Heat on a sizzling march toward playoffs

There was a certain irony to the scene on Miami practice court
Tuesday: Coach Erik Spoelstra spent nearly an hour watching the
Heat – with his back to the wall.

It wasn’t long ago that his team was in the same position.

At the end of February, the Heat were two games under .500 and
not even assured of a playoff berth. Since the calendar flipped to
March, the Heat are among the hottest teams in the NBA, winners of
14 of their last 17 to vault up the Eastern Conference playoff
standings. They’ll take an eight-game winning streak – the league’s
best right now – into Wednesday’s home game with Philadelphia.

“We’ve been the same all year, win, lose or draw,” guard
Dwyane Wade said, hours before the Heat officially clinched their
sixth playoff berth in his seven NBA seasons. “We’re giddy and
loud when we win. We’re giddy and loud when we lose.”

Oh, they were giddy and loud Tuesday, all right.

Practice ended around 11:15 a.m., and at noon, just about
everyone was still on the floor. Wade +faked a shot, turned and
fired the basketball toward unsuspecting team assistant Roger
Perez. Michael Beasley offered assistant coach David Fizdale a
wager on whether he could swish a 3-pointer. And Spoelstra just
soaked it all in, clearly more at ease now than he was a few weeks
ago.

“The real impact is when guys really start to believe,”
Spoelstra said. “And that can take defense to a whole another
level, with the effort, but the belief. That’s what we’re starting
to see these last few weeks.”

Since March 1, Miami is 14-3. During that time span, only
Cleveland – a winner over Toronto on Tuesday night – has been
better, going 15-3. The Orlando Magic are also 14-3 over that
stretch.

And Miami’s surge has been directly tied to the defensive
end.

“Winning makes you more confident,” Wade said.

The numbers bear that out.

The Heat entered Tuesday ranked atop the league in field-goal
percentage defense and second in points per game allowed. Since
March 1, the numbers have been even better.

Miami’s last 17 opponents have managed to shoot just 41.5
percent, 2.1 percentage points better than what Orlando – the
second-best defensive team in that stretch – has yielded. The 90.4
points allowed by the Heat since March 1 also ranks as tops in the
NBA, where 20 of the 30 teams have given up an average of 100 or
more over the last five weeks.

“It’s been real fun,” forward Udonis Haslem said. “We always
felt like we had a run like this in us. Just never could quite put
it together, for whatever reason. Being able to put it together,
it’s kind of gratifying, but at the same time we’re still hungry to
get better and try to keep it going this way, not to get
complacent.”

Given the way the schedule broke for Miami, that’s not an easy
task.

The final eight Heat opponents will all miss the playoffs. But
during this stretch that saved Miami’s season, the Heat have also
defeated the reigning NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers, the
Charlotte Bobcats and the Atlanta Hawks – who could be the Heat
first-round opponent for the second straight year.

“A win is a win,” Haslem said. “They’re all NBA players. How
we get them is how we get them. It’s very important to keep it
going, keep our groove on defensively going into the playoffs and
just staying in it mentally, making sure we keep this spot that
we’re in right now. It’s still so close right now, a couple games
can change things.”

True, though the most realistic scenarios have Miami and
Milwaukee jostling for the No. 5 and No. 6 spots in the East, with
Boston and Atlanta vying to be No. 3 and No. 4.

“I don’t know who they play and I really don’t care,” Wade
said. “We’ve just got to continue to get better.”

After Wednesday, the Heat finish the season with games against
Detroit on Friday, a back-to-back at New York and Philadelphia on
Sunday and Monday, then the regular-season finale with New Jersey
on April 14.

With just one more win in those five games, and the Heat would
top last season’s 43-victory total.

To Haslem, that’s irrelevant. He sees the Heat as better –
“significantly better,” he said – than they were just a few weeks
ago, and that’s what matters.

“For whatever reason, we just couldn’t get it right,” Haslem
said. “It’s coming together around the right time. If we had to
plan it, we’d probably plan it to come together right now.”