LeBron James isn’t operating at full strength.
That hasn’t stopped him from helping the short-handed Miami Heat during a four-game win streak that includes three victories over clubs that are essentially out of the playoff chase.
Kevin Love and the Minnesota Timberwolves fit that description, but they seem eager to play spoiler.
The Heat have won seven straight in this series and will try to hand the Timberwolves a fourth consecutive road defeat Friday night.
Miami (52-22) has moved into the top spot in the Eastern Conference thanks to a run that includes two wins over Milwaukee and one apiece over Detroit and Atlantic Division leader Toronto. James finished at least nine points below his 26.6 season average in three of those games and scored 17 on Wednesday as he battled through some aches and pains, but the Heat cruised to a 96-77 home win over the league-worst Bucks.
He said he doesn’t plan to sit out for the duration of the regular season as the Heat try to hold off Indiana for the No. 1 seed.
"If I feel like I can give something, I’ve got to be out there for my teammates," James said. "It’s my obligation to be out there for them. I’m dealing with a few things, but for me to sit out, I have to be dealing with a lot more."
This streak has come without Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen and Greg Oden. Wade is out with a hamstring problem, Allen has the flu and Oden is sitting out with back spasms.
The Heat are 11-1 in the last 12 games that Wade has missed.
"It’s tempting to start to look ahead. We’re only two weeks away," coach Erik Spoelstra said. "But there’s so much basketball left in these two weeks. And it is very compelling at this time of year, and we are trying to accomplish some things."
Miami owns an average victory margin of 16.2 points during its seven-game run over Minnesota (37-37), including a 103-82 rout Dec. 7 behind James’ 21 points, 14 rebounds and eight assists.
Love, who missed that game following the death of his grandmother, recorded his third triple-double in Wednesday’s 102-88 victory over playoff-chasing Memphis with 24 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists.
"We wanted to find some sense of motivation and that’s what we found tonight," Love said. "We just wanted to knock off a team that is fighting right now."
Kevin Martin scored 21 points and Ricky Rubio added 14 and seven assists.
"Everybody else has something on the line," coach Rick Adelman said. "So we want to go out and play as well as we can and spoil it for them and see if we can’t be a factor in it."
Starting center Nikola Pekovic sat out with an ankle injury. Rookie Gorgui Dieng made his seventh start in his place and had eight points and nine boards.
The Wolves are allowing teams to shoot 47.0 percent for the NBA’s second-worst mark while the Heat hit a league-best 50.4 percent from the field. The last team to make at least half of its shots was the 2008-09 Phoenix Suns, who also shot 50.4 percent.
Miami has held opponents to 76.3 points per game during its win streak. Minnesota scores an average of 106.6 to rank fourth in the league and hasn’t been held below 90 since the All-Star break.