have to focus on Game 1 versus the Bobcats. It’s the first team to 16 wins, and that’s a long, long way away.”

Both Wade and Bosh said there’s no reason the team should be focused on trying to “three-peat” right now, because it won't happen in the first game or series of the playoffs. But as the Heat get closer to their goal, they only expect the challenges to get tougher and the adversity to grow.

But that’s when players say they'll rely on the perseverance shown in previous tough spots in the playoffs. Since losing to Dallas in the 2011 Finals, the Heat have fought back from the brink of elimination to win titles in each of the last two postseasons. That resume includes winning Game 6 of the 2012 conference finals in Boston after trailing 3-2. Last summer, Miami won Games 6 and 7 at home after falling behind 3-2 to San Antonio in the Finals.

“The NBA is getting tougher, but I think every year, this team has, as well,” Wade said. “For what we've been able to overcome as a group, we've gotten mentally tough. We've built that. We've built those habits. And they will be there. We've got to pull from them at times, but hopefully not too many times.”

James has drawn a bit of additional inspiration entering the postseason from watching an ESPN documentary on the Detroit Pistons’ "Bad Boys" teams that won back-to-back titles in 1989 and 1990. As James watched how the Pistons went to the Finals three straight seasons but struggled to get there a fourth time, he turned to his wife, Savannah, and nodded toward the television.

“Who does that sound like?” James asked. “Sounds just like us. I know exactly what they're going through. We've been through so many battles, and every year is different.”

Meanwhile, Wade spent that same recent night watching the season finale of "Scandal," a hit TV series predicated on thriving through extreme measures of crisis management.

Sounds a bit like the Heat, too.


Heat's three-peat quest begins now

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
12:50
AM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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MIAMI -- For one team, it was an exhibition. The other, a championship of sorts.

In the end, the Philadelphia 76ers beat the Miami Heat 100-87 on the home floor of the defending champions. But both teams got what they wanted in the season finale.

For the Heat, walking away from the regular season unscathed was the ultimate objective at the end of the 82-game slog. The chase for the No. 1 seed never materialized into much of a chase. Even with the door still open to get the East’s top seed over the Indiana Pacers earlier in the week, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra elected to rest LeBron James and Chris Bosh for the final two games of the regular season.

One door closes, another opens. After finishing the regular season with a 54-28 record -- the worst final record of Miami’s Big Three era -- Heat’s three-peat quest continues with the seventh-seeded Charlotte Bobcats coming into town for Game 1 on Sunday afternoon.

The Heat probably could have ended on a higher note, but James and Bosh did not play on Wednesday night in the name of rest. Dwyane Wade gave it a go for the third consecutive game after a nine-game layoff dealing with a sore hamstring. And after 23 uneven minutes, Wade came away pleased with not just his Wednesday performance, but the team’s months-long maintenance program.

“I did what I wanted to do,” Wade said. “I’m happy going into the postseason. [My health] is a lot better than going into the playoffs last season.”

Getting Wade some playing time without aggravating an injury? That was atop the Heat’s priority list on Wednesday; the game result did not matter. Next on the priority list was making sure that Greg Oden could return to the floor without any hiccups after missing two and a half weeks with back issues and a stomach bug. After 13 minutes of action, they checked that off the list as well.

The third objective was less serious: allowing Shane Battier to reach a career milestone of 30,000 regular-season minutes. Battier joked with Spoelstra at the morning shootaround that he needed to play a season-high 36 minutes in his final regular season game in order to reach 30,000 for his career.

Spoelstra laughed it off in the morning, but by the evening, he ran out of bodies at the end of the bench. James, Bosh, Rashard Lewis and Chris Andersen all got the night off and Michael Beasley turned his right ankle in the third quarter and had to leave the game.

At that point, Battier checked in with the scorer’s table to see how many minutes he needed until 30,000.

“Only six?” Battier laughed as he turned to walk onto the court. “I’ve come this far, can’t turn back now.”

Battier ended up playing 39 minutes -- three more than he needed -- and finished with a trio of 3-pointers.

