Miami Heat end regular season on cruise control

The Miami Heat ended its regular season by all but forfeiting its final game to one of the weakest teams in the NBA, the Philadelphia 76ers, with a starting lineup cobbled from the deepest potions of its bench. Down by as many as twenty points in the second half of the game, the Heat had given the bulk of its minutes to players like James Jones and Shane Battier, numbers ten and nine in its rotation, while holding out stars LeBron James and Chris Bosh entirely. A mere week ago it appeared Miami was headed to the number one playoff seed after defeating the Indiana Pacers. But after a surprise loss in its following game coupled with a subsequent Pacers surge, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra opted to rest his stars for the final few games rather than chase a top seed that was no longer readily attainable. Now Miami faces the question of whether its season ending cruise control can be quickly revved back up for the start of the playoffs.

The Heat will face the Charlotte Bobcats in the first round of the playoffs, holding home court advantage and striking superior overall roster talent. But James, Bosh, and hometown hero Dwayne Wade haven’t started a game together in weeks, as each (particularly the aging Wade) has been assigned varying degrees of rest. That calculation came after Miami won its second consecutive NBA championship last season, but did so with several of its key players either nursing injuries or running on fumes. This season has seen Wade miss nearly every other game in order to keep his knees intact, and the team has generally treated most of the regular season like an extended preseason warmup. Now the team will find out whether that strategy has paid off: will the playoffs allow the Heat to prevail easily with the benefit of fresh legs, or is there now rust to be kicked off and chemistry to be recalculated?

Spoelstra has argued in recent postgame podium sessions that because the Heat’s core roster is largely identical to that of the past two seasons, the star players have plenty of experience playing together and should be able to coalesce in the playoffs just fine. It’s still not clear how much Wade will play in the early rounds. The Heat should be able to disperse with the Bobcats with or without Wade’s help, so it’s possible he could only appear in every other game. However the lack of playoff games on consecutive nights means that Wade will automatically get at least a day’s rest between each game.

That means Toney Douglas, a midseason addition who has absorbed the bulk of Wade’s starting minutes over the past two months, may have to adjust to a newly reduced role once the playoffs begin. Douglas started last night against the 76ers, and despite the ugly loss, continued to fill in adequately. Spoelstra will also have to decide when and how to use new additions Greg Oden and Michael Beasley in the postseason. Oden is widely thought to have been signed in order to bring bulk against the physical Pacers roster, but that’s a matchup that won’t happen prior to the Eastern Conference Finals. Beasley has seen his playing time reduced in the second half of the season as Douglas proved to be the more reliable Plan B option.