Erik Spoelstra on Dwyane Wade: "He looked like he was caged for three days."
MIAMI -- The Heat are up 1-0 in the series ... with themselves.
After a disillusioning home loss to the Bucks earlier this week with control of the No. 2 seed in their hands, coach Erik Spoelstra tried a new tactic heading into Friday night. With the Celtics losing Thursday in Chicago, the Heat were given another chance to fulfill their own destiny with the 2-seed. If they could win the last four games of the season, it would be theirs.
Like most coaches, Spoelstra is always looking for a motivational tool, and he declared the final days of the season were going to be viewed like a playoff series. Win those games, including Sunday’s home date with the Celtics, and the Heat will be rewarded with stronger playoff position and some momentum.
It wasn’t that the veteran-laden Heat team had to be reminded of the standings or the calendar, but often a coach can unite a team with such proclamations.
In that spirit, Dwyane Wade came back from his thigh injury, LeBron James arrived at the arena four hours before game time for an hour’s worth of shooting and Chris Bosh was diving on the floor for loose balls in the first quarter.
The result was a 112-103 victory over the Bobcats that saw all three Heat stars play well and the maligned bench give a quality effort as well.
The win was not a masterpiece. The Heat let a 16-point lead shrink to six in the final two minutes. But the game erased the thoughts of the Bucks loss and gave the Heat a boost heading into Sunday, which now must be considered the biggest game of the regular season. It is then that the newly declared focus will be tested for traction, but there was no questioning that Friday was a good start.
The Heat are 0-3 against the Celtics this season, and the two teams are locked into the same side of the playoff bracket, as the Bulls clinched the No. 1 seed with another win Friday in Cleveland. The Heat and Celtics are fighting for which will have home-court advantage in a potentially vicious and tight second-round matchup.
“The way we’re treating the four games is equivalent to a four-game series,” Spoelstra said. “It’s time. It’s time for us to respond. It’s code red right now; that’s how we have to treat it that way.”
Whether it’s code red or “White Hot,” the team’s official playoff slogan, the Heat seem to be looking to establish some consistency in the days before the postseason. Spoelstra changed his starting lineup Friday and inserted Zydrunas Ilgauskas at center. Ilgauskas responded with 10 points as the Heat piled up 62 points in the paint with James and Wade relentlessly attacking the rim, both in the open court and in the half court.
“We don’t have time to take steps backwards anymore,” Wade said. “Coach pointed that out today, and I think the guys really get it.”
Wade, who showed very few ill effects from the sore thigh, demonstrated that he got it by playing like his NBA Finals MVP days by attacking the basket. He earned 16 free throws with a floor game that is exactly what the Heat need in big tests. Wade finished with 27 points but made just six baskets, constantly putting pressure on the Bobcats’ defense and the officials to blow their whistles by drawing contact.
“He looked like he was caged for three days the way he came out so aggressive and assaulting the rim,” Spoelstra said. “It set the tone for us.”
The Heat got 32 combined free throws from their three stars. Bosh led all scorers with 27 points. Wade and James added 23 points each, with the bench chipping in 21 points. That is a formula that likely would work in the playoffs. The Bobcats are not a playoff team and played with just nine players, as six members of their roster are out for the remainder of the season with injuries.
But the Heat’s next two opponents, the Celtics and then the Hawks on Monday, are playoff squads and will represent a legitimate test to the Heat’s “mini” series going into the postseason.
How the Heat, who have vacillated between dominant and shaky for much of the season, take care of their business during the valuable final games might turn out to be the best indicator of what they’re going to do in the high-stakes postseason.
They have made their statement: The final games matter, and they are putting an emphasis on trying to win them.
“You want to put yourself in the best position that you can,” Wade said. “You’re in a better position when you’re a 2 than a 3. You learned that when you’re a kid: one, two, three.”