“Once I sniffed it, it was like a dog to a T-bone,” Battier said. “I had to go get it.”

After the loss, Battier, who’s expected to retire this summer, marched into the locker room, fully-equipped with jokes.

“I came in the league averaging about 40 minutes a game,” Battier announced to his teammates, “And in my last game I played about 40 minutes.”

Wade finished with 13 points on 6-of-14 shooting, but never really got into the flow against a surprisingly pesky 76ers defense. Actually, the 76ers never trailed after midway through the second quarter and oddly enough ended up taking the season-series 2-1 over the Heat.

The 76ers could have mailed it in and no one would have blamed them with nothing tangible in the standings to gain. But instead, the 76ers gave everything they had after an arduous season that saw them tie an NBA record for most losses in a row (26). It was just one win, but it provided a morsel of redemption.

Rookie of the Year candidate Michael Carter-Williams drained three 3-pointers after struggling from deep for weeks. After drilling one of the threes, first-year head coach Brett Brown smiled ear-to-ear on the sidelines and clapped in encouragement as if he had just watched his own child steer his bike without training wheels for the first time.

The 76ers’ positivity continued. After a slew of Philadelphia plays that forced a frustrated Spoelstra to call a timeout, Brown bear-hugged his giggling guard Tony Wroten out at midcourt. The 19-win team pushed the Heat around all game and forced multiple 24-second shot-clock violations.

This, coming from the team that boasts one of the NBA’s worst defensive efficiencies.

The Heat understand Wednesday’s effort won’t cut it on Sunday.

“We’ll be tested,” Spoelstra said. “Our guys understand that.”

The Heat are fully aware with how well the Bobcats have played lately, finishing the season on a 9-3 run. The Bobcats ended up with the sixth-ranked defense, something nobody saw coming after they ranked dead-last in the NBA last season and added the offensive-minded Al Jefferson to anchor their back line.

“They deserve the respect of how they’ve played the last six weeks,” Spoelstra said. “They’ve been one of the better teams in the league. Jefferson since January has been one of the top players in this league. They’re a worthy, worthy opponent.”

Though the Heat swept the season-series against the Bobcats, Wade shared Spoelstra’s respect for coach Steve Clifford’s club.

“That team competes very hard,” Wade said. “They’re comfortable in their game. They’ve got a great one-two punch with Kemba Walker and Big Al. We have to come with our hard hats on and stay focused throughout.”

The Heat stumbled into the postseason with three losses in a row. James, Wade and Bosh have only played one game together this month and it came in a double-digit loss to Atlanta.

But despite the lack of playing time together, Wade didn’t foresee any issues getting on the same page with James.

“I’m not worried about continuity with him at all,” Wade said after the game. “The biggest thing is that we both know what we need to do. We just have to do it. We’ve been playing together for four years. That’s enough continuity right there.”

AmericanAirlines Arena had been a harrowing place for Brown, who was an assistant coach under Gregg Popovich for the San Antonio Spurs last season, his seventh in that capacity. Interestingly enough, Brown made plans to travel to San Antonio on Thursday after the regular season wrapped up.

The plan? To catch up with a close friend and mentor Popovich.

“Popovich is the single greatest basketball influence I’ve had outside my father,” Brown said. “Popovich’s skill package is off the charts. One, he’s a good person. Second, he’s highly intelligent, and third, he’s a hell of a coach.”

On Thursday, Brown will make a trip to San Antonio to see old friends. Somewhere down the line in the next couple months, the Alamo may be in the Heat’s plans as well. The three-peat quest is officially on.

Heat Reaction: 76ers-Heat Grades

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
10:52
PM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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LeBron James, Chris Bosh to miss finale

April, 16, 2014
Apr 16
6:41
PM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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MIAMI -- The regular season is officially over for the reigning MVP.

With the second seed in the Eastern Conference locked up, Miami Heat forward LeBron James and center Chris Bosh will sit out Wednesday's season finale as they host the Philadelphia 76ers.

