Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Heat Travel to Atlanta to Keep Eastern Conference Lead

So, that was interesting…

The Heat (54-25) made short work of the Indiana Pacers last night, playing oppressive defense, clogging passing lanes and hitting key shots throughout the contest.

As Head Coach Erik Spoelstra told reporters last night:

“It was about as consistent to our identity as we’ve had for a while, for 48 minutes.”

That it was. Miami played with an energy that hasn’t been evident in weeks: it was particularly on display in the third quarter, when Miami blew the game open with a 23-point lead.

The win puts the Heat atop the Eastern Conference (by just a half-game, over Indiana). To keep that lead, they’ll have to win the last three games of the regular season, starting tonight against Atlanta.

The Hawks won impressively last night as well – a 93-88 victory over the Brooklyn Nets. With the win, Atlanta strengthened their hold on the 8th seed in the East playoff standings.

If Miami holds on to its current position atop the East, tonight’s game is a potential preview of the first round of playoffs.

The Hawks are dangerous and shouldn’t be taken lightly; they went through a terrible midseason stretch and their below .500 record is misleading. Their best player (Al Horford) has missed most of the season but this team still has pieces that can challenge Miami, both tonight and in the postseason.

All-Star Paul Millsap is the Hawks’ biggest threat. Throughout his career, Millsap has tormented Miami in a way only few players can. The Heat faced two players recently (Paul Pierce and Roy Hibbert) that raise their game against Miami but Millsap might be more deadly than either of them.

Atlanta sharpshooter Kyle Korver (12.2 PPG) is also a threat; look for him to run off screens all night to knock down shots from long range. Jeff Teague (who dropped 22 on Brooklyn) is streaky – he could also be a factor.

This is an unexpectedly important game, impacting both team’s postseason standings. For Atlanta, a win tonight locks up a trip to the postseason. A victory for Miami improves their chances of retaining the top seed in the East.

But as Miami players have maintained publicly, that isn’t necessarily the priority:

As per LeBron James: “It’s all about the process. It doesn’t matter about seeding.”

“We’ve been talking about this one-seed too much,” added Chris Bosh.

Perhaps the strongest statement came from Udonis Haslem, who has regained his place in the starting lineup with incredible results. Of the Pacers victory, Haslem said:

“Tonight, was just one step toward our goal.”

Miami can take another important step tonight with a victory in Atlanta.

Watch the telecast of the game beginning at 7:30 P.M. on Sun Sports from the Phillips Arena in Atlanta. Check back with AllUCanHeat for a regular updates and for a full recap after the game.

All quotes courtesy of the Sun Sentinel.

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Tags: Chris Bosh Lebron James Udonis Haslem

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