The Miami Heat are back in first place in the Southeast Division, but it won’t be easy to stay there.
The Heat look to maintain their hold on the division lead when they visit the Eastern Conference-leading Detroit Pistons on Sunday.
These teams have met in the conference finals the past two seasons and Detroit is in top form again this year, leading the East for much of the season.
Miami (39-33), which is wrapping up a three-game road trip, beat Minnesota 92-77 on Friday night and jumped ahead of Washington by one-half game in the division after the Wizards lost to Toronto in overtime.
“It’s important, but at the same time we’ve still got a lot of basketball to play so if we turn around and lose Sunday it’s all for nothing,” Heat power forward Udonis Haslem said. “It’s good to be in this position right now, but we’ve got a lot more basketball to play so we’ll try to keep it up.”
The Heat also moved into fourth place in the conference standings as a division leader, but would still be on the road in the first round if the playoffs ended today.
Miami played much better against the Timberwolves than it did in a 96-83 loss to Toronto on Wednesday. The Heat led from start to finish and all five starters scored at least 15 points to help the team win for just the third time in seven games.
“I thought we bounced back with a real good defensive game,” Heat coach Pat Riley said. “It was obvious that were a lot more active. We sustained it. It is nice when guys respond to the beck and call (defensive energy), the coaching beg.”
Miami allowed its fewest points since a 103-70 win over Chicago on March 7. Since losing 112-100 to Dallas on Feb. 22—the game after All-Star guard Dwyane Wade dislocated his left shoulder—the Heat have allowed more than 100 points just once in 18 games.
Miami beat Detroit 85-82 at home on March 2 and will need another strong defensive effort against the Pistons, who have won three of their past four games, averaging 114.7 points in the victories.
Despite missing Richard Hamilton and getting limited minutes from Chris Webber, Detroit beat New Jersey 110-105 on Friday night, scoring 65 points in the second half—including 39 in the fourth quarter.
The Pistons (46-26) were fatigued after a hard-fought 83-81 loss to Chicago the night before, but got 32 points and 14 assists from Chauncey Billups.
“Everyone knows that when we’re down, we aren’t out,” Billups said. “We always have that fight in us, and we are able to get back in games.
“With those two guys down (Hamilton and Webber), I had to step up and be more aggressive. I took that responsibility on, and tried to step it up.”
Hamilton has missed the last four games because of the flu, the same ailment that limited Webber.
The teams have split their first two meetings, both in Miami. The Pistons, though, have won 14 of the past 18 regular-season meetings, including seven of the last eight at home.