Heat guard Dwyane Wade, however, will play in his third consecutive game after being sidelined for his previous nine games as part of the team's season-long maintenance program. Wade has missed a total of 28 games this season. Heat backup center Greg Oden is also expected to be activated after sitting out with back soreness and a stomach virus following his last appearance on March 26 against the Indiana Pacers.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra also said that he would rest Heat backup center Chris Andersen and point guard Mario Chalmers on Wednesday.

The NBA announced on Wednesday night that the Heat will open the playoffs against either the Washington Wizards or the Charlotte Bobcats on Sunday at 3:30 p.m. ET. The Sunday start would give James and Bosh each a full week of rest before the postseason begins.

Because of the Heat's maintenance schedules, the team's star trio of James, Wade and Bosh have played only one game together since March 27.

The 76ers are trying to wrap up a woeful season on a high note. Beating the Heat on Wednesday would give them their first pair of consecutive victories since early January.

The Heat will likely play the opening round against the seventh-seeded Bobcats on Sunday. The Heat would play the Wizards only if the Wizards lose to the Boston Celtics on the road and the Bobcats beat the Chicago Bulls in Charlotte.
The Heat end the regular season Wednesday night at home against the Philadelphia 76ers. Our panel goes 3-on-3:

1. What has been the most encouraging part of Miami’s season?


Israel Gutierrez: Dwyane Wade's play when he's healthy. And assuming his hamstring is healed and his conditioning gets caught up quickly, he'll be healthy for this playoff run. And considering he was at about 70 percent during last season's title run, that's quite an encouraging prospect.

Tom Haberstroh: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh enter the playoffs healthier than they were this time a year ago. Really, the regular season was just an 82-game preseason for the Heat and little mattered outside of the trainer’s room. The maintenance program for Wade, as taxing as it was for Bosh and James, seemed to work. For now.

Brian Windhorst: The playoffs are starting and all 15 players on the roster are available and reasonably healthy. LeBron and Bosh will go in with at least a week off and Wade certainly hasn't been overworked. They have won a road game in all 12 series they've played in the past three years, so not having home court has a limited disadvantage.

2. What has been the most disappointing part of Miami’s season?


Gutierrez: The inconsistency all around. From the defensive play to the shooting of Ray Allen and Shane Battier to the appearances from Wade. All of it has translated into a level of play that has created more questions than the Heat have faced at this time over the past three seasons.

Haberstroh: The supporting cast. The Michael Beasley experiment has come up empty. Ray Allen has finally shown he’s not immune to age. Greg Oden may be sidelined for the remainder of the season. Norris Cole has not developed. Shane Battier for months looked like a shell of himself. If it weren’t for Chris Andersen and Udonis Haslem’s recent revival, this would be a disaster.

Windhorst: This is the least imposing team of the past four seasons. Some of that is because of depth, some is because of in-season injuries, some is because of fatigue and motivation issues. Instead of ramping up for the playoffs like last year (which the Spurs are doing this year), the Heat have gone into the postseason in a relative tailspin.

3. What is the biggest threat to Miami’s quest to three-peat?


Gutierrez: Well, there are any number of things, including health, lack of size now that it appears Greg Oden might not be a factor, or the loss of home court against either the Pacers or any number of Western Conference teams. But if I'm picking one "threat" to the Heat three-peating, it's the same threat that nearly cost them last year's title: the Spurs.

Haberstroh: Their bodies. That has always been the case. They have more than enough talent to go around, but they will only go as far as their aging bodies take them. The only key players under 30 years old are LeBron James (who turns 30 in December) and Mario Chalmers. Do they have another championship run in them?

Windhorst: Over the past two seasons, they have had to win three Game 7s to win their titles. All three were at home. The Heat will enter the postseason with the fifth-best record, and that means if they play any of the four teams ahead of them, they will have to play Game 7 on the road. The Spurs are itching for a chance to take advantage of that this year.

After losing top spot, Heat eye playoff boost

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
10:33
PM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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WASHINGTON -- For Miami Heat fans looking for something to feel good about at the moment, consider this: it’s almost over.

The relentless, restless regular season, that is.

