Goal or not, Heat back atop East

James then quickly tempered his response and placed the game in perspective when he was asked to describe how meaningful it was for the Heat to get a big win as they prepare for the playoffs. Two days earlier, in the aftermath of Wednesday's loss in Memphis, James said facing the Pacers on