MIAMI — For the first time all season, the Miami Heat are alone atop the Eastern Conference.
And that’s quite a turnaround from how things seemed less than a week ago.
LeBron James fought through a sore back to score 32 points, Chris Bosh added 18 and the Heat used another strong defensive effort to beat the Toronto Raptors 93-83 on Monday night. The win pushed the two-time defending NBA champions percentage points ahead of the struggling Indiana Pacers in the race for the No. 1 seed in the East.
“It doesn’t feel like anything,” James said. “The standings are what they are. We want to play the best we can and the fact that we are in first place, I think that’s pretty cool but we’ve got so much work to do. We’ve got too much work to do. We’ve got guys that need to get healthy. We haven’t even talked about it. We probably won’t talk about it. We’ve got to play the season out.”
Chris Andersen scored 13 points on 5-for-5 shooting and Mario Chalmers added 12 for Miami (51-22), which was again without Dwyane Wade (hamstring), Greg Oden (back) and Ray Allen (flu).
Indiana (52-23) lost at home earlier Monday night to San Antonio, 103-77.
“The No. 1 seed is the last thing on our minds right now,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said after his team’s loss.
The Heat — who were three games out in the East after losing at Indiana on Wednesday — are basically saying the same thing.
Sure, it’s a neat perk — Heat coach Erik Spoelstra called it an “ancillary” effect of hard work — and Bosh acknowledged the outcomes Monday merited a very subtle fist-pump from him. But there’s still plenty of time for things to change, and Miami is thinking more about getting those who are hurt and sick back into rhythm with the playoffs coming up in less than three weeks.
“We’re aware of it,” Spoelstra said of the standings.
“It’s not that we’re naive to it. I didn’t talk about it. … These were pros that were getting ready for battle and it’s that type of focus, that’s the type of thing we’re trying to stress right now, the process of building those habits. The results will follow. They tend to take care of themselves.”
Greivis Vasquez scored 17 points, DeMar DeRozan scored 16 and Jonas Valanciunas finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds for the Raptors. Steve Novak added 13 for Toronto, which lost Kyle Lowry to a sore left knee late in the third quarter after he collided with James.
“It was a hard-fought game — basketball at a high level,” Vasquez said. “We lost it in the third period. We came out too relaxed. We didn’t attack the basket. Everything worked for them.”
Lowry’s knee swelled, Raptors coach Dwane Casey said, and that hardly sounds like good news for a team fighting for the No. 3 spot in the East.
“He bumped knees,” Casey said. “It puffed up a little bit. X-rays were negative. We just have to wait and see how he is tomorrow.”
The Heat were down 10 midway through the second quarter, and then closed the half on a 22-9 run to take the lead and never trailed again.
Bosh had consecutive baskets in the fourth quarter, the last of them an easy breakaway, to put Miami up by nine. A possession later, after a 3-pointer from Vasquez, James split a pair of defenders on the dribble and found Toney Douglas for a right-wing 3. And after a stop on the ensuing Miami trip, James got a wild layup to fall while getting fouled.
Moments later, the Heat could look at the standings and finally see themselves on top.
“We could still lose it,” Bosh said. “That reality is there. We just have to keep concentrating on what we’ve been doing.”