The cover-your-eyes and pinch-your-nose portion in this stretch of the schedule is nearing an end. Only a harmless, meaningless home game Wednesday against the Philadelphia 76ers remains before the Heat close out the most listless, lifeless regular season of the Big Three era.

With LeBron James and Chris Bosh opting out of Monday’s game to squeeze in what little rest they can get before this weekend’s start of the playoffs, the Heat formally abandoned their quest for the No. 1 seed with a brutal 114-93 loss to the Wizards.

With the Heat’s loss, the Indiana Pacers (55-26) clinched the best record in the East and will enter the postseason with home-court advantage throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs. After winning Game 7 of the conference and NBA Finals to capture their second straight title last season, the comforts of home won’t be a luxury the Heat will enjoy if they end up meeting the Pacers again this postseason.

The Heat will either play Washington or Charlotte in the first round of the playoffs, with the bracket decided Wednesday on the final night of the regular season. Miami (54-27) was already in a second-seeded state of mind before the start of Monday’s game.

“Some years, you know, as a team you’re a way better home team than you are a road team,” said Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who had nine points and four turnovers in 18 minutes during his second game back from a hamstring injury. “And sometimes, we’ve been a pretty good road team as well. Seeding is always something that’s important. People love playing at home. So it’s never going to be anything where you say, ‘Aw, we don’t care at all.’ But it doesn’t necessarily guarantee you anything, either.”

For the past few weeks, it was clear that where the Heat finished in the standings meant much more to the media than the men in the basketball uniforms. But the reality had always been that coach Erik Spoelstra was never going to do anything to jeopardize his team’s health or go against the preferences of his top three players.

What transpired Monday in Washington was already set in motion two nights earlier in Atlanta, where the Hawks sprinted away in the second half of a 98-85 victory against the Heat. It was Wade’s first game back after missing the previous nine with a left hamstring injury, and he responded with 24 points on 10-of-14 shooting in 23 minutes.

There was progress amid the team’s overall setback.

After the game, when James and Bosh both strongly suggested they were wearing down and could use some rest, there was never a question as to whether Spoelstra would oblige and sit them out. Saturday’s loss assured the Heat of their lowest winning percentage for season since James, Wade and Bosh came together in the summer of 2010.
[+] EnlargeDwyane Wade
Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty ImagesDwyane Wade, who returned Saturday from a sore right hamstring that cost him nine games, started and scored nine points in 18 minutes on Monday.

Monday’s loss meant the Heat won’t finish with the best record in the East for the third time in four seasons. The first time Miami carried the No. 2 seed into the playoffs resulted in a five-game series win over Chicago in the Eastern Conference finals but a six-game loss to Dallas in the 2011 Finals.

Spoelstra said the Heat falling behind the Pacers again in the standings, with Indiana owning the tiebreaker heading into the final game of the season, factored in his decision to rest James and Bosh.

“It was out of our control at some point, and those guys have put [on] a lot of mileage,” Spoesltra said. “Our schedule was fairly extreme down the stretch run. It’s not an excuse. We just want to make sure our guys are feeling right, that they’re sharp, that they’re feeling healthy. They have minor ailments that a couple of days will do wonders for them.”

Wade admitted the season didn’t quite work out as expected, considering injuries and illness forced the Heat to use 20 different starting lineups this season. Managing a roster that primarily features older rotation players was a priority at the start of the season and remains one headed toward the finish.

“When you want to put together a veteran team, you better pack a little more ice,” Wade said. “You better have a few more people on the staff, because you’re going to have a lot of guys in and out. We’re a team that’s been there [to the Finals] three years in a row, trying to go there four years in a row. We’ve done OK. Could we do better? You always could do better. But I think we’ve done a pretty decent job up to this point.”

Soon, the rest will be over for the Heat.

And so will the restlessness for a team longing to get through Wednesday and into the postseason. The Heat insist they’ll be their normal, fighting selves again real soon.

Considering how they’ve approached the past two games, that push might not come until it’s time to hit the reset button for the playoffs.

