One night after winning a showdown for control of the Eastern Conference’s top seed, the Miami Heat gave it right back by losing to a sub-.500 opponent – even with Dwyane Wade returning.
Now the Heat’s hopes of claiming that spot could be gone Monday night if they don’t win on the road against the Washington Wizards, a team motivated by the chance to avoid opening the playoffs against one of those No. 1 seed contenders.
Miami (54-26) moved a half-game ahead of Indiana for the East’s best record with a 98-86 victory over the Pacers on Friday despite missing Wade for a ninth straight game due to a sore hamstring. He returned the next day and scored 24 points on 10-of-14 shooting, but the Heat committed 20 turnovers and lost 98-85 in Atlanta.
That left them tied atop the East, but Indiana owns the tiebreaker due to a better conference record and regained a half-game lead on Miami by beating Oklahoma City on Sunday. That means the Heat can only gain the No. 1 seed if they win Monday and against Philadelphia on Wednesday while the Pacers lose at Orlando.
"It’s not finished. I see the standings," LeBron James said Saturday. "… There’s a couple games still left and the seedings are changing every day."
The Heat have lost three of four to fall to 11-12 since March 4, including 3-8 on the road, but received a boost Saturday from Wade playing well in just his second game in three weeks.
"It was good, better than I can envision," Wade said. "When you’re out so long, you’re just thinking of getting your wind back."
This game would be a first-round preview if Miami finishes with the No. 2 seed and Washington drops to seventh.
The Wizards (42-38) are currently sixth with a one-game lead on Charlotte, but the Bobcats hold that season series tiebreaker. Each team has two games remaining.
"We gotta try to win the last two games. That game with Miami is gonna be a tough one," Washington’s John Wall said. "… We gotta keep winning. We know if we go to a tie, (the Bobcats) get the spot and we don’t."
Washington has bounced back from Wednesday’s overtime loss to Charlotte by beating last-place teams Orlando and Milwaukee, clinching its first winning record since 2007-08.
"We knew we could be an above-.500 team, we knew we could be a playoff team and we accomplished those two goals," Bradley Beal said after scoring 26 points in Saturday’s 104-91 win over the Bucks. "Now it’s up to us … to keep our six seed and move on to the playoffs."
Finishing sixth is critical because Washington would avoid the Heat or Pacers to begin the postseason. The Wizards have lost 12 straight visits to Indiana and 10 of 12 overall to the Pacers. They’ve lost by an average of 19.3 points in their last four at Miami and are 4-10 against the Heat since James’ arrival.
Wade and Wall have been difference-makers in this season’s series, which Miami leads 2-1 after a 99-90 victory March 10. Wade had a combined 42 points in the Heat’s two wins and was held to eight on 4-of-14 shooting in a 114-97 loss at Washington on Jan. 15. Wall had 25 points that night, but he totaled 18 on 6-of-20 shooting in the other two matchups.
Miami’s Chris Bosh has not scored more than 15 in five straight games but has averaged 24.0 in this season series.
Nene missed the Wizards’ two losses to Miami but had 19 points and a career-high nine assists in their win, and he’s hoping to play after sitting out Saturday when his troublesome knee stiffened.