After a heartbreaking one-point loss to the Chicago Bulls on Sunday, the Miami Heat have fallen below Chicago in the Eastern Conference standings for the first time since October.
The defeat was Miami's fourth consecutive, and probably the most painful.
Somehow, the Heat, despite three superstar players, Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh, and have struggled in crunch time all season.
Just in the past week, Lebron has missed potential game-winning shots against both New York and Chicago, each time going to his left and failing to get a quality shot in single-man coverage.
The Heat have looked to Lebron all season in such situations, despite having the option of going to Wade, who is easily one of the best shot creators in the league.
Once a team that had won 21 of 22 games from late November to mid-January, Miami has now lost five out of six, and appears to be on the decline at the wrong time.
The Heat currently find themselves as the No. 3 seed in the East, 3.5 games ahead of Orlando.
With just 19 games left remaining in the regular season and a comfortable six game lead over the No. 5 seeded Hawks, Miami figures to have home court advantage in the first round, barring an epic collapse.
Of course, once the playoffs start, it's all about match ups. The Miami Heat would rather take their chances playing the No. 6 seed in the first round—likely New York or Philadelphia—than have to face a talented Atlanta Hawks team.
While Miami's 3.5 game lead over Orlando might appear safe, it should be noted that Orlando only plays eight of their last 18 games against teams with winning records, whereas Miami must face 10 winning teams over their last 19, including games against San Antonio, Boston, Oklahoma City, and the Lakers.
This could spell trouble for a Miami team that has not beaten a top-four team in the league all season, and has an overall losing record against winning teams.
If the last several months are any indication of how Miami and Orlando will finish the season, then the Magic have the definite advantage.
Orlando has won 24 out of its last 36 games with a margin of victory of close to seven points over that span.
Miami, on the other hand, has been rather mediocre in its last 24 games, going 13-11 despite an overall favorable schedule.
Miami's evident lack of a true point guard, an effective bench, and a post-up center bench has been a problem all season. It figures to be the Heat's downfall come playoff time.
While the Heat may have helped their cause with the recent acquisition of point guard Mike Bibby, at 32-years old, Bibby is far from the player he once was and his minutes will be limited.
In order for Miami to win consistently down the stretch, Miami will need improved play from their bench—particularly from shooting guard Mike Miller, who is having the worst shooting season of his career. The Heat have had way too many games in which the entire bench has scored fewer points than any of the individual big three.
Meanwhile, it is uncertain as to whether or not center Udonis Haslem will be back at all this season.
Haslem went down in November with a torn ligament in his left foot, and the Heat have really missed him as both a post-up threat and a defensive presence. As a result, the Heat have gone with a combination of Erick Dampier and Zydrunas Ilgauskas at the center position—not exactly an elite duo.
But with so many superstars, Miami has no reason to panic down the stretch, and no excuse either, for that matter.
Assuming Haslem does not make a return before the end of the season, Miami must be more creative on the offensive end—particularly in crunch time—or they could end up playing a tough Atlanta Hawks team in the first round.
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