On the Heat’s list of general concerns less than two weeks away from the playoffs, its final regular-season game against the Indiana Pacers is probably somewhere around fifth in importance.
The hype machine that has surrounded the Heat since the summer of 2010 probably demands more hyperbole for a game that will be celebrated and billed as the most important of the regular season, but, for the Heat, the phrase “important regular-season game” has always been an oxymoron.
In other words, none of it ever much mattered for the defending back-to-back champs.
It didn’t matter when Dwyane Wade sat out the second game on the schedule back in October, and it certainly doesn’t matter now with Wade still nursing injuries and taking every precaution to be as healthy as possible for the postseason. Wade has been sidelined with a hamstring injury since the Heat’s loss to the Pacers two weeks ago, and his status for Friday’s penultimate home game of the regular season once again is questionable.
“We have more problems as far as health issues than the No.1 seed,” said LeBron James following the Heat’s loss to the Grizzlies on Wednesday.
Wade is the biggest source of worry, but there is more.
Also questionable against the Pacers is Udonis Haslem, who has been away from the team with a stomach virus. If it’s the same stomach virus that wrecked Ray Allen last week and sent the NBA’s all-time three-point leader — and, arguably, its fittest player — to the hospital, then Haslem could be quarantined from the team for its final road trip of the regular season as well.
With Haslem back in Miami on Wednesday and Chris Andersen and Greg Oden also unavailable in Memphis, the Heat’s defense was gutted by the Grizzlies’ powerful and skilled big men, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. The absences of Haslem, Andersen and Oden left Chris Bosh to carry most of the load inside. That’s not ideal, especially with the Pacers resting all five of their starters on Wednesday against the Bucks and still winning.
Andersen, who will be a more valuable piece of the Heat’s postseason plans than last year, missed the loss in Memphis with a sore back. Before the game, the Heat’s trainers treated Andersen’s legs for general weariness.
Then there’s Oden, who once figured to be a key contributor in the postseason, but now has been all but forgotten by Heat coach Erik Spoelstra. Oden hasn’t played since the first half of the Heat’s loss to the Pacers on March 26. He offered little defensive resistance against Pacers center Roy Hibbert in that first quarter, and has been listed with back spasms ever since. Hibbert, who has struggled famously down the stretch of this season, worked on Oden and the Heat’s interior defense to the tune of 13 first-quarter points in 12 first-quarter minutes in the last meeting between the two teams. Hibbert has only scored more than 13 points in a game on one occasion since then.
The Heat would move back into the top position in the Eastern Conference with a victory against the Pacers, but that doesn’t guarantee home-court advantage in the playoffs. Games against the Hawks, Wizards and 76ers remain. Needing to rest starters before the playoffs, the Heat could conceivable lose any one of those games and settle for the No.2 seed in the East playoffs.
And, of course, that might not be a bad thing. Sure, home-court advantage in a Game-7 scenario against the Pacers would be helpful, but, considering the inconsistencies in the Heat’s lineup recently, so would a side of the playoff bracket populated by young and inexperienced teams like the Charlotte Bobcats, Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards. The No.2 seed would likely play the Bobcats in the first round before facing the winner of Raptors-Wizards in the second round. The Heat has posted a combined record of 10-1 against those teams this season.
By contrast, consider this: Heat, Pacers, Heat, Pacers, Heat, Pacers, Heat, Pacers, Heat, Pacers.
That list represents the winners of the last 10 meetings between these two teams since Game 1 of the 2013 Eastern Conference finals. It can’t get any more evenly matched than that. Never mind that the Pacers have lost eight of their last 12 games and are 9-12 since March 4, the Heat expects Indiana to be at its best on Friday.
“We don’t really pay attention to all that other stuff,” Bosh said. “When we play them, it is what it is. It’s going to be intense. It’s going to be a hard-fought game with something at stake.
“So, it will pretty much be the playoffs. I think it will be a great atmosphere, but they’re going to play well. We expect them at their best. Everybody we play, we expect them at their best.”
The Heat, meanwhile, says it hasn’t played its best basketball this season — not even close. Heck, Wade, Bosh and James hardly have played together at all in the last three weeks and the most games in a row Wade has played this season without needing rest was eight back in early November.
"There is some sense of worry,” James said. “All season, we haven't played too many minutes together."
When everyone’s finally healthy, the Heat will then begin the process of reestablishing its rhythm.
“It’s going to take some time in the playoffs,” Bosh said. “And, you know, you always have to get better in the playoffs. You’re always trying to improve and improve, but this year we need a lot of improvement. It’s not only on the court. It’s chemistry and everything. But we’ll get there.”
PACERS AT HEAT
When/Where: 7:30 p.m., AmericanAirlines Arena
TV/Radio: Sun Sports and NBA TV/FM 104.3, AM 790 and FM 98.3 (Spanish)
Series: Pacers lead 39-55.
Of note: The fourth and final meeting between the two best teams in the Eastern Conference could decide the No.1 seed for the playoffs and also home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference’s side of postseason bracket. The Pacers practiced at AmericanAirlines Arena on Thursday after resting all five of their starters on Wednesday against the Bucks. Dwyane Wade (hamstring) is questionable. He has missed a third of the season with injuries. Udonis Haslem (stomach illness) is also questionable. Chris Andersen (back) sat out of Wednesday’s game against the Grizzlies, but is expected to play against the Pacers. The Heat has lost two games in a row and its loss to Memphis dropped the Heat below the Pacers in the Eastern Conference standings by half a game.