Heat hold off Hawks, clinch No. 2 seed
The Miami Heat seemed to be coming unglued. Playing against a bunch of backups, Zydrunas Ilgauskas was ejected for slamming the ball off a friend's back and the Big Three were on the verge of blowing a 20-point lead in a game they needed to lock up a better playoff spot.
Thanks to a pair of 3-pointers by James Jones, Miami was able to hold on Monday night.
LeBron James scored 34 points and the Heat wrapped up the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference with a 98-90 win over the Atlanta Hawks, who nearly rallied from that big deficit while going with little-used bench players against three of the NBA's best.
''We found a way to grind it out and win the game, and that's what's most important,'' coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Miami played its starters all the way, looking to clinch the second spot behind Chicago in the East. Shortly after beating the Hawks, the Heat got the news they wanted: third-place Boston lost at Washington in overtime.
Sitting in the visiting locker room, their feet in buckets of ice, the Heat kept up with the Celtics game on their cell phones.
''Staying the course,'' James said. ''That's all Spo talked about. Staying the course, staying the course, and we'll get through everything.''
He thought back to late November, when the Heat were struggling along at 9-8. Or just over a month ago, when they lost five in a row. Now, at least, they're the second seed in the East, heading to the playoffs with 14 wins in their last 17 games.
''It took us 81 games to get to this point,'' James said, ''but there's a lot more work to do.''
The Hawks, who are locked into the fifth seed, rested their starters in the fourth quarter and almost pulled off the win.
The game turned ugly with 3 1/2 minutes to go. Atlanta's Zaza Pachulia powered inside for a basket. Ilgauskas took exception to the move and some previous rough play, prompting him to slam the ball off Pachulia's back as he turned to head back down the court.
''I didn't know if it was the ball or a punch,'' Pachulia said. ''I don't know what he was mad about.''
The two are actually close friends.
''He's one of the greatest guys,'' Pachulia said. ''I'm definitely going to call him.
Or,'' he said, breaking into a big smile, ''maybe I'll just text him. He probably won't answer my call right now.''
Ilgauskas was ejected, and the Hawks hit the technical free throw to tie it at 88. But Miami outscored the Hawks 10-2 the rest of the way, with Jones making those two 3-pointers to break down Atlanta's zone - including one that turned into a four-play when he was fouled by a leaping Josh Powell, sending both players flying out of bounds.
The Hawks pulled their starters for the fourth quarter. Pachulia, Powell, Jamal Crawford, Jeff Teague and Damien Wilkins held their own, actually outscoring Miami 23-19.
It wasn't enough.
Bosh drew a charging foul on Powell with just over a minute left, and James clinched it with his final basket of the night. The Big Three combined for 70 points, with Dwyane Wade adding 21 - the bulk of his scoring coming in the first half - and Bosh adding 15.
James also had 10 rebounds, seven assists and three steals.
Josh Smith scored 17 points to lead the Hawks, who have a season-high fifth straight losses - hardly the way they want to go into a first-round playoff matchup with Orlando, a team that wiped out the Hawks in four straight games a year ago.
Still, the gutty play of the bench provided some spark for a team that has looked downright lethargic at times during an up-and-down season. Crawford had 13 points, Teague 10, Pachulia scored nine and Wilkins finished with eight, all of them playing the entire final quarter.
''It's a confidence booster for the second unit,'' Teague said. ''If we get in during the playoffs, we know we could actually make an impact.''
They ran out of steam in this one. But Miami's Dream Team had another stretch that raised questions about how well they'll hold up over the grind of the playoffs. Of course, they were coming off a blowout of Boston the previous day, an emotional game that gave them the inside track to No. 2.
''Sometimes it's not pretty, but we're doing the little things necessary to win,'' Wade said. ''That's what will matter in the playoffs, because some games won't be so pretty.''
The Heat appeared to break it open over the final 6 1/2 minutes of the second quarter, hitting 11 of its last 14 shots.
Wade handled most of the scoring load with 13 points - including 9 in a row - during a closing 25-15 run that turned a tight game into a 62-46 lead for the Heat by halftime. James and Bosh did the rest, combining for Miami's other points during the spurt.
Miami closed with a flourish.
Mario Chalmers lobbed up a pass that James slammed through. After the Hawks turned it over, Wade went in for a thunderous slam. Bosh knocked down a 20-foot jumper. Wade finished it off with a darting dash through the lane, deking one way, then another and finally laying it in against a befuddled Wilkins.
D-Wade didn't even stop running as the horn sounded, sprinting straight to the locker room and high-fiving a Heat fan on his way to the tunnel.
Notes: Miami G Mike Bibby scored 10 points against his former team. While the officials sorted out the technical on Ilgauskas, Bibby stood near the Hawks bench, joking around with his ex-teammates. ... Kirk Hinrich, who was acquired by Atlanta in the deal that sent Bibby to Washington before he moved on to Miami, continued to struggle. He went 0-for-6 from the field and finished with a single point in 17 minutes.