MIAMI — If the Miami Heat want the No. 1 seed in the East, they better plan on winning Thursday night in Chicago. If not, they can start talking about how it really doesn’t matter.
Then again, they already are talking that way.
“I was the No. 1 seed for two straight years in Cleveland and I keep telling you guys that we didn’t win (the East),” Heat forward LeBron James said after practice Wednesday. “And we were the No. 2 seed last year, and we got to the Finals I don’t really care about seeding too much. I just want to play well going into the playoffs. That’s my only concern.”
James does have a point. His Cavaliers came up short in the 2009 and 2010 playoffs when they had the top seed in the East. And it should be noted his Cleveland outfit made the Finals in 2007 as the No. 2 seed.
Still, it’s not as if the Heat (40-16) won’t gladly take the top seed if they have a shot at it. They are three games behind Chicago (44-14) entering the game at the United Center.
If Miami doesn’t win, it will be time for the Bulls to start a magic-number countdown for their second straight top seed in the East. The number of combined Chicago wins and Heat losses now needed to clinch is seven, but it would drop to five with a Bulls win Thursday.
“We want to be the No. 1 seed overall, for sure,” said Chicago forward Kyle Korver, whose Bulls lead Oklahoma City (42-16) by two games for the NBA’s top record. “If nothing else, if there’s a Game 7 (in any series), you want to play it at home.”
For the Heat, it had been forward Chris Bosh talking for much of the season about the importance of the top seed. With Miami having lost five of its past 10 games, there’s been less talk from him lately about that. But he stills knows Thursday is a big game.
“We want to beat the Bulls,” said Bosh, whose Heat ousted the Bulls 4-1 in last spring’s Eastern Conference finals. “They’re a great team. Just given what we’ve been through with those guys last year. They don’t want to lose to us. We don’t want to lose to them. It’s one of those games where you’re trying to establish your dominance in the Eastern Conference We’re right behind them, and we want to catch them, and it’s an important game.”
If the Heat win Thursday, they’ve got a reasonable chance to pass the Bulls. They would move to one game behind in the loss column and they still have an April 19 date with Chicago at home. Two wins in the next week over the Bulls, and the Heat would take the season series 3-1, giving them the tiebreaker.
But the Heat haven’t been playing well lately, especially on the road. They’ve dropped seven of their last 10 away from home, the latest an embarrassing 91-72 loss April 1 at Boston.
Miami’s problems, especially defensively, have continued at home. After having stretched their home winning streak to 17, the Heat have lost two of three at American Airlines Arena, the latest 115-107 on Tuesday to Boston.
“Things (can) change very quickly in this league and all it would take is one signature win,” said Miami coach Erik Spoelstra, knowing quite well a victory over the Bulls would fit in that category.
Spoelstra says the Heat are preparing as if Bulls star point guard Derrick Rose, who is listed as a game-time decision due to a sprained ankle, will play. Rose had missed 12 straight games due to a groin strain before returning last Sunday at New York and then sat out a Tuesday game against the Knicks because of the ankle problem.
The Bulls have gone a surprising 16-7 this season when Rose is out. Then again, the Heat is 10-1 this season without star guard Dwyane Wade, who had missed two of four games with minor ailments until returning Tuesday against Boston.
“I grew up a Bulls fans. It’s always great going back home, especially when you’re playing meaningful games,” said Wade, a Chicago native who said he felt “weird” playing games at the United Center early in his nine-year career and can’t fully explain why. “I’m getting more comfortable at home. I had some (games) early in my career where I wasn’t comfortable. But now I think because (the Bulls are) so good, I have to be a little better than earlier in my career. I enjoy it more.”
A win would make it even more enjoyable. For now, though, Wade isn’t calling it a do-or-die game for the No. 1 seed.
“If you’re a good team, you don’t worry (that) we didn’t get No. 1 or No. 2,” said Wade, whose Heat would have to completely fall apart to not be the East’s No. 2 seed. “You go into the playoffs feeling that you can beat anybody.”
If the Heat beat the Bulls on Thursday, they might sound a bit more interested in the top seed.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@christomasson