Get a victory.
Escape relatively healthy.
And get their available marquee players some much-needed rest.
The Heat placed a check mark beside all three of those missions by building an early 20-point lead and cruising to a 96-77 victory that only required 29 minutes of action from LeBron James, who sat out the entire fourth quarter in his second-shortest stint of the season.
There was a time not too long ago when Miami struggled to find the conviction to put away these type of inferior opponents, as evidenced by 12 losses this season to teams with sub-.500 records. But that doesn't appear to be an issue anymore for the Heat, who have won four in a row and are 2-0 on a five-game homestand that continues with weekend games against Minnesota on Friday and New York on Sunday.
The Heat continue to strike a delicate balance between being cautious with veterans recovering from nagging injuries while also trying to get into some sort of playoff rhythm with just two weeks left in the regular season. On Wednesday, that process saw Dwyane Wade miss his fourth straight game with a strained hamstring and his 23rd overall this season. Ray Allen has been sidelined a full week with a flu-like virus and Greg Oden has sat out the last four games with lingering back spasms.
So it was no surprise that coach Erik Spoelstra’s most extensive comments on Wednesday dealt with his breakdown of the team’s injury report before the game.
First up was Wade.
“It’s getting better,” Spoelstra said of the strain Wade suffered in the final minutes of last Wednesday’s loss in Indiana. “He’s still not to the point where he can play and compete in full-speed, 5-on-5.”
Then came Allen, who initially was expected to play Wednesday but was a late scratch. Before the game, Spoelstra said Allen went through the morning shootaround “as if he hasn’t missed a beat.” But there was a bit of a setback hours later as Allen completed his pregame workout.
“He went through his whole routine, and his legs started to feel weak,” Spoelstra said.
The report on Oden is that he’s feeling better and there has been enough progress with his back to allow for some conditioning work, but there has been no time frame for when he might return to action.
The Heat have adjusted much better recently to being without Wade, their second-leading scorer. Miami is 16-7 without Wade this season, but have won 11 of the past 12 games he has missed.
While it’s not a scenario the Heat want to ever grow accustomed to, especially heading into the postseason, James has said he can no longer afford to stress over the team’s potential chemistry concerns due to all of the injury absences of primary rotation players.
“I’m only concerned about guys in the lineup,” James said. “I can’t worry about who’s not in the lineup. I have to give my energy to the guys that are on the floor. Obviously, we want everyone to be healthy. But if not, I can’t worry about that.”
James again addressed some of the nagging injuries he’s pushed through to remain on the court in recent weeks, which includes a sore back he tweaked early in Monday’s win against Toronto. James waffled a bit when asked Wednesday if he would have skipped a game or two if the Heat had more players healthy and available.
“Probably not. I don’t know,” said James, who has played in 71 of 74 games this season. “It’s never been part of my DNA. If I feel I can give something, I’ve got to be out there for my teammates. It’s my obligation to be out there for them. I’m dealing with a few things. But, you know, for me to sit out, I’d have to be dealing with a lot more.”
James then said he planned to play in the Heat’s eight remaining games, although he has typically skipped at least the final two games of the regular season to rest up for the playoffs. That decision, however, might be taken out of his hands by Spoelstra.
But for now, the Heat have been able to get James off his feet by limiting shootarounds and practices or canceling them altogether in recent weeks. It’s also helped that Miami has hit a soft spot in the schedule, which has allowed James and Chris Bosh to sit for extended stretches in lopsided victories.
James has played fewer than 40 minutes in six of the past eight games and has registered 30 or less in three of the last four. He put the final touches on his night Wednesday with a 3-pointer from 27 feet out to beat the third-quarter buzzer and put the Heat ahead 77-57.
“I was hoping it wasn’t [my last shot], but I had a good feeling [it was],” James said. “It’s always beneficial. We put together some very good games as of late, and some of our big-minute guys have been able to rest in the fourth quarter. It starts with our defense, not turning the ball over offensively, being very efficient, and being able to build those leads.”
The Heat also are trying to maintain a slight lead over the Pacers for first place in the conference standings. With both teams winning Wednesday, Miami (52-22) remained mere percentage points ahead of Indiana (53-23) with their fourth and final regular-season matchup looming on April 11.
That makes this all a juggling act, with productive rest in mind right now and revenge next week, when home-court advantage throughout the conference playoffs is likely to be at stake.
“If we come out there and take care of business and do what are supposed to do, that gives us an opportunity to just rest our legs,” Bosh said. “It’s a work in progress. I would rather be out there playing, because right now we still have work to do, and we have to do it.”