MEMPHIS — Over the course of the next couple of days, the chattering classes will try to convince you that this latest clash between the Heat and Pacers—the fourth and fifth best teams in the East in 2014—has some sort of critical cosmic significance. They will dissect the squads' strengths and weaknesses, detail their physical gifts and psychological cracks, and then define them solely by how they fare against each other on a single Friday in Miami.
And, if you'd like, you can play along. You can play pretend.
After all, we've even heard the Heat hype the chase of late. We've heard Chris Bosh admit he's been checking Pacers scores at halftime. We've heard LeBron James scoff at the idea that any team, in any circumstance, would want to be second.
And, yes, Wednesday, after a 107-102 loss to the Grizzlies, James did feed the machine, saying that Friday is "going to be one of those games that may feel like a Game 7. We look forward to it."
At times on Friday, it may look as if nothing more matters in the world than winning one game that will mean—at least for a day—possession of the No. 1 seed.
But the truth is that the Heat are looking forward to one thing above all related to this regular season:
Especially if that signals the start of a postseason in which Erik Spoelstra no longer needs to pluck so many guys from the end of the bench.
"We are in a very unique position, where just have to make sure we do what we can to win," Chris Bosh said. "We don't want to burn ourselves out trying to do that. But I think we can get it done without burning ourselves out mentally and physically."
After making 14-of-23 shots in a losing effort, James shot down the suggestion that controlling "our destiny about the No. 1 seed" is the Heat's foremost concern.
"We want to get healthy," James said. "That's all that we care about, man. Going into the postseason healthy. We've got more problems as far as health issues than the No. 1 seed."
They do, even if none of the Heat's injuries and ailments have been season-ending. Wednesday, they were without Dwyane Wade (hamstring), Udonis Haslem (sick), Chris Andersen (knee) and Greg Oden (back), absences that caused Spoelstra to stick with Norris Cole through considerable struggle, and meant rookie Justin Hamilton played in seven more minutes (13) than any other game in his career to this point.
In light of all that, and the Grizzlies' dire need for a victory to retain some shot at the eighth seed in the wild, wonderful West, it was somewhat of a wonder that Memphis took so long to maul Miami.
The Heat led by four at halftime, even with Zach Randolph making all nine of his shots, and led by five with 20.2 seconds left in the third, prior to Marc Gasol's layup, Cole's fumble, and Courtney Lee's buzzer-beating three. From there, it was a turnover typhoon for Miami, as Memphis scored 13 points on miscues by five different Miami players, including a back-breaking Mike Conley three after Gasol slapped the ball from a driving Bosh.
"Pick-sixes," Spoelstra called them.
Spoelstra spoke of other stuff, too, including the third quarter, "when we got to a little bit of a different game, and settled, and weren't really working the offense for the best available shot." That, incidentally, was when James was out on the perimeter, pushing the limits of his jumper. He scored seven points in 31 seconds during one stretch, hitting a pair of threes—and getting fouled on one—and the Heat actually stretched the margin to eight when he connected again from 21 feet.
But, apparently, this is when Spoelstra felt the game starting to slip, because the ball movement stopped, and others started standing. Spoelstra believes "there's nothing more beautiful in this league" than five-man basketball, where one man's decision creates a domino for another, "but it's something you always have to work at."
So how does James handle it?
"That's a fine balance," Spoelstra said. "That is a fine balance in this league. Because he, along with Carmelo Anthony, along with Kevin Durant, they're the best end-of-possession bail-you-out options for your offense. Where the defense stops you, you try to get to whatever you get to, and you throw it to them, and you say save us. There's very few guys in this league that can do that, and he can do that with the best of them. But that can't be your offense. And we understand that."
It was their offense Wednesday, with James scoring 37. And it wasn't enough, with only Rashard Lewis (17 points) surprising to the upside. Just as James' efforts haven't been enough in 23 other games this season. The Heat have lost 25 in all, and their .679 winning percentage would be the worst of any of James' teams since 2007-2008. Plus, with Wade missing 27 contests and Bosh stepping back offensively of late, James appears to be carrying his greatest burden since his Cleveland days.
In fact, it makes sense, if the Heat lose to Indiana on Friday, to shut James down for the final three. Or at the least, limit his minutes, so he's just playing enough to get some work with Wade—especially since he admitted again that "there's some sense of worry" about how quickly their collective rhythm comes back.
Yet James won't put his pride aside, so he resisted the implication that he could use a rest: "I mean, I played pretty well, besides the turnovers. It is what it is. I don't make no excuses, man. It's been tough on all of us."
Spoelstra paused before shaking off a question about whether his star could be mentally fatigued.
"We'll be fine," he said. "I mean, that's a crutch that any of us can use when we don't find a way to win. OK? Did anybody have mental fatigue, or physical fatigue, in the third quarter, when we were up four, six, and then all of a sudden it shifts? That's a common excuse in pro sports. We love the position we're in. Nobody else is in this position, to have to deal with serial success of the last three years. We're not using it as an excuse. We don't expect anybody else to make an excuse for it."
No, what they expect is an energized Indiana squad to arrive on Friday, to play in front of an energized crowd.
The latter expectation?
That's the one that truly excites them.