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Miami went 3-1 against East contenders. What did we learn?

Pivotal fourth-quarter moments decided three of the Heat’s four games this past week.

Philadelphia 76ers v Miami Heat Photo by Mark Brown/Getty Images

The Miami Heat just finished a week of games against fellow Eastern Conference contenders — the Chicago Bulls, Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers. Some identified this past week as Miami’s most important of the season.

And the Heat finished the week 3-1. What did we learn?

Both the Heat and Nets were missing multiple starters — Kyle Lowry, Jimmy Butler and P.J. Tucker for Miami, Ben Simmons and Kyrie Irving for Brooklyn — that it’s hard to draw much from that game. Perhaps the clearest takeaway is that the Chicago Bulls are not the cream of the crop in the East.

Chicago went into the All-Star break right behind Miami for the top seed in the East, but a four-game losing streak has dropped them to fourth. They have continued to struggle against the best teams in the NBA. If the Heat meet the Bulls in the second round, Miami will be the clear favorite.

Aside from the win over Chicago on Monday, pivotal fourth-quarter moments decided the other three games. The Heat, of course, had their monumental collapse Wednesday against the Bucks. A repeat seemed about to happen Thursday in Brooklyn before Tyler Herro found Bam Adebayo for a clutch bucket with 35 seconds left.

And last night, Tobias Harris made a jumper with 5:10 left to pull Philly within 87-80. But two straight steals from Caleb Martin led to five quick points — first a Martin dunk and then a Max Strus 3 — to put the game away.

Martin’s two steals were crucial because the Heat struggled against the Sixers’ zone defense, which other teams might deploy now. Teams beat the zone when they get the ball in the middle of the floor — in Miami’s case, it should be Adebayo or Butler taking the mid-range jumper or kicking it out to a 3-point shooter if the defense collapses. That didn’t happen Saturday night.

And the Heat have blown big leads in the fourth quarter all season long. Miami had the wherewithal to escape with wins most of the time, but the defending champions made the Heat pay. Miami needs to stick to the crisp offensive actions that gave them the lead instead of playing iso-ball with a struggling Jimmy Butler.

After this important week, the Heat remain in the top seed of the East. Victor Oladipo is about to return. Miami did their job, but they need to work on their execution in late-game situations and against the zone defense. Kyle Lowry’s return should help on both counts.