Heat's goal is health, not top seed

MIAMI -- Ask LeBron James to rank where beating the nemesis Indiana Pacers on Friday to reclaim the East's No. 1 seed would fall on the current to-do list and it'll land short of his top spot.

Heck, it might not even make his Mount Rushmore of team priorities right now.

At least, that's the story he's sticking with at the moment.

"It's not about controlling our destiny with the No. 1 seed," James insists. "We want to get healthy. That's all we care about, man, going into the postseason healthy. We've got more problems as far as health issues than the No. 1 seed. And if it happens, it happens. We're going to be excited to get the postseason started. But that's the least of our worries right now."

Reading between those lines isn't necessary to discover the crystal-clear message. The only thing more annoying and aggravating for James than the threat of the Pacers is the reality that Miami is a week away from postseason play and still faces unresolved issues when it comes to the team's health.

How the Heat (53-25) approach Friday's game against Indiana (54-25) could reveal a lot about just how much they value the pursuit of home-court advantage throughout the conference playoffs. Ironically, in the West there are three teams with impressive records -- the Dallas Mavericks, Phoenix Suns and Memphis Grizzlies -- in a dogfight just to claim one of that conference's final two playoff spots.

Meanwhile, in the East, there's been a "take it or leave it" attitude toward the No. 1 seed between the two top teams.

While the Pacers gave their entire starting five the night off during Wednesday's victory against Milwaukee, largely due to mental fatigue, the Heat were without as many as four rotation players for Wednesday's loss in Memphis because of lingering injuries or illness.

After losing three of their past four games, including setbacks on consecutive nights to Brooklyn and Memphis, the Heat did not practice Thursday. Dwyane Wade (hamstring) and Greg Oden (back soreness) haven't played since the March 26 loss in Indiana, with both missing the past eight games and set to miss Friday night's contest, too.

Twice in recent days, coach Erik Spoelstra suggested Wade was on the verge of returning to play. Instead, Wade was either held out by the training staff or opted to sit out as a further precaution.

Chris Andersen, who is a game-time decision against the Pacers, has been in and out of the lineup the past week with a sore back and knee pain, and Udonis Haslem has been away from the team this week while battling a stomach virus similar to the illness that recently knocked Ray Allen out of action for nearly two weeks. Haslem is expected to play tonight.

With four games remaining in the season, is it worthwhile to try to bring key players back and push for the No. 1 seed? Or would the more prudent move be to continue to hold them out, especially Wade, in hopes that another week of rest and recovery is best for the banged-up defending champions as they begin their quest for a third consecutive championship run?

Is it about the Pacers or the bigger picture?

It's a dilemma that has even James conflicted. Moments after suggesting the Heat should err on the side of health if anyone's status were questionable, James then described how Friday will be approached with the same intensity and emotion as if a trip to the NBA Finals were at stake instead of top seeding.

"It doesn't matter how a team is struggling; once they play us we already know what we're going to get," James said of the Pacers, who have lost five of seven games since beating Miami last month. "It's going to be one of those games where it's going to feel like a Game 7, so we look forward to it."

Neither team has seemed to handle the prosperity of first place well during the past three weeks. Indiana dropped three games in a row after the 84-83 home win against the Heat. In a span of five days, the Pacers squandered their three-game lead and allowed Miami to moonwalk its way into the top spot.

Of course, the Heat returned the favor when a double-overtime loss to the Timberwolves last week was followed by a win over the Knicks and then the two losses to the Nets and Grizzlies. The Pacers basically dared the Heat to keep the No. 1 seed with decision to sit all of their starters against the Bucks.

So despite the injuries, lineup adjustments and late-game execution issues the Heat have dealt with lately, they still have a chance to get a firm grasp of the most slippery seed in the postseason races.

"I wish it would feel better," Heat forward/center Chris Bosh said of his team's position. "But that's what it's about. It's just about surviving tough situations. The most important thing for us is to be healthy. But with all of that said and done, we have a chance to control our fate. We are in a very unique position. But I think we can get it done without burning ourselves out mentally and physically."

Spoelstra said he can appreciate how Friday's game sets up for fans of both teams, but there are also other factors in play. James has endured a much heavier load than anticipated in recent games, with the Heat in the midst of six straight against teams battling for playoff position.

That stretch continues after Friday's game, with Saturday's visit to Atlanta completing another back-to-back set against a Hawks team fighting to hold off the Knicks for the eighth seed in the East. The Heat's two-game trip wraps up Monday against the Wizards, who are battling the Bobcats for the sixth seed.

Spoelstra didn't sound like a coach who planned to ease up, at least heading into the weekend. He scoffed at the notion that James could be mentally or physically fatigued.

"No. We'll be fine," Spoelstra said. "That's a crutch that any of us could use when we don't find a way to win. Did anybody have mental fatigue or mental fatigue in the third quarter [Wednesday] when we were up four or six? Then all of sudden it shifts. That's a common excuse in pro sports. We love the position we're in. Nobody else is in this position to have to deal with serial success of the past three years. We're not using it as an excuse, and we don't expect anyone else to make an excuse for it."

James' response?

"It is what it is," he said. "I don't make any excuses, man. It's been tough on all of us."

Regardless of the outcome against the Pacers, who have won two of the first three in the season series, James looks forward to the Heat soon being whole for the games a bit more meaningful than Friday's.

"It's some sense of worry, of course," James said of regaining rhythm with Wade, Andersen and Haslem. "For the most part, we haven't played too many minutes together. So we can have some type of worry about that. But I'd rather be worried about us being out there together than not. Our team is built on all of us being out on the floor. Once we get everyone back, then we can get everything rolling."