MIAMI -- For one team, it was an exhibition. The other, a championship of sorts.
For the Heat, walking away from the regular season unscathed was the ultimate objective at the end of the 82-game slog. The chase for the No. 1 seed never materialized into much of a chase. Even with the door still open to get the East’s top seed over the Indiana Pacers earlier in the week, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra elected to rest LeBron James and Chris Bosh for the final two games of the regular season.
One door closes, another opens. After finishing the regular season with a 54-28 record -- the worst final record of Miami’s Big Three era -- Heat’s three-peat quest continues with the seventh-seeded Charlotte Bobcats coming into town for Game 1 on Sunday afternoon.
The Heat probably could have ended on a higher note, but James and Bosh did not play on Wednesday night in the name of rest. Dwyane Wade gave it a go for the third consecutive game after a nine-game layoff dealing with a sore hamstring. And after 23 uneven minutes, Wade came away pleased with not just his Wednesday performance, but the team’s months-long maintenance program.
“I did what I wanted to do,” Wade said. “I’m happy going into the postseason. [My health] is a lot better than going into the playoffs last season.”
Getting Wade some playing time without aggravating an injury? That was atop the Heat’s priority list on Wednesday; the game result did not matter. Next on the priority list was making sure that Greg Oden could return to the floor without any hiccups after missing two and a half weeks with back issues and a stomach bug. After 13 minutes of action, they checked that off the list as well.
The third objective was less serious: allowing Shane Battier to reach a career milestone of 30,000 regular-season minutes. Battier joked with Spoelstra at the morning shootaround that he needed to play a season-high 36 minutes in his final regular season game in order to reach 30,000 for his career.
Spoelstra laughed it off in the morning, but by the evening, he ran out of bodies at the end of the bench. James, Bosh, Rashard Lewis and Chris Andersen all got the night off and Michael Beasley turned his right ankle in the third quarter and had to leave the game.
At that point, Battier checked in with the scorer’s table to see how many minutes he needed until 30,000.
“Only six?” Battier laughed as he turned to walk onto the court. “I’ve come this far, can’t turn back now.”
Battier ended up playing 39 minutes -- three more than he needed -- and finished with a trio of 3-pointers.
“Once I sniffed it, it was like a dog to a T-bone,” Battier said. “I had to go get it.”
After the loss, Battier, who’s expected to retire this summer, marched into the locker room, fully-equipped with jokes.
“I came in the league averaging about 40 minutes a game,” Battier announced to his teammates, “And in my last game I played about 40 minutes.”
Wade finished with 13 points on 6-of-14 shooting, but never really got into the flow against a surprisingly pesky 76ers defense. Actually, the 76ers never trailed after midway through the second quarter and oddly enough ended up taking the season-series 2-1 over the Heat.
The 76ers could have mailed it in and no one would have blamed them with nothing tangible in the standings to gain. But instead, the 76ers gave everything they had after an arduous season that saw them tie an NBA record for most losses in a row (26). It was just one win, but it provided a morsel of redemption.
Rookie of the Year candidate Michael Carter-Williams drained three 3-pointers after struggling from deep for weeks. After drilling one of the threes, first-year head coach Brett Brown smiled ear-to-ear on the sidelines and clapped in encouragement as if he had just watched his own child steer his bike without training wheels for the first time.
The 76ers’ positivity continued. After a slew of Philadelphia plays that forced a frustrated Spoelstra to call a timeout, Brown bear-hugged his giggling guard Tony Wroten out at midcourt. The 19-win team pushed the Heat around all game and forced multiple 24-second shot-clock violations.
This, coming from the team that boasts one of the NBA’s worst defensive efficiencies.
The Heat understand Wednesday’s effort won’t cut it on Sunday.
“We’ll be tested,” Spoelstra said. “Our guys understand that.”
The Heat are fully aware with how well the Bobcats have played lately, finishing the season on a 9-3 run. The Bobcats ended up with the sixth-ranked defense, something nobody saw coming after they ranked dead-last in the NBA last season and added the offensive-minded Al Jefferson to anchor their back line.
“They deserve the respect of how they’ve played the last six weeks,” Spoelstra said. “They’ve been one of the better teams in the league. Jefferson since January has been one of the top players in this league. They’re a worthy, worthy opponent.”
Though the Heat swept the season-series against the Bobcats, Wade shared Spoelstra’s respect for coach Steve Clifford’s club.
“That team competes very hard,” Wade said. “They’re comfortable in their game. They’ve got a great one-two punch with Kemba Walker and Big Al. We have to come with our hard hats on and stay focused throughout.”
The Heat stumbled into the postseason with three losses in a row. James, Wade and Bosh have only played one game together this month and it came in a double-digit loss to Atlanta.
But despite the lack of playing time together, Wade didn’t foresee any issues getting on the same page with James.
“I’m not worried about continuity with him at all,” Wade said after the game. “The biggest thing is that we both know what we need to do. We just have to do it. We’ve been playing together for four years. That’s enough continuity right there.”
AmericanAirlines Arena had been a harrowing place for Brown, who was an assistant coach under Gregg Popovich for the San Antonio Spurs last season, his seventh in that capacity. Interestingly enough, Brown made plans to travel to San Antonio on Thursday after the regular season wrapped up.
The plan? To catch up with a close friend and mentor Popovich.
“Popovich is the single greatest basketball influence I’ve had outside my father,” Brown said. “Popovich’s skill package is off the charts. One, he’s a good person. Second, he’s highly intelligent, and third, he’s a hell of a coach.”
On Thursday, Brown will make a trip to San Antonio to see old friends. Somewhere down the line in the next couple months, the Alamo may be in the Heat’s plans as well. The three-peat quest is officially on.