The Miami Heat have taken control in the race for second place in the Eastern Conference, but they can’t relax quite yet.
The Heat look to move closer to securing the second seed Monday night when they visit the slumping Atlanta Hawks.
Miami (56-24) entered Sunday’s home game against Boston tied with the Celtics for second place in the East, and home-court advantage for a possible rematch in the conference semifinals.
Although Miami moved into sole possession of second place, it still needs a combination of wins or Boston losses totaling two to clinch that spot. The Celtics own the tiebreaker by virtue of a 3-1 edge in the season series.
“We proved we can beat them,” Miami coach Erik Spoelstra said after Sunday’s win. “That’s about it, in my mind.”
The Celtics’ remaining games are both winnable - at Washington on Monday and at home against New York on Wednesday. The Heat wrap up the season Wednesday at hapless Toronto, meaning beating the Hawks (44-36) may prove pivotal in the quest for the second seed.
The Heat’s ease of victory Sunday was thanks in part to strong performances by several role players.
James had 43 points in a 106-85 win in Atlanta on March 18, the last time these teams met. The seven-time All-Star made 16 of 21 shots, including five 3-pointers, and took over in the third quarter, outscoring Atlanta 23-20 by himself.
James is averaging 33.0 points, his most against any East opponent, in three meetings with the Hawks this season. The Heat won two of the three.
The Hawks are locked into the fifth seed in the East, but appear to be backing into the playoffs.
Atlanta has lost four in a row, including an embarrassing 115-83 rout at Washington on Saturday, its first loss to the Wizards in 13 games. Al Horford(notes) led the Hawks with 21 points and 10 rebounds, but coach Larry Drew pulled his starters early in the fourth quarter.
“You can’t just flip the switch,” Drew said. “It just doesn’t work like that. I’ve been around this thing long enough to see that you can’t just turn it on and turn it off. You want to be playing well, you want to be clicking so that you don’t miss a beat once the playoffs start.”
Poor defense has been the biggest reason for Atlanta’s recent problems.
The Hawks allowed Washington to shoot 53.5 percent, and are surrendering an average of 110.0 points on 52.3 percent shooting during their losing streak.
Atlanta is trying to avoid dropping five straight games for the first time since a six-game skid Feb. 8-20, 2008.