Heat Reaction: Grading Heat-Wizards

April, 14, 2014
Apr 14
9:38
PM ET
Windhorst By Brian Windhorst
ESPN.com
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With Pacers' big win, Heat eye rest stop

April, 13, 2014
Apr 13
11:36
PM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
Archive
WASHINGTON -- For the past few weeks, LeBron James has made himself dizzy monitoring the league standings as teams jockey for playoff seeds.

“It’s not finished,” James said entering the final week of the regular season. “I see the standings. I see the teams that are trying to make the postseason or that are out. But I can’t wrap myself around it right now. There are still a couple of games left and the seedings change every day.”

Sorting through the scenarios for James and the Miami Heat is now a very simple process.

The Indiana Pacers’ victory against Oklahoma City on Sunday left the Heat in an improbable position in the race for the No. 1 seed in the East. The Pacers (55-26) can wrap up home-court advantage throughout the conference playoffs with a victory in their final regular-season game Wednesday in Orlando. It could be decided Monday if the Heat (54-26) lose to Washington.
[+] EnlargeLeBron James and Dwyane Wade
AP Photo/Wilfredo LeeMight we see roles reversed, with Dwyane Wade in uniform and LeBron in street clothes?

Anticipating the likelihood of being the No. 2 seed after Sunday’s developments in Indiana, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is expected to shift some primary rotation players into rest mode for Monday’s game and Wednesday’s season finale against Philadelphia.

After playing five games in seven nights, culminating with Saturday’s loss in Atlanta, the Heat were given the day off in Washington on Sunday. Both James and Chris Bosh, who has been in his worst offensive slump of the season in recent weeks, have said they could use some time off before the Heat open their first-round playoff series against either Washington, Charlotte or Atlanta this coming weekend.

The Heat’s rotation has been in flux much of the season, with the team starting 20 different lineups because of injuries or illness. So it comes as no surprise that there continues to be a revolving door with the lineup with two games remaining. The quest for rest from James and Bosh coincides with Dwyane Wade’s impressive return Saturday in Atlanta after missing nine games with a strained left hamstring.

So while Wade, who scored 24 points on 10-of-14 shooting in 23 minutes, hopes to continue to work up a lather heading into the postseason, James and Bosh are looking for a bit of relief while they can get it.

“Some of my teammates, obviously, they look at me and say, ‘You may need to get a couple of games [off], man,” said James, who has played 77 of the Heat’s 80 games this season and typically sat out the final week of the regular season in previous years.

Bosh also acknowledged the burden this season has been. That has especially been the case in April for Bosh, who is averaging 14.1 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.0 turnovers so far in his least productive month of the season. He is shooting below 50 percent from the field for the first time in any month this season, and that number dips to just 25.9 percent from 3-point range in the past seven games.

In the past two games, Bosh has totaled just 21 points and nine rebounds. He didn’t attempt a free throw in two of the past three contests and has committed at least four turnovers in three of the last six.

“It’s been a hell of a grind this year,” Bosh said. “You just have to hang in there and do what you’re supposed to do. It’s been relentless and brutal. You take the wins you can get. When you lose, you just move on. I don’t know, man [about taking games off]. Every time you think you know, something changes. So I’m not going to try to act like I know what’s going on tomorrow or the day after. I’m just going to take it as it goes.”

Considering his recent struggles, Bosh was asked in Atlanta to gauge his level of fatigue from 1 to 10.

“With 10 being like really fatigued? It’s zero. I feel fantastic,” Bosh sarcastically shot back.

The Heat’s chances of claiming the No. 1 seed aren’t that low, but it’s close. The team’s coaches and players know they’ve squandered plenty of opportunities to overtake the Pacers and possibly create some distance between the two in the conference standings. But Wade was among those who refused to look back and nitpick more than a dozen losses this season to teams that had a sub-.500 record.

There were too many issues to address moving forward and not much time to get it done.

“I don’t care about that. I just care about us continuing to come together as a team, continuing to build on the floor,” Wade said of squandered opportunities. “We’re going to play these last two games to win. Our main focus is to make sure we get everybody healthy and everybody into a rhythm going into the playoffs. I want to get to a point where I get [back to normal minutes]. But for now, it will be the same thing moving forward. There will be a minutes restriction. But when I’m in there, make sure I go hard.”

