MIAMI — To get where they want to ultimately go this season, the Chicago Bulls expect to see the Miami Heat again in the playoffs, and vice versa.
And with the final few days of this truncated NBA regular season now here, it's still unclear who would host Game 1 of such a series. Or Game 7, more importantly.
The Bulls lead the Heat by 1½ games, just one in the loss column, and if tiebreakers decide the top seed the edge swings to Miami because of a better record against likely East playoff teams. Still, even with the reigning MVP in Derrick Rose still ailing as he has been for much of the season, Chicago knows all it needs to do is simply go 3-0 down the stretch to wrap up the No. 1 seed.
Should Chicago slip — certainly a possibility with defending NBA champion Dallas looming Saturday and upstart Indiana ready to host the Bulls on Wednesday — then things get really interesting.
"Got to win, got to win," Bulls guard Richard Hamilton said after Chicago's 83-72 loss at Miami tightened up the standings on Thursday night, and knotted the Miami-Chicago series this season at two wins apiece. "Just take one game at a time. We have Dallas coming up and we have to figure out a way to win that game."
Miami has four games left, two with Washington, one with Houston and one with Boston. The first two are the ones at home, a back-to-back starting Saturday against the Wizards and followed by the Rockets, who — for now — are hanging on to some hope of grabbing the No. 8 spot in the Western Conference playoffs.
If Miami goes 4-0, and the Bulls go something other than 3-0, then the Heat would have the home edge throughout at least the East playoffs.
"I say this a lot," Heat forward LeBron James said. "I had the No. 1 overall seed in the NBA playoffs in Cleveland once. We didn't win the finals. So I think it's more about how you're playing than anything else."
So that does beg the question of what exactly the No. 1 seed is worth, anyway.
Chicago held home-court advantage in last year's NBA playoffs, with Miami No. 2 in the East. The Bulls opened the East finals with a 21-point rout of Miami. It was their last win of the season, as the Heat swept the final four games of the matchup on the way to the title series against Dallas. And remember, Miami had the home-court edge against the Mavericks, too. Dallas wound up hoisting the champion's trophy.
"I just feel like you have to win on the road, no matter what, if you want to win a championship," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. "So it really doesn't matter. When you're playing teams like the Bulls or you get to the finals, stuff like that, the teams are good. They can win anywhere. So it's not really as big a deal as people make it. But I understand why you would want it. We had it last year in the finals. Didn't do that much for us."
Which is why Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is fond of saying "It's about us" as an answer to any number of questions these days.
It's his way of saying that regardless of seed, regardless of matchup, Miami is taking the approach entering the playoffs that if its game is sharp and ready, then the Heat believe they will be fine.
For now, they're still playing for that No. 1 seed. But No. 2 isn't so bad, either. That's the slot from where Miami went on to win the 2006 title.
"It's not coachspeak. It really is about us," Spoelstra said. "We needed to address our consistency, our identity, make sure that we're playing at a high level going into the postseason. That is, first and foremost, our priority. Obviously the standings are something that we're aware of. And when you have an opportunity to play for it, you do. But in terms of it being bigger than anything ... I think players have the proper perspective about it."
After his team was held to its lowest point total of the season on Thursday, Bulls coach Tom Thibodeau said he wanted to see his team respond.
No one seems to know when Rose's hurting right foot will allow him to return to the lineup, though there is some speculation that the most likely scenario is that he plays in Chicago's final two regular-season games. Chicago is 30-7 with him on the floor, 17-9 when he's out.
He's missed nearly half the season with an array of injuries, and the Bulls still could have wrapped up the No. 1 seed with a win on Thursday. Even now, they're still in the drivers' seat, hardly panicking that a lead that seemed invincible in the East just a few days ago now looks a bit shaky.
"You deal with it like you deal with it all year," Thibodeau said. "We lost, we go home, we study, get ready for Dallas. This game will reveal certain things to us, things that need to be corrected, continue to strive for improvement, and we're not going to get caught up in (leads of) 1½ games, 2½ games or whatever. Just keep doing the things we need to do to win, that's all we're focusing on."
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