Miami Heat Finish Road Trip Strong, Gain Crucial Ground on Atlanta Hawks

Allen Levin@@TheNBAllenCorrespondent IIApril 6, 2009

Just five days ago, the Miami Heat were coming off another road loss and their second straight defeat overall. They were knocked out of the fifth seed, which they had a firm grasp on for the bulk of the season, by the feisty Philadelphia 76ers.

In addition, they moved to three and a half games behind the fourth-seeded Atlanta Hawks, and it looked inevitable that they would have a dreaded first-round encounter with the powerful Orlando Magic or Boston Celtics.

What a difference two games can make. After a disappointing two-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks to begin their road trip, the Heat recovered to take the final two games of the three-game trip, clinched a playoff spot, reclaimed their fifth seed, and moved to within two games of the Hawks.

With Miami jockeying for playoff position for most of the season with the Hawks and Sixers, things looked to turn south for the Heat. They lost three out of four to finish the month of March and saw Philly take full advantage of a soft spot in their schedule to pass the Heat in the standings.

But, Miami stepped up to the challenge and took care of business on the road, a place where they have had trouble all year long. They beat the Bobcats on Friday night and followed that up with a huge victory over the Washington Wizards the next night in rare back-to-back road wins.

Now, the Heat have a half-game lead over the Sixers and can still steal the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference with five games to go and only trailing by two games. But, the final five games won't be easy, as Miami will be facing four playoff-bound teams, including the defending champion Celtics, Western Conference contending New Orleans Hornets, and a crucial game against the Hawks themselves.

Luckily for the Heat, they will be playing three out of their final five at home, where they have had much success this season, at 26-12.

Miami will start their push for the fourth seed, which will give them the coveted homecourt advantage in the first round, tomorrow night against the Hornets at American Airlines Arena.

The Heat will most likely be without forward Udonis Haslem for the game, who is nursing a laceration on his shooting thumb. New Orleans will also be missing major pieces, with both Tyson Chandler and former Heat forward James Posey having sustained injuries.

Miami will need to capitalize on this huge home game and shut down Chris Paul and his Hornets. In their only other matchup this year, the Heat were defeated 100-89, in which Miami saw Paul and David West light them up for a combined 42 points and 16 rebounds.

For the Heat to get the victory, they're going to have to step up their offense, as the Hornets boast one of the best defenses in the NBA. They hold opponents to 94 points per game, which is good enough for fourth best in the league. But, that shouldn't be much of a problem for Miami if the last two games are any indicator.

They have averaged 107.5 PPG in their last two games, including the whopping 118-point outburst against the Wizards on Saturday. The Heat hit eight fourth-quarter three-pointers in that game and had a very well-balanced offensive attack.

They featured six players in double-figures for scoring, including 16 points from seldom-used guard Yakhouba Diawara and 13 points from James Jones. Against Charlotte, the Heat boasted four players in double-figures for scoring in another well-rounded offensive effort.

If Miami can continue that against New Orleans, they will have a great shot of coming up with a win and gaining further ground on Atlanta. The Hawks also play Tuesday against the Toronto Raptors, who have won six out of their last seven games. The 76ers will face the reeling Bobcats, which makes the Heat's game against the Hornets a must-win.

If Miami ends up not surpassing Atlanta, they need to jealously guard the fifth seed in order to avoid a first-round matchup with the East's elite of Cleveland, Boston, or Orlando.

The Heat just need to continue their current offensive flow, play good defense, and defend their homecourt. If those things happen, they will have no problem holding down the fifth seed and having a much easier first-round matchup.