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.”