The next few days may give the Miami Heat a much better feel for how this Eastern Conference playoff chase is going to play out.
Boston visits the Heat on Tuesday, and then Miami packs up for a trip to Chicago on Thursday in a pair of playoff rematches from last spring. The defending East champion Heat lost by 19 at Boston last week, and trailed by as many as 17 — with Derrick Rose sitting out, no less — in what wound up as a 106-102 loss at Chicago on March 14.
Miami enters the game against the Celtics trailing Chicago by two games in the East race, although the margin is only one in the loss column. Nothing short of historic collapse would cause the Heat to slip lower than No. 2 in the East, and even though the Bulls have led the conference chase for more than a month, the No. 1 seed is still potentially within Miami’s reach.
”We know how to win postseason games,” Heat forward LeBron James said. ”But with these teams that are still fighting for seedings and teams that pretty much have a staple — Boston is really good, well-coached, and same with Chicago, a well-coached team — we know it’s going to be one of those games where you have to play as close to 48 minutes as possible. Win, lose or draw, if we play well, we give ourselves a chance to win. We can be satisfied with that.”
Which they weren’t after the last Heat-Celtics game.
Even with another matchup with the Bulls looming, virtually all the talk at Miami’s practice on Monday was about Boston — not surprising, given the way the Celtics embarrassed the Heat in a 91-72 romp barely a week ago. Just about every stat that day for Miami was awful, with the 72 points and 35 percent shooting being season-lows, and the four points from Chris Bosh tying his low mark of the season.
”We want to make sure we’re obviously giving a much better performance than we did in Boston,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. ”We’re all looking forward for this one.”
Spoelstra would not completely commit to having his full lineup for Tuesday. He didn’t have to, either.
Dwyane Wade, who missed Sunday’s win over Detroit with right ankle soreness that popped up after an awkward landing on a missed dunk, worked out Monday and said he would be ready to play against the Celtics. That would mean the Heat should have their full complement of rotation players ready for the first time in weeks, now that Mike Miller has returned from missing 14 games with a sprained left ankle.
”We’ve had intermittent lineups the entire year,” Heat forward Shane Battier said. ”But before the All-Star break, we reached that level where we could say, `You know, we’re playing good basketball.’ So it really doesn’t matter who’s out there. It’s really about the standard of our team ball.”
Miami has won 18 of its last 19 games at home, and Detroit only managed eight assists against the Heat on Sunday night.
If the Heat hold Rajon Rondo alone to eight assists Tuesday, they’ll likely start celebrating. The Celtics’ point guard has had at least 10 assists in 17 straight games, the NBA’s longest such streak since John Stockton had a run of 29 games with double-digit assists in 1992.
”We have to try our best to make it tough on him but also make sure the other guys don’t get off as well,” Wade said of Rondo. ”There are some things that we saw in that game that we can correct.”
Rondo’s play is surely part of the reason why Boston has been the NBA’s third-best team since the All-Star break, its record of 17-7 in that span trailing only San Antonio (16-4 entering its game Monday night at Utah) and Chicago (16-6).
The Celtics were four games behind Philadelphia entering the break; they entered Monday with a three-game lead in the Atlantic Division race.
”We’ll be better prepared,” said James, who picked up East player-of-the-week honors for the fifth time this season and 36th of his career on Monday. ”They beat us. They dominated us in that game. But we’ll be better prepared.”