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Looking at the Road Ahead: The Final 12 Games

Time flies when you’re having fun. We’ve reached the 70-game mark and the Miami Heat now sit in 3rd place of the Eastern Conference with a 48-22 record, 2.5 games behind the Celtics and the Bulls (currently tied at 50-19). No matter how many discussions brood over the lack of necessity of home court advantage for the 4th best road team in the league -- likely to only be augmented by the coming road trips – the Heat should find themselves in a voracious battle for the acclaimed benefit of holding ground at home, and let James feed on the vitriol on the road. A look at what lies ahead, split into types of opponents and the expected levels of competition: 6 Games – Lottery Teams: vs Pistons (March 23rd), at Cavaliers (March 29th), at Wizards (March 30th), at Timberwolves (April 1st), at Nets (April 3rd), at Raptors (April 13th). Miami will face 6 of the 7 worst teams in the NBA (only team not present: Kings) in this end to the 82-game marathon starting in Detroit on Wednesday, followed by a 4-game "Kick, Push, Coast" road trip and a season finale in Toront0. It’s no secret at this late point of the season very little can motivate losing teams to push for victories as much as entertainment. Some players will boast their pride and continue to compete, while some are looking forward to getting home and spend time with their families and friends. Projected wins: 5-6 – Barring an early clinching of the top spot in the East which would concoct a Battle of the Benches in a Toronto season finale resulting in a throw-away loss, the Heat should come away unscathed. A clash between a team in search of home-court advantage and teams in search of a high draft pick doesn’t create as much resistance as usual. Then again, it’s the NBA: Where the Clipper s dropping 44 points on you in the 1st quarter happens. 3 Games – 8th Seed Hopefuls: vs Rockets (March 27th), vs Bucks (April 6th), vs Bobcats (April 8th). Few things can be more stressing than your playoff chances hinging on a successful last run of the season. The Houston Rockets currently sit in the 9th spot of the Western Conference, 2 games away from taking over the 8th spot held by the Grizzlies with the Suns and Jazz trailing a few games behind. Meanwhile, the Bucks and Bobcats are tied for 9th place in the Eastern Conference and look to compete with the Pacers for their current 8th spot. Projected wins: 2 – The Heat should tread carefully against teams on a lifeline. Although all three games are at home, Miami plays the Bucks and Bobcats sequentially. Two teams happy to slow down the tempo, make you fight for buckets and grind out 48 minutes of mental to physical endurance. Thinking conservatively, something’s gotta give. 2 Games – Possible 1st Round Playoff Opponents: vs Sixers (March 25th), at Hawks (April 11th). If playoffs started today, Miami would be facing the Philadelphia 76ers in the 1st round. In the unlikely event the Magic steam ahead of the Heat and clinch the 3rd spot, Miami would fall 4th and face the seemingly appropriate 5th seeded Hawks. However the seeding falls into place, games against these possible playoff opponents should be carefully examined and indulged. A best-of-7 series could be just around the corner. Projected Wins: 2 – Miami has swept the Sixers with relative ease and recently dismantled the Hawks putting the Heat up 2-1 in the series; the sole loss coming in overtime. If it’s any indication, the matchups favor Miami but the Hawks’ hunger for revenge can never be counted out. 1 Game – Elite Contender, Test of Mettle: Boston Celtics (April 10th) Miami’s third to last game of the season consists of the new Perkins-less Celtics and Paul Pierce having the "pleasure to bring their talents to South Beach" for the Heat’s last attempt at retribution. The O’Neals are being rehabilitated and groomed for a late season or playoff return and might be available to test their revamped engines in Miami. If not, it's at least a test against the less sizable frontline with deadline-acquired Jeff Green. Projected Wins: 0 – It would be infinitely more gratifying to contemplate a vengeful win against the veteran Celtics but it remains a tall order. The Heat are yet to record a W over the Bulls, Mavericks or Celtics but not to fret, Miami went 0-2 against the Mavericks in the 05-06 regular season but went on to defeat them 4-2 to win the championship. Thanks in big part to a fella named Dwyane Wade, who now hangs around a fella named LeBron James. In the End, Does it Even Matter? Anything less than 9 victories out of the 12 remaining games would be disheartening, but no less a number only used to place the Heat in a grouping of teams based on their regular season record to optimally give them a mathematical chance at advancing the farthest. Most substantial is the team’s synergy coming into the post-season. The flow, the swagger, the demeanor and aptitude towards emerging triumphant in a best-of-7 war. Take in the last run to the finish line and ready for a new era of Miami's trio taking on the best in the world. Seat belts optional.