After losing top spot, Heat eye playoff boost

WASHINGTON -- For Miami Heat fans looking for something to feel good about at the moment, consider this: it’s almost over.

The relentless, restless regular season, that is.

The cover-your-eyes and pinch-your-nose portion in this stretch of the schedule is nearing an end. Only a harmless, meaningless home game Wednesday against the Philadelphia 76ers remains before the Heat close out the most listless, lifeless regular season of the Big Three era.

With LeBron James and Chris Bosh opting out of Monday’s game to squeeze in what little rest they can get before this weekend’s start of the playoffs, the Heat formally abandoned their quest for the No. 1 seed with a brutal 114-93 loss to the Wizards.

With the Heat’s loss, the Indiana Pacers (55-26) clinched the best record in the East and will enter the postseason with home-court advantage throughout the first three rounds of the playoffs. After winning Game 7 of the conference and NBA Finals to capture their second straight title last season, the comforts of home won’t be a luxury the Heat will enjoy if they end up meeting the Pacers again this postseason.

The Heat will either play Washington or Charlotte in the first round of the playoffs, with the bracket decided Wednesday on the final night of the regular season. Miami (54-27) was already in a second-seeded state of mind before the start of Monday’s game.

“Some years, you know, as a team you’re a way better home team than you are a road team,” said Heat guard Dwyane Wade, who had nine points and four turnovers in 18 minutes during his second game back from a hamstring injury. “And sometimes, we’ve been a pretty good road team as well. Seeding is always something that’s important. People love playing at home. So it’s never going to be anything where you say, ‘Aw, we don’t care at all.’ But it doesn’t necessarily guarantee you anything, either.”

For the past few weeks, it was clear that where the Heat finished in the standings meant much more to the media than the men in the basketball uniforms. But the reality had always been that coach Erik Spoelstra was never going to do anything to jeopardize his team’s health or go against the preferences of his top three players.

What transpired Monday in Washington was already set in motion two nights earlier in Atlanta, where the Hawks sprinted away in the second half of a 98-85 victory against the Heat. It was Wade’s first game back after missing the previous nine with a left hamstring injury, and he responded with 24 points on 10-of-14 shooting in 23 minutes.

There was progress amid the team’s overall setback.

After the game, when James and Bosh both strongly suggested they were wearing down and could use some rest, there was never a question as to whether Spoelstra would oblige and sit them out. Saturday’s loss assured the Heat of their lowest winning percentage for season since James, Wade and Bosh came together in the summer of 2010.

Monday’s loss meant the Heat won’t finish with the best record in the East for the third time in four seasons. The first time Miami carried the No. 2 seed into the playoffs resulted in a five-game series win over Chicago in the Eastern Conference finals but a six-game loss to Dallas in the 2011 Finals.

Spoelstra said the Heat falling behind the Pacers again in the standings, with Indiana owning the tiebreaker heading into the final game of the season, factored in his decision to rest James and Bosh.

“It was out of our control at some point, and those guys have put [on] a lot of mileage,” Spoesltra said. “Our schedule was fairly extreme down the stretch run. It’s not an excuse. We just want to make sure our guys are feeling right, that they’re sharp, that they’re feeling healthy. They have minor ailments that a couple of days will do wonders for them.”

Wade admitted the season didn’t quite work out as expected, considering injuries and illness forced the Heat to use 20 different starting lineups this season. Managing a roster that primarily features older rotation players was a priority at the start of the season and remains one headed toward the finish.

“When you want to put together a veteran team, you better pack a little more ice,” Wade said. “You better have a few more people on the staff, because you’re going to have a lot of guys in and out. We’re a team that’s been there [to the Finals] three years in a row, trying to go there four years in a row. We’ve done OK. Could we do better? You always could do better. But I think we’ve done a pretty decent job up to this point.”

Soon, the rest will be over for the Heat.

And so will the restlessness for a team longing to get through Wednesday and into the postseason. The Heat insist they’ll be their normal, fighting selves again real soon.

Considering how they’ve approached the past two games, that push might not come until it’s time to hit the reset button for the playoffs.