The Miami Heat is the NBA’s premier attraction.
Fans flock to watch the two-time defending NBA champions, led by LeBron James.
But the Heat is keeping the long-term goal of a third consecutive championship as the ultimate prize, so Miami is doing what it must to make sure it is at its best when the postseason begins.
That’s meant not putting too much pressure on players to play through nagging injuries in pursuit of the best record in the NBA.
It’s meant there have been nights James has played without Dwyane Wade as he manages knee problems. The Heat also won’t ask James to carry it in a game in December if a day off preserves him for the long term.
“Playing well and playing how we want to play is the most important thing,” said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra. “We feel the way we’ve always felt. If we’re playing and building habits, the rest of it will take care of itself.”
The Indiana Pacers have made it known their goal is to hold the top spot in the Eastern Conference, believing a potential Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat in Indianapolis could be the difference in reaching the NBA Finals.
Miami lost in the Finals with home-court advantage in 2011 but won without it in 2012 and with it in 2013.
In the East, where only three teams are above .500, Miami would seem to have no problem finishing no worse than second in the conference, but it isn’t talking standings a lot.
“We’re not oblivious to the standings. We know the standings as the season goes on,” Spoelstra said. “Just like our goal of playing for a title. Other than the first day of training camp, we never talk about it. It’s more about our identity, how we’re playing, are we getting better, and hopefully we’ll be playing our best basketball during the springtime.”
Spoelstra said he’s also not simply planning for the playoffs in December.
“We’re not disrespecting the regular season,” Spoelstra said. “We realize it’s very important. Injuries are a part of the game. We’re no different than any other team. Our depth is one of our biggest strengths, so if we have to use it, we will. But we’re not necessarily doing this to preserve for the postseason. We have a specific plan for Dwyane, which is different, but if guys have injuries that come up, we’ll go to our depth.
James, who is now dealing with a groin injury along with a nagging ankle sprain, isn’t complaining.
“We’ve got the best start in franchise history, so we’ll take it,” James said.
And if that means taking a game off, James is fine with that, too.
If the plan was for the Toronto Raptors to give up on the season for a high draft pick, someone forgot to pass that message along to guard DeMar DeRozan.
The fifth-year guard is averaging a career-best 21.1 points and has the Raptors leading the Atlantic Division in spite of a losing record.
DeRozan is also on pace for career highs in rebounds and assists and will certainly garner All-Star consideration.
DeRozan could be establishing himself as a key player for the Raptors to build around – or the next player traded as part of the rebuilding process.
The news that Atlanta center Al Horford is out with a torn pectoral muscle seriously hurts the chances of a team that fancied itself as a dark-horse contender in the Eastern Conference behind Indiana and Miami.
The Hawks are still above .500, but replacing Horford’s production isn’t simply a matter of asking Paul Millsap or Jeff Teague to do more. Horford, one of the best centers in the East, could be lost for the season.
“I don’t focus on anything else. Aliens only want to win championships. That’s it. Injuries is not a focus. Trade talk is not a focus. Nothing is a focus. Gluten-free pasta is not a focus, which I would rather have gluten-free pasta. Hey, if I have to have regular pasta. It is what it is. I’m still going to try to win a championship. Nothing will distract me from my focus, my galactic mind.”