The Heat insist their priorities are in the right place entering the season’s final week.

“I’m not saying we’re not trying,” Bosh said of making one more push for the top seed. “But if you play the games and you come up short, it’s not the end of the world. We’ve been the 2-seed before and got to the Finals. And we’ve been a 1-seed and made it to the Finals. We just have to take it challenge by challenge as it comes.”

Regardless of the seeds, James said all playoff teams are guaranteed at least one thing by week’s end.

“Everyone has life going into the postseason,” James said. “No matter what your regular-season record is, everyone starts zero-zero.”

Despite loss, D-Wade's return cheers Heat

April, 13, 2014
Apr 13
12:04
AM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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ATLANTA -- After missing nine games over a stretch of three weeks, Dwyane Wade knew he’d face plenty of questions Saturday in his return from a nagging hamstring injury.

Among the least of his concerns were the inquiries about rhythm.

With the two-time defending champion Miami Heat a week away from starting the playoffs, Wade brushed off suggestions he might initially struggle to re-establish the timing and continuity he’s had with LeBron James and Chris Bosh when the team performs at its best.

Wade instead countered with a bit of a history lesson. He pointed to the relatively turbulent 2010-11 season when the Heat’s Big Three first came together and stumbled off to that 9-8 start.

“We didn’t have rhythm our first year together, and we went to the Finals,” Wade said Saturday of overcoming kinks three years ago before Miami ultimately lost in six games to Dallas. “That’s not really a big worry of mine. The best rhythm for us is [having] all of us out there together on the floor, giving ourselves an opportunity every night ... to be a very, very good team. I just wanted to be back on the floor with them. That there, the rhythm, it will take care of itself.”

Wade’s play was the only silver lining from the Heat’s otherwise sluggish and lackluster performance in a 98-85 loss to the Hawks at Philips Arena. With the victory, Atlanta clinched the eighth and final playoff seed in the East and eliminated the New York Knicks from postseason contention.

And with the loss, the Heat (54-26) fell back into a tie with the Indiana Pacers (54-26) with two games remaining for both teams. A horrendous, 13-point third quarter was the difference in Saturday’s outcome for the Heat, which came a day after Miami dominated the Pacers in that same period to pull away for a victory that provided the half-game cushion in the standings.

But everything the Heat gained from one of their most impressive wins of the season a night earlier was squandered Saturday when they missed 19 of 25 attempts from 3-point range, 10 of 19 free throws and surrendered 29 points to the Hawks on 20 turnovers. Players and coaches acknowledged the blunders and admitted to lacking the focus, energy and defensive intensity that led to Saturday’s meltdown.
[+] EnlargeDwyane Wade
Kevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsDwyane Wade made 10 of 14 shots en route to 24 points in the loss to Atlanta.

Yet overall, the Heat seemed relieved in the locker room after the game.

They were glad to be done with a brutal stretch of five games in seven nights that had taken a mental and physical toll on the team like no other week in the season. And they were far more encouraged by the return of Wade, who made his first seven shots and finished with 24 points on a 10-of-14 clip from the field in the 23 minutes he played in six-minute increments.

Wade’s night began with a dunk in transition on a pass from LeBron James during the Heat’s first possession of the game. For the past three weeks, it would have been the sort of transition moment James would have exploited, a one-on-one matchup in the open court to attack the basket.

Instead, he deferred.

“That was the best part about tonight; we were able to get him out on the floor, get him into a good rhythm,” said James, who had 27 points, eight rebounds and five assists in 37 minutes. “Me personally, the first play of the game, I had a break versus Kyle Korver. I usually go for that. But knowing [Wade] has been out for a while, trying to get him his rhythm, I was able to dump it off to him. The best thing you can get coming off an injury is a layup or a dunk. To come out of this without a setback is the best part.”

The Heat have preached for weeks now that they much more prefer to enter the playoffs as healthy as possible than with the No. 1 seed in terms of how they’d manage the final stretch of the season. Their adherence to that philosophy somewhat explains the team’s festive mood just moments after falling flat in a loss to an opponent they could see in the first round of the playoffs next week.

