By Rob Mahoney
The Heat have all but clinched the top seed in the Eastern Conference and their recent play has confirmed their status as championship favorite. Though its 27-game winning streak ended Wednesday in Chicago, the team that overwhelmed quality competition and toyed with the lesser foes remains, set to wrap up 11 more regular-season games before the playoffs.
That said, the end of the streak does create a different incentive structure for the rest of the Heat's season, as playoff-motivated pragmatism likely will replace the allure of chasing history. There just isn't all that much for Miami to play for until the postseason begins on April 20. Coach Erik Spoelstra is now forced to balance a number of interrelated interests as he dictates his team's strategy down the stretch. Here are but a few of the factors at work in how Miami might play out the next three weeks:
• Rest. Spoelstra hasn't been grinding his players into the ground with Tom Thibodeau-like playing-time totals, but the Heat principals did themselves no favors by allowing several of the league's worst teams to hang around in what should have been more decisive victories. As a result, even a 27-game expression of dominance brought little respite. Dwyane Wade missed two games with a knee injury, but otherwise was afforded a lighter load (read: between 30-33 minutes) in only a handful of games. The same is essentially true of LeBron James, but the three-time MVP has grown accustomed to heavy minute totals, averaging almost 40 a game for his career.
So much is asked of those two, and the Heat will only be more demanding during the playoffs. For that reason, it should shock no one to see Spoelstra rest his stars more now in preparation for 45-minute postseason outings. The playoffs' commencement will tag a regular-season marathon with a dead-sprint coda, and these last few weeks of marginally meaningful games offer the best chance at scoring James and a dinged-up Wade some precious time off.
• Home-court advantage. With an 11½-game lead over the Knicks, the Heat need only one victory or one New York loss to clinch the top seed in the East and home-court advantage for the first three rounds of the playoffs. But even after winning 27 in a row, Miami leads San Antonio by only two games (the teams meet Sunday in Texas) and Oklahoma City by 3½ for the best overall record. Securing home court for a potential Finals series is surely on Spoelstra's mind. It can be dangerous to look so far ahead, but the East is so light on immediate threats that it makes sense for Miami to look that far ahead.
• Gamesmanship. Does Spoelstra have a little Gregg Popovich in him? We may well find out in the next 11 games. The Heat simply have less to prove than anyone else. Miami has set the standard for championship contention, with even the most outstanding teams only looking to keep up. That puts Spoelstra in a position to play the long game if he so chooses, and possibly deny his potential postseason opponents an important playoff tune-up. Spoelstra could use those games -- including an April 9 matchup with Milwaukee, the current No. 8 seed, and an April 12 visit from Boston, the No. 7 seed -- as a coincidental opportunity to keep James and Wade on the bench, rather than show his full hand.
• Continuity. Miami shifted into a different gear whenever needed during the second-longest winning streak in NBA history, in part because its offensive synergy has never been better. James and Wade have developed pitch-perfect chemistry, rendering the initial hiccups in their basketball union as relics of a different era. Chris Bosh does a terrific job of making vital contributions without overstepping his bounds, and Miami's role players have provided an ideal combination of spacing and movement, choreographed to the actions of the team's primary creators.
[Bulls' Butler finishes big alley-oop dunk over Bosh] This is about as good as NBA offense gets, and though the need to rest key players is a compelling motivation, the Heat -- and Spoelstra, in particular -- may understandably want to maintain the hyper-efficient play that's been cultivated over the course of this season. Balancing the advances in the team's process against the desire to have a fully healthy and rested team can be difficult, but let's not overstate Spoelstra's potential dilemma. Even this tricky decision is among the best for a coach to possibly have, as for the next few weeks Spoelstra will face only the hardship of preparing the most potent team in the NBA to continue playing as well as it already has.