MIAMI (AP) – With the Big 3 back and the league’s best record clinched – as well as the winningest season in franchise history – the Miami Heat don’t have much left to do other than tune up for the playoffs.
That doesn’t mean they won’t take Sunday’s matchup seriously.
Miami could notch a team-record 36th home victory by beating the Chicago Bulls, who ended the Heat’s 27-game winning streak and angered LeBron James with some physical play when the teams last met.
While Miami (63-16) has wrapped up home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, Chicago can take control of the Eastern Conference’s No. 5 seed with a third victory in four meetings with the Heat.
If the Bulls (43-36) finish in that spot – they’re a half-game behind Atlanta and won the season series tiebreaker – they could face Miami in the second round of the playoffs.
Besides wanting to avoid losing this regular-season series for the second time in James’ three-year tenure, Miami would like to avenge a 101-97 defeat at Chicago on March 27. Not only did that stop the Heat six victories shy of the longest win streak in NBA history, but James felt the Bulls unnecessarily roughed him up.
Kirk Hinrich seemed to pull James to the floor in the first quarter, and Taj Gibson appeared to make contact around the three-time MVP’s neck in the fourth. Gibson was called for a flagrant foul before referees decided against it following a video review, and James would receive a flagrant-1 moments later for barreling through Carlos Boozer.
“First of all, Kirk Hinrich in the first quarter basically grabbed me with two hands and brought me to the ground,” James said. “And the last one, Taj Gibson was able to collar me around my shoulder and bring me to the ground.
“Those are not basketball plays. And it’s been happening all year.”
James has averaged 29.3 points on 65.2 percent shooting in the season series, but Dwyane Wade has been held to 19.0 per game and Chris Bosh 15.7 with 4.3 rebounds.
Friday marked the return of Wade and Bosh as Miami beat Boston 109-101 for its 35th home win, matching the team record set in 2004-05.
“I’ve still got some work to do,” said Wade, who had 11 points on 4-of-12 shooting after missing six games with an ankle injury.
Bosh scored 17 following a three-game absence for a sore knee and flu-like symptoms. James had 20 points as he played for the third time in four games after sitting out three with a strained hamstring.
“We want to continue just to work our habits throughout these last three games of the regular season,” James said. “And then the real season begins.”
After Friday’s game, all three Heat All-Stars sounded like they wanted to play against Chicago. However, Udonis Haslem (ankle) and Shane Battier (knee) may sit out again.
The Bulls’ health concerns are more significant. While Derrick Rose’s status remains in limbo as his recovery from a torn ACL drags on, Joakim Noah (foot) and Gibson (knee) might not return before the playoffs and Luol Deng is battling a sore hip.
Chicago will be further short-handed because Richard Hamilton received a one-game suspension for elbowing Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan in the face Friday in a 97-88 loss.
Each of the Bulls’ last six defeats have been to opponents which will miss the postseason. They’ve won four straight against playoff-bound teams – New York, Brooklyn, Miami and Indiana.
“You’ve got to be ready for everybody,” coach Tom Thibodeau said. “Everyone is capable of beating you.
“That’s the nature of the league. What happened yesterday has little bearing on today.”
Boozer has double-doubles in four straight games and 11 of 13 as well as in all three meetings with Miami, including 21 points and 14 rebounds last month.
While Chicago has lost nine of 12 on the road, Miami has won 20 of 21 at home.
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