The Miami Heat have LeBron James back in uniform, a comfortable cushion in the race for home-court advantage through the NBA finals and are on the verge of tying a franchise record for wins.
Yes, things are looking up in South Beach as the postseason approaches.
In a likely first-round playoff preview, James will make his second straight start Tuesday night after sitting out three games with a tight right hamstring when the Heat host the Milwaukee Bucks, who clinched their own postseason berth in their last outing.
The three-time MVP was anything but rusty in leading Miami to its 60th win Saturday night, 106-87 over Philadelphia. James scored 27 points on 12-of-17 shooting in 31 minutes, maintaining his season-long run of offensive efficiency as the Heat again showed off their ability to win short-handed.
With Dwyane Wade shelved with a sore ankle and bruised knee, and Chris Bosh sitting out with a bad knee of his own, Miami (60-16) moved to 4-1 since having its 27-game winning snapped March 27. In four of those five games, two of the “Big Three” have been sidelined, giving the team’s reserves a chance to step up and round into form just in case they’re called upon in the playoffs.
“It takes the right type of professional. These guys make it look much easier,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You look at any profession in any field, egos really do become a factor. Are people really willing to sacrifice part of their role or their ego to be part of something special or different? … They wouldn’t. And these guys are very unique. They understand what this opportunity is.”
Their opportunity Tuesday is to tie the regular-season mark of 61 wins set by the 1996-97 squad, as well as to put even more distance between them and San Antonio for the league’s top record. Miami can extend that lead to four games, after which both teams would only have five games to play.
At the forefront of the Heat’s bench charge has been Mike Miller, Rashard Lewis and Chris Andersen. Miller, who hasn’t even gotten on the court in 23 games this season, has started the last five, highlighted by a 26-point outburst at Charlotte on Friday night.
Lewis, who had 11 straight DNPs at one point in January, has started three of the last four and scored 14 points off the bench Saturday. Andersen, who didn’t even join the club until midseason, had 15 rebounds in a reserve roll last time out.
“The leaders, they come out and do what they have to do and they do it well and the bench just comes in and contributes and we don’t step outside our boundaries expect for when I take dumb shots,” Andersen said. “It’s a matter of our bench. We’ve got All-Stars sitting all the way down to the end and when we come in and help and get those guys some rest, it just feels great.”
It’s unlikely that at least one of those leaders – Wade – will be back for Tuesday’s contest. The Heat did not practice Monday and Wade wants to play it safe as his team clearly has bigger things on its mind. Bosh, on the other hand, is day-to-day.
“The most important thing is to be healthy,” he said. “When I feel it, I’ll get back on the court. Obviously, I want to play. I’ve just got to make sure that I’m right.”
Even without Wade, Milwaukee (37-39) will have its work cut out for it, and there’s little doubt the Bucks will want to avoid the league’s clear-cut finals favorite so early in the playoffs. It can cut Boston’s lead to two games for the Eastern Conference’s No. 7 seed but will need a lot of help from the Celtics if it’s to steer clear of James and Co. in the first round.
“We’re going to do everything we can to try and move up because we just want to keep winning games and end the season on a positive note,” coach Jim Boylan said. “Whoever we end up playing, we end up playing. Whoever we play against, we’re going to go in and compete and play hard. It would be Miami, New York, Indiana, and those are really good teams.”
Milwaukee clinched its date for the postseason with a 100-83 win over Toronto on Saturday night.