Cavaliers-Heat Preview

The Associated Press

MIAMI -- The Miami Heat could be eliminated from playoff contention on Monday night ... or they could receive new hope.

There will be a lot at stake when the Cleveland Cavaliers visit Miami's AmericanAirlines Arena -- and not just for the Heat.

The Cavaliers (51-29) are still trying to win the top seed in the Eastern Conference, and they are locked into a battle with the Boston Celtics, both with identical records. Cleveland, though, owns the tiebreaker over Boston.

However, the Cavaliers plan to sit LeBron James and Kyrie Irving while forward Kevin Love is listed as questionable.

James, who led the Heat to four consecutive NBA Finals appearances, including a pair of championships, has had a tendency to sit out games against Miami at AmericanAirlines Arena.

It happened most recently on March 4. The Cavs rested James and Irving after having played the Orlando Magic the previous night, and the result was a 120-92 run-away win for the host Heat.

This time, with the opportunity to potentially knock the Heat out of playoff contention -- and with the added incentive of trying to chase down the No. 1 seed -- Cleveland again is opting to rest its stars.

One reason why they will sit is because James played 47 minutes and had a triple-double -- 32 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists -- in a 126-125 overtime loss at the Atlanta Hawks on Sunday afternoon. Irving scored 45 points in 45 minutes and added nine assists. Irving also has been dealing with a sore knee

Cleveland blew a 26-point, fourth-quarter lead in the defeat, yet another alarming result for a team that has slumped lately.

"The last 10 games, we're 5-5," James said after the loss at Atlanta. "We've had some good moments and some not-so-good moments. The main thing is we want to be healthy."

That absence of Cleveland's marquee players is welcome news for the Heat, who have to be considered a bit of a long shot to make the playoffs the way things are trending.

When you factor in the tiebreakers, the Heat (39-41) essentially trail the Chicago Bulls (39-41) and the Indiana Pacers (40-40) by one game each in the chase for a playoff berth.

The Heat have two ostensibly tough games remaining -- Cleveland and the Washington Wizards (48-32). But the Heat have had tremendous success against the Cavaliers in Miami, winning 12 in a row. And Miami is also 3-0 vs. the Wizards this season, including a Saturday win at Washington.

If the Heat win both their remaining games, they would get in if either the Bulls or Pacers split the two contests each of those teams has left on its schedule.

It could come down to the Bulls and Heat, which would be a delicious scenario considering the Dwyane Wade saga. Wade, a supposed Heat lifer, left his team in an acrimonious split last summer, signing with Chicago.

Either way, it is amazing that the Heat, despite a brutal 11-30 start to the season, are still alive going into the final two games.

"This team has become very gritty and very stubborn," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

Unfortunately for the Heat, while they have played well against the top five teams in the league, they have had too many slip-ups against the NBA's bottom six, going 9-9.

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