Miami Heat Still Trying to Figure out What Stands in Their Way out East

Ethan Skolnick@@EthanJSkolnickNBA Senior WriterMarch 11, 2014

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MIAMI—Sweeping assumptions.

As Spo-isms go, this one could have some staying power.

The Miami Heat coach, Erik Spoelstra, debuted this dandy during his Monday press conference, after his team beat the Washington Wizards, 99-90 on Monday night. He used it in response to a question about Dwyane Wade's availability for just the third time this season on the back end of a back-to-back, availability that led to productivity (22 points) that allowed Miami to pull away.

"People made sweeping assumptions that he won't play any back-to-backs," Spoelstra said. "That's never been the case." 

As sweeping assumptions go, however, that's a distant second to another that has been made about the conference in which the Heat reside—and the past three postseasons, have ruled. 

No assumption has been more sweeping and steadfast than the one that rules out any team other than the Heat or Indiana Pacers for the East finals. That's why this is an interesting week for the Heat, one that started Sunday with an overtime loss in Chicago and includes Wednesday's hosting of the Brooklyn Nets

The Pacers have lost four straight, and the Heat had lost three straight entering Monday.

But even if either of the East's elite is vulnerable, is any other team remotely capable? 

Can the Chicago Bulls, Toronto Raptors, Wizards, Nets, Charlotte Bobcats or Atlanta Hawks give either of the East powers a test in the first or second rounds? 

Monday, Marcin Gortat turned in a strong performance (14 points, nine offensive rebounds, nine defensive rebounds, four assists), even if that statline came amid constant on-court critiquing from his coach, Randy Wittman. And later, the confident center, as is his custom, offered up even stronger words. In this case, they were about his team's potential.

MIAMI, FL - March 10: Marcin Gortat #4 of the Washington Wizards shoots the ball against the Miami Heat at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida on March 10 2014. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or usi
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How far can they go?

"It all depends where we gonna end up, in a playoff spot," Gortat said. "You know, we believe we are capable of beating Miami, having Nene and Kevin (Seraphin) back, and now having Drew (Gooden) and (Andre Miller), we believe that we are capable of beating this team. You know, we still got 20 games, we still can work on it and get better. We believe that we can be the third-best team here in the East, and that's what we're going to do." 

Has that belief been reinforced by Monday's close contest, coming after a 114-97 win in Washington during January? 

"Of course," Gortat said. "You know, every win has given us more confidence. And we are hoping that we get to that third spot that we want to get. We've just got to keep grinding." 

As of the close of NBA business Monday, the Wizards sat in fifth, 2.5 games back of that spot, which Toronto still held after a loss to the sixth-seeded Nets. It would be silly to suggest that the Wizards—whose two best players (John Wall, Bradley Beal) have never appeared in a playoff series—would scare Miami.

To the contrary, they probably wouldn't bother the Heat even as much as the Bulls or Nets, each of whom featured experienced, irritating rivals, with names like Noah, Pierce and Garnett. Nor is the Verizon Center especially imposing; the Wizards are just 16-15 there, and bandwagoning Washingtonians have been quite welcoming to the Heat of late. 

CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 13: Joakim Noah #13 of the Chicago Bulls readies to shoot against Kevin Garnett #2 and Paul Pierce #34 of the Brooklyn Nets at the United Center on February 13, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois. The Bulls defeated the Nets 92-76. NOTE TO U
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Still, the Wizards do have some pieces that could provide some temporary difficulties, both up front (Gortat-Nene could force the Heat to go bigger) and in the backcourt (Wall had just two field goals and seven turnovers Monday, but he's typically torn apart the Heat's defense, averaging 10.1 assists). 

"I think we match up with those guys perfect," Wall said.

Monday, the Wizards were within 81-80 with 7:11 left, when the veteran Gooden, on his second 10-day contract, converted a layup. From there, Wade—encouragingly saving his best for last—Chris Bosh and LeBron James outscored the Wizards, 18-10.

James set the tone for the day, running into the gym for the walkthrough, making the rounds of players and coaches, pushing them to get ready for the game, and then hitting 10 of 15 shots to break out of a mini-slump. But Bosh and Wade closed the deal, and the latter's work had everyone on the home side smiling. Including Wade, who said he was feeling progress. 

MIAMI, FL - March 10: Dwyane Wade #3 of the Miami Heat dribbles the ball against the Washington Wizards at the American Airlines Arena in Miami, Florida on March 10 2014. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or usi
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"I felt that I moved pretty well (Sunday) but I felt even better tonight," Wade said. "LeBron had it going in the first half and I paced myself. Then in the second half, I got my opportunity....At this time of year, I would love to play every night as we get into the groove to go into the playoffs."

And maybe, at some point, James will shoot another free throw. He went his second game without one for the first time since his rookie season of 2003. Spoelstra said he wouldn't campaign for foul calls from the podium. 

"I just want him to continue to attack, and eventually the results will come," Spoelstra said.

Another sweeping assumption.

And that one, like the one about the expected participants in the Eastern Conference finals, will likely prove true.