And the Heat’s approach also sheds light on how they might approach the final two games of the season when they travel to face Washington on Monday and return home Wednesday against Philadelphia. James, Wade and Bosh each said after Saturday’s game that they would consult with coach Erik Spoelstra and the training staff to determine whether the best course of action is to sit out either or both of the last two games, which would provide a full week of rest heading into Game 1 of their first-round series.

Spoelstra said that every decision he makes right now will be based on the team’s overall health. He was encouraged by what he saw in Wade’s first game back since he sustained the hamstring injury in the final two minutes of a March 26 loss at Indiana. The Heat trailed by 11 with six minutes left in the fourth -- still within striking distance -- when Spoelstra maintained the minutes restriction plan and pulled Wade out although Miami’s second-leading scorer for the season showed no signs of slowing down.

“If we had gotten it closer,” Spoelstra said before shifting his thoughts. “[Our trainer] and Dwyane said he could [continue] to go if needed. Obviously, we were very encouraged by that. We’ll proceed with a very careful eye and see how he feels [Sunday]. He’s been doing a lot of work behind the scenes. He probably felt like he should have been cleared a week ago, but we wanted to be very patient with him.”

Wade, who admitted Saturday the hamstring strain was more severe than he and the team initially thought, spent the past week pushing through rigorous workouts in practices, during morning shootarounds and on game nights before the team took the court for warm-ups.

On two occasions, Spoelstra suggested Wade was on the verge of returning but the team opted to hold him out under further precaution. On Friday, Wade went through three different workouts before the Heat’s game against the Pacers. After enduring another -- his fourth in a span of 24 hours -- he was cleared to play against the Hawks.

“I’ve just been a workout fiend,” Wade said. “It’s been good [to] go from where you can’t do much, and then when you start feeling it turn a little bit and then you start feel yourself getting a little better, then you feel yourself getting much better. Now, you’re able to start working and trying, as much as possible, to get some kind of flow, some kind of rhythm, some kind of confidence back in it. Being this close to the playoffs, I didn’t want to come back too soon. So it’s just trying to be as smart as I can be.”

The next time Wade and James work in tandem again could come in the playoffs.

While Wade suggested he hopes to continue to build from Saturday’s outing, James hinted that it just might be time for him to squeeze in a few days off before the postseason grind begins. As part of a routine that dates back to his days with the Cleveland Cavaliers, James prefers to take off the last week of the regular season. The decision usually is made easier by his teams having secured a specific playoff seed. That’s not the case this season with Miami, which could be locked into the battle with the Pacers for the top spot in the East through the final night of the regular season on Wednesday.

“I’ll be smart about it and go into the postseason as healthy as I can be,” James said of weighing his next decision. “The last three years, I’ve kind of done that, and I felt pretty good going into the postseason. Even after this seven-, eight-month grind, there’s nothing like the two months of the postseason. It’s harder than the eight months of the regular season. So I’ve got to be smart about it.”

Despite the loss, Saturday can be viewed as a win-win night for the Heat.

The result on the scoreboard was easily overshadowed by Wade’s return and James’ quest for rest.

No wonder they left Atlanta in a good mood.

Heat Reaction: Grading Heat-Hawks

April, 12, 2014
Apr 12
10:00
PM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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Heat Reaction: Grading Pacers-Heat

April, 11, 2014
Apr 11
10:09
PM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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Heat absorb another unhealthy result

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
1:50
AM ET
Gutierrez By Israel Gutierrez
ESPN.com
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MEMPHIS -- It’s practically impossible to assess the Miami Heat at this point of the season, even with less than two weeks remaining until the postseason.

You could focus on the 10-11 record since March 4 and consider this three-peat run all but over.

Or you could look at Miami as a team simply waiting for health to work in its favor and return to the group that was 16-3 in the previous 19 games.

