At times, it can be difficult to take Miami's pulse. Depending on the day, Heat players are committed to the first-place chase or supremely indifferent to its outcome.
Most of the season has seen LeBron James and Friends employ forms of deflection. It was the Indiana Pacers who placed an emphasis on snatching first place. The Heat cared only about survival, about making it out of the regular season in one piece, or as close to whole as Dwyane Wade's aching limbs would allow.
Not until recently did they start expressing interest in finishing atop the Eastern Conference. Even now, the importance of snagging that No. 1 seed is downplayed, looked at as a luxury and not a necessity.
That's what we've been saying for the whole time. You know, that's why when the Pacers were talking, 'hey, No. 1 seed, home court!' it's like, hey, it's August. Calm down a little bit. We know how it is. We know it's a marathon. That's one of the conversations you have to have amongst yourselves, and it's a reason to go out there and play hard every day. Saying it to everybody, shouting it from the mountain top, that's not our style.
Comments like Bosh's are what make the Heat so difficult to read and understand. Their poise, their composure acts like an inadvertent veil, behind which lies the truth. We're left trying to peel back the curtain, hoping to catch a glimpse into their mindset.
Do the Heat care whether they nab the No. 1 or No. 2 seed?
Should they care?
Does it even matter for them?
There is, in fact, an answer.
Home-court advantage has never been looked at as a must-have in Miami.
Playing a Game 7 at AmericanAirlines Arena would be convenient, but it won't make or break a team pursuing its third consecutive title. None of which is an indictment of Heat fans. They're known for showing up fashionably late, but Heat supporters aren't Atlanta Hawks fans. AmericanAirlines Arena isn't the barren wasteland Philips Arena often resembles.
But it's not Bankers Life Fieldhouse either (Pacers). It's not Chesapeake Energy Arena (Oklahoma City Thunder). It's not Oracle Arena (Golden State Warriors). It's unlike most other home courts in that it's not the Heat's lifeline. They refuse to live and die by home-court advantage.
Winning a Game 7 on the road won't even amount to an afterthought for them. That's how much it doesn't matter. It's of slight difference to this group of veteran winners who care more about how they play than where they play.
Nearly two decades into his career, Ray Allen won't start caroming open three-pointers off every part of the rim because he's intimidated by Pacers fans. Wade won't suddenly stop attacking because he's not in Miami.
James won't regress into a passive non-factor because he has to play on another team's floor in a city he doesn't call home.
It doesn't matter.
Finishing atop the East is no doubt promising, but let's not pretend it holds the value some portray it to have. Second place means guaranteed home-court advantage through the second round. The Heat only lose it for the Eastern Conference Finals if it's the Pacers they're facing.
Said matchup seemed like a virtual certainty months ago. But with the Pacers playing like they are now, the Heat—if they make it that far—could be playing another team. And if they're not, the Pacers' recent struggles are reasons for the Heat to remain unfazed by playing Game 7 in Indiana.
Clinching first place does little for their plans once in the NBA Finals too. When the format was 2-3-2, home-court advantage was important. Potentially being forced to win Games 6 and 7 on the road is obviously unsettling. No one has ever done it before.
For the time being, though, no one will ever have to.
Owners unanimously voted in favor of the 2-2-1-1-1 format in October, diminishing the significance of home-court advantage considerably.
Anyone still touting its importance must also remember winning the Eastern Conference doesn't guarantee the Heat home-court advantage in the Finals. The San Antonio Spurs, Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers all have better records than Miami. If any one of them makes it out of the West, home court doesn't go to the Heat.
In a way, then, first place means something to the Heat for only one potential series and one possible opponent. As the Heat have shown time and time again, they're not about to let one lurking scenario define their season.
Who the Heat face is more important than where they face them.
Sometimes, however, the two go hand in hand.
There isn't enough difference in potential first-round opponents to get the Heat fired about up about first place. It's the difference between facing the Hawks, Charlotte Bobcats or Washington Wizards, and the Heat are a combined 8-2 against those teams thus far this season.
Issues only arise if the New York Knicks somehow turn their diminishing-closing-in-on-nonexistent playoff chances into an improbable postseason berth. The Heat are only 2-2 against them on the year, and for all their inadequacies, the Knicks pose more of an immediate threat than Atlanta or Charlotte. Washington may be the lone exception.
The chances of the Heat taking that under advisement are slim. They're just games removed from picking apart the Carmelo Anthony-headlined Knicks without Wade. Facing them in the first round isn't something they will nor should fear.
Moving onto the second round is different.
The Eastern Conference's No. 3 and No. 4 seeds are still up in the air. The Brooklyn Nets are locked into fifth place barring a miracle—the same Nets who are 4-0 against the Heat this season.
In theory, No. 1 plays the winner of No. 4 vs. No. 5, assuming No. 3 takes down No. 6. Realistically, that would have the Heat facing either the Chicago Bulls—against whom they are 2-2 this season—or the Nets.
Everything changes if the Bulls steal third place from the Toronto Raptors and/or the No. 6 seed stages a first-round upset. But the Heat have to play the odds. They're more likely to face the Nets in the second round as the No. 1 seed, because No. 5 is more likely to upset No. 4 than No. 6 is to dispatch No. 3.
Nothing is etched in marble here. The East is a woeful, fickle being. At this point, through to the first round, anything can happen.
Assuming that the Heat would prefer the easiest path to the Eastern Conference Finals and beyond as possible, though, avoiding Brooklyn rules over everything else.
Second place, please.
Only if it's possible.
If not, no biggie. It matters, but not enough to beg.
Saying the Heat are better off with the No. 2 seed implies a few things.
First, we have to assume potentially losing home-court advantage in the Eastern Conference Finals is of little concern. That's about as close to an unequivocal truth as we have in this mess of options, so let's embrace it.
Next, we're saying the Heat want to minimize their chances of facing Brooklyn before the Eastern Conference Finals. That, again, is fair. While the Heat will continuously say they fear no one, facing any team housing the ruthless, Heat-despising Paul Pierce is less than ideal.
From there, we're putting our money on the Nets not moving out of fifth place. Still reasonable. We're also betting that there is no upset between the No. 3 and 6 seeds, which is to place stakes on the Bulls or Raptors dismissing the Bobcats or Wizards.
Finally, we're preemptively putting stock in a Bulls-Nets rematch, the reality of which would be a double-edged sword for the Heat.
If the Heat close out this season atop the Eastern Conference and the Raptors finish in third only to advance through to the second round, it would guarantee they face the Bulls or Nets in the semifinals. Aside from Brooklyn, there isn't a bigger second-round nuisance than Chicago out there.
Fear of an upset isn't so much a conflict. Those two teams are just more equipped to bleed the Heat dry, to play a physical brand of basketball that fleeces them of any remaining energy, weakening them long before the Eastern Conference Finals.
But, again, this isn't what the Heat are thinking about. They aren't consumed by complicated what-ifs or losing sleep over the possibility of squaring off with Brooklyn one more time.
As they approach their final regular-season game against the Indiana Pacers—a contest that will play a pivotal role in determining where both teams fall (Nos. 1 or 2)—Skolnick reminds us there are more important things at play than first- and second-place fights:
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:
Where the Heat wind up isn't paramount. Reaching that place, wherever it is, be it first or second place, is their primary motivation.
Preparing for their title defense, regardless of where it takes them or which teams stand in their way, takes priority over everything and everyone else.