Big end to trip pulls Miami close to Indy

OAKLAND, Calif. -- After what could only be termed as a disappointing loss to the Utah Jazz last weekend, the Heat found themselves in a bit of a challenging point of the regular season.

They had fallen four games behind the Indiana Pacers in the race for the top seed in the Eastern Conference and were facing four consecutive road games against strong Western teams. They didn’t even know yet that Dwyane Wade would end up being a late scratch both times in a tough back-to-back heading into the All-Star break.

In another reminder of how fragile the NBA can be, the Heat completely flipped the situation. They played two strong games to earn a sweep against the Phoenix Suns and Golden State Warriors.

The Pacers’ unexpected losses to the Orlando Magic and Dallas Mavericks have the Heat the closest they’ve been to the No. 1 seed since Jan. 10.

It is because of stretches like this that you’ll never see the two-time champs sweat any sort of regular-season setback or even pay all that much attention to the standings. They are a team that has proven again and again that they are resilient -- they have trailed in playoff series seven different times over the last two years and came back to win every one of them -- and can reach into their reserves when needed.

“I like to see us respond to the challenge,” Heat coach Erik Spolestra said. “We did have that hiccup in Utah, that was unfortunate. The guys wanted to embrace this challenge.”

There is some concern over Wade’s left foot, which suddenly started bothering him before tip off Wednesday night due to a nerve issue. But if Wade, who is getting it checked out while in New Orleans for All-Star Weekend, or his teammates were worried about it, it did not show in the moods as they left for the break.

The Heat are 10-3 over their last 13 games even as they’ve entered the most challenging part of their schedule. That’s drawn them closer to the Pacers, who had an opportunity to put some distance between their biggest rivals but have slipped and are now experiencing their most inconsistent stretch of the season.

It’s been linked to the uptick in James’ play. He’s just put together his best 10 games of the season, averaging 28 points, seven rebounds, seven assists and two steals per. He was huge in the back-to-back against the Suns and Warriors, scoring 37 points with nine rebounds and five steals in Phoenix and 36 points with 13 rebounds and nine assists plus his game-winning 3-pointer in Oakland.

“These were key wins for us,” James said. “These two teams, Phoenix and Golden State, they run and they put so much pressure on your defense. To be able to come out with two wins on this road trip is great.”