Even on the individual level, you could say LeBron James is mentally and physically fatigued at the tail end of a regular season in which he’s done much of the heavy lifting on his own.
[+] EnlargeLeBron James
Joe Murphy/Getty ImagesLeBron James had 37 points, but the Grizzlies ended up knocking Miami out of first place.

Or you could say LeBron looked pretty fresh while scoring 37 points against a variety of physical Grizzlies defenders Wednesday night at FedEx Forum.

“Wearing on me?” James repeated when asked the question. “I mean, I played pretty well. Besides the [five] turnovers, I think I played pretty well.”

You could look at Chris Bosh’s 15.6 scoring average on 48 percent shooting in the eight games since Wade last played and say he’s not going to be a reliable contributor come the postseason.

Or, you could recognize that in the Heat’s “rhythm, flow, momentum” offense, Bosh misses Wade badly because the chemistry they developed gets Bosh more quality opportunities to score. It’s never as easy as saying, “Give the ball to Bosh more” when Wade’s out, because Bosh doesn’t have many plays called for him, even without Wade on the floor.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra acknowledges that it would “make sense” to simply turn to Bosh more often, but that would disrupt the natural flow of an offense that has taken years to develop, and Spoelstra doesn’t want to “build those habits going into the playoffs.”

So while we would all love to have a firm grasp of what exactly the Heat are as the playoffs approach (last year, a 37-2 finish made it pretty obvious how the Heat were playing heading into the postseason), the best anyone can do is assess each game Miami plays and try to determine which parts are truly telling and what else is merely a function of having critical players regularly unavailable.

Wednesday, against a Grizzlies team whose level of desperation rates significantly higher than the Heat’s (to miss the playoffs coming off a conference finals appearance and seemingly unnecessary coaching change would be somewhat devastating for Memphis), Miami did display a couple of disconcerting signs, particularly in the second half.

First, there were the turnovers. Not just that the Heat turned the ball over 15 times, which isn’t that big a number, but that those 15 turnovers turned into 29 points for Memphis.

“The turnovers, they were pick-sixes,” Spoelstra said, using a football term to perfectly describe the Heat’s more costly miscues. “They had more than a handful of those.”

While a few of those were of the unforced variety, that’s probably where Memphis’ desperation made itself most evident. The normally aggressive defense cranked it up after halftime, making its most significant push late in the third quarter, when the Grizzlies erased a seven-point deficit in the final 1:47 of the period, including a buzzer-beating 3 from Courtney Lee following a Norris Cole turnover.

Still, to consider turnovers a major issue for Miami based on this performance is probably unfair given the circumstances.
Miami was without Wade, Udonis Haslem, Chris Andersen and Greg Oden and relied on rookie Justin Hamilton to play 13 minutes.

The other somewhat troubling sign Wednesday was how quickly the offense went from free-flowing with great ball movement in the first half to a stagnant, LeBron-or-nothing affair that played very much into Memphis’ hands.

James happened to keep Miami in the game because he had his jumper going. But the entire offense came to a standstill on several possessions, leading to forced drives into traffic and easily convertible turnovers.

“It’s something you always have to stay conscious of,” Spoelstra said. “Even as beautifully as we move the ball sometimes, it’s a game you have to work at. You have to do it under duress, when the defense steps up their pressure, which they did.”

LeBron says he would rather play the ball-movement game and keep his teammates involved. But when he’s got it going, he can also take the offense out of rhythm when calling his own number.

“That is a fine balance in this league,” Spoelstra said. “Because he, along with Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant, they’re the best end-of-possession, bail-you-out options for the offense.

“But that can’t be your offense, and we understand that.”

Again, though, that could be a product of James realizing how much more he’s needed with so many regulars injured.

Fact is until we actually see the playoffs play out, and how quickly the Heat regains a rhythm once they’re whole, we won’t know if these were merely expected struggles from a fatigued and injured team or signs we should’ve recognized all along.

Heat Reaction: Grading Heat-Grizzlies

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
10:59
PM ET
Wallace By Michael Wallace
ESPN.com
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Heat Reaction: Grading Nets-Heat

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
10:51
PM ET
Haberstroh By Tom Haberstroh
ESPN.com
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