New East leaders looking to stay in front

MIAMI -- Chris Bosh was leaving the locker room at halftime of Monday’s game when he stopped and leaned back to catch a glimpse of a hallway television monitor on his way to the court.

The Miami Heat star forward passed by just in time to see how badly the Indiana Pacers were struggling at home some 1,200 miles away against the San Antonio Spurs. Whatever Bosh had just heard from coach Erik Spoelstra during his halftime talk with the team had faded toward the back of his mind.

At stake now was a different reality for Bosh and the Heat.

"I saw that they were down [by] like 14," Bosh said of his halftime peek at the Pacers. "It was more incentive for us to take care of business tonight."

Despite all of their recent issues -- which included starting a 19th different lineup because Dwyane Wade was forced to miss his 22nd game of the season Monday -- there was still an opportunity to seize for the Heat.

Miami then tightened the defensive reins and held the Toronto Raptors to just 32 points on 40.6 percent shooting in the second half to close out a 93-83 victory. The win for the Heat (51-22), coupled with the Spurs' blowout of the Pacers (52-23), moved Miami by mere percentage points into sole possession of first place in the Eastern Conference for the first time this season.

Less than a week ago, a dejected Bosh sat in his locker after the Heat’s 84-83 loss in Indiana essentially dropped the Heat three games behind the Pacers with a dozen to play. Bosh, pointing toward the fourth and final regular-season matchup between the teams on April 11 in Miami, was adamant that night the race for the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the conference playoffs was not over.

"We’ve got a date with them later on," Bosh said last Wednesday. "And we still have a schedule to play, and they do as well."

Since then, the Pacers have lost three in a row.

The Heat have won three straight.

So basically, Miami spotted the Pacers a win in Indianapolis last week, essentially a three-game lead in the standings and a handful of nights with Wade and Ray Allen unavailable due to an injury and illness, respectively, and still ended up snatching away the top spot in the East.

The Heat now control their destiny over the final two weeks of the regular season, and it’s not a team that forgot just how much that means as they pursue a third consecutive championship. The Heat beat Indiana in Game 7 of the conference finals last season in Miami, then rallied from a 3-2 deficit against the Spurs by winning the final two games at home to capture the title.

After hearing from afar the Pacers frequently talk about how vital it was for them to claim -- and maintain -- the No. 1 spot in the East this season, Bosh spoke from experience and wisdom Monday.

"When the Pacers were talking, 'Hey, No. 1 seed, home court,' I was like, 'It’s August. Let’s calm down a little bit,'" Bosh said of Indiana’s publicly stated goal from the outset of the season. "We know how it is. It’s a marathon. That’s one of the conversations you have to have amongst yourselves. And it’s a reason to go out there and play hard every day. But, you know, saying to everybody, shouting it from the mountaintop, that’s not our style."

Not anymore, at least.

The Heat like to believe they’ve come a long way since the fireworks and pyrotechnics that provided the backdrop from that highly publicized -- and criticized -- pep rally to commemorate the official free-agency signings of Bosh, Wade and LeBron James in the summer of 2010.

And after scoring a game-high 32 points against the Raptors on Monday, James also showed a mature perspective to avoid making too much of one night of prosperity in the regular-season standings. The Heat aren’t too far removed from their worst stretch in the season, when they lost seven of 11 games at one stage and finished 10-8 in March.

James, a four-time league MVP, two-time Finals MVP and two-time champion, was asked how it felt for the Heat to finally overcome some of their recent struggles to move into first place in the conference.

"It doesn’t feel like anything," James said. "The standings are what they are. We want to play the best we can. The fact that we are in first place is pretty cool, but we have so much work to do. We have guys that need to get healthy, so we haven’t even talked about it. And we probably won’t talk about it."

Meanwhile, the statements were a bit different coming out of Indiana.

The Pacers have lost five of their past six, went 8-9 in March and rank as the league’s lowest-scoring team for the month. Players have addressed friction in the locker room and on the court, with center Roy Hibbert telling reporters after Monday’s 103-77 loss that the Pacers haven’t been worthy of the No. 1 seed.

"Good for [Miami]," Hibbert said of being overtaken in the standings. "We don’t deserve it."

Hibbert then raised concerns about some of the team’s deeper issues.

"We’ve been in a downward spiral and we’ve been splintering a little bit," he said. "We’ve had plenty of players-only meetings and plenty of sitdowns as a team with coaches, and we’ve had some upper management in here, so I don’t know. Maybe we should all go to group therapy or something."

While the Pacers might sound like a team falling apart, the Heat are still trying to come together and establish some semblance of continuity heading into the playoffs. James said before Monday’s game that he’s grown tired of worrying about the constantly changing lineups and rash of injuries that have kept as many as four primary rotation players out of action in recent games.

That’s one of the reasons the Heat didn’t feel as if they accomplished much Monday. They remain very much a work in progress despite being 73 contests into an 82-game season.

"Our work now is just beginning," Bosh said. "We know we can still lose [the No. 1 seed]. That reality is there. What’s most important overall is making sure we take care of the next game. We do that, we’re in the driver’s seat."

That position still isn’t quite a comfortable fit just yet.

A five-game homestand that continues with visits from the Milwaukee Bucks, Minnesota Timberwolves and New York Knicks this week should give Miami a chance to build rhythm and momentum, but next week features a brutal stretch of four games in five nights against playoff hopefuls Brooklyn Nets, Memphis Grizzlies, Indiana and Atlanta Hawks.

"What I do like is the process of it," Spoelstra said. "We were all extremely frustrated -- you could read it on our faces, body language after the Indiana game. What can you do? You’ve got to get together, address it, try to improve on it. It was painful, but we had to put it behind us and take care of business."

Despite swapping positions Monday, both the Heat and Pacers know the top spot in the East will likely be decided by one more business meeting next week in Miami.