The Miami Heat took control of the top seed in the East after blowing by the Indiana Pacers Friday night without Dwyane Wade. But in the NBA, whether in the regular season or in the playoffs, a couple days can entirely change a team's situation.
Wade returned for the Heat's Saturday night game against the Hawks, but Miami lost in embarrassing fashion to the 37-43 Atlanta team. Moreover, the Pacers registered a motivation-boosting home win over the Oklahoma City Thunder this afternoon, essentially undoing Friday's Heat/Pacers game. The Heat and Pacers both now have 26 losses, but Indiana's only remaining game is against the lottery-bound Orlando Magic. Miami has two games left, against the playoff-bound Wizards and the abysmal Philadelphia 76ers. But the Pacers currently hold the tiebreaker over the Heat with a superior conference record. With the possibility that LeBron James may take the final two games of the regular season off, the Heat may be accepting the second seed.
We can certainly bemoan the Heat's numerous embarrassing losses to sub.-.500 teams all season long. Miami would have easily had the top seed if it simply took advantage of Indiana's late-season uneven play. But the Heat responded to the Pacers' inconsistency with inconsistency of their own, and here is where we are. Besides, one could argue that at least part of the reason for both the Heat and the Pacers' bad play comes from boredom with the 82-game season in the Eastern Conference. So what now?
Both Indiana and Miami should have little trouble dispatching the seventh and eighth seeds in the East -- Charlotte and Atlanta, respectively. Miami's potential opponent in the second-round is still very much up in the air. The Toronto Raptors and the Chicago Bulls currently have identical records in their race for the three seed, with Toronto holding the tie-breaker. Both Chicago and Toronto have played well to close the season -- unlike the Heat and Pacers. And if the two seed has any consolation, perhaps it comes in the fact that the Brooklyn Nets -- which swept the season series with Miami -- is likely to hold the five seed. (For what it's worth, I also would put the Heat over the Nets in a playoff series. I always thought the rhetoric of the Heat avoiding the top seed to avoid the Nets in the second round was ill-informed. The Chicago Bulls had close regular season victories over Miami in the 2010-11 season. How'd that translate to the playoffs?)
The Heat beat the Bulls in five games in 2011 and 2013, and it would appear to be a similar situation this year as well. Tom Thibodeau always gets his team to play hard, and Miami would certainly be challenged for a few games in a playoff series. But a Bulls team without Derrick Rose and Luol Deng -- as it was in last year's second-round matchup with Miami -- would simply run out of a gas in front of a motivated, talented Heat team.
One could argue that the Bulls might have a better chance of beating the Pacers than Miami, thus providing the Heat an easier route to the Finals -- where the defending champions are likely not to have home-court advantage, as has been in the case for each of the last three years Miami made it to the Finals. But the Heat would need the Bulls to drop to the fourth seed.
The Heat would also likely defeat the Raptors in a seven-game series. Sure, we'd see DeMar DeRozan have high scoring nights, Jonas Valanciunas get easy buckets down low and (of course) Tyler Hansbrough get to the line way more times than he should. But Miami should also win that series in five games. But the inexperienced Raptors probably won't be able to challenge the Pacers as effectively as the seasoned Bulls. The Pacers would be favored in a seven-game series over the Bulls, but Chicago has a higher chance of extending that series and even upsetting Indiana.
In the end, the true question determining the Heat's path to the Finals might not be whether Miami has the top seed, but which teams get to third and fourth seed.