ATLANTA — It’s almost like it never happened.
No, really. Think about it. This entire regular season is almost in the books, the playoffs are almost here and consider where the Heat is physically, strategically and mentally after Saturday’s 98-85 loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
For the first time since early November, the Heat featured a starting lineup of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Udonis Haslem and Mario Chalmers. That’s the lineup the Heat ran out at the beginning of the season, and that’s the lineup the Heat will use to begin the playoffs.
The Greg Oden experiment appears to have ended before it ever began. He wasn’t even with the team at Philips Arena to begin this final two-game road trip of the regular season. The Heat gave Michael Beasley a chance, and he couldn’t figure out the team’s defense.
So, there was the foundation of the Heat’s championship core, back out on the court together after all that time and all that failed experimentation, and, like the beginning of the season, the guys lacked rhythm and stamina.
Like the beginning of the season, Dwyane Wade played coming off an injury.
Like the beginning of the season, LeBron James looked exhausted.
For that matter, everyone looked tired — everyone except Wade, of course. He played like he had been resting for over two weeks, and not like his teammates, who were playing in their fourth game in five nights. After missing nine-straight games with a hamstring injury, Wade scored 24 points in 23 minutes and went 10 of 14 from the line. Wade played well, but his minutes were limited by design, and the precaution threw off any idea of cohesion to the Heat’s rotation.
Simply put, the Hawks (37-43) played like a team fighting for their playoff lives, and the Heat (54-26) played like a team just going through the motions until the postseason begins. With the victory, the Hawks secured the No.8 seed in the Eastern Conference and officially knocked the New York Knicks out of postseason contention.
For the Heat, the loss erased its half-game lead against the Pacers for top spot in the conference. The Heat and Pacers are now tied for No.1 in the East with Indiana playing the tough Oklahoma City Thunder on Sunday.
James led the Heat with 27 points in 37 minutes, but looked sluggish doing it. He was 10 of 22 from the field and 4 of 8 from the free-throw line. As a team, the Heat went 9 of 19 from the foul line. Chris Bosh had 11 points in 28 minutes.
“It’s been a helluva grind this year,” Bosh said.
Hawks reserve Lou Williams hit a three-pointer with a 41 seconds left to give Atlanta a 15-point lead. Williams had 23 points off the bench and the Hawks outscored the Heat 49-36 in the second half. The game was tied 49-49 at halftime.
“Needless to say, that was a tough second half,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We couldn’t get it going on either side of the court.”
Jeff Teague led the Hawks with 25 points, carving lanes through the Heat’s defense from beginning to end. Meanwhile, the Heat committed 20 turnovers, which the Hawks converted into 29 points.
Despite the close race atop the Eastern Conference standings, it doesn’t sound like the Heat will really be gunning for the No.1 seed in the final few days of the regular season. James indicated after the game that he is strongly considering sitting out the Heat’s final road game of the season in Washington.
“It’s something I need to talk about with [Spoelstra],” James said. “Some of my teammates, obviously they looked at it and said, ‘You need to get a couple games,’ so I’ll be smart about it and try to get into the playoffs as healthy as I can be.”
The loss was a blow to securing the No.1 seed, but overall it was a success considering Wade’s return from injury. He made his first seven shots and scored the Heat’s first nine points of the second quarter. Wade’s running 12-foot jumper cut the Hawks’ lead to four points with 8:49 left in the first half, and Ray Allen tied the game with a corner three-pointer a few possessions later. The Heat surged to a seven-point lead in the second quarter before giving it all back by halftime.
Wade started the game with a dunk, which kick-started his impressive game. James spotted Wade on a fast break, and instead of finishing the play himself, the four-time MVP smartly dished it off to Wade for an easy score.
“My man understands that I needed that,” Wade said. “If I don’t get that, then I don’t know when my next shot is coming, and I’m out there four minutes and my first shot might be a pull-up or something.
“To see it go through on that first play, it lets you know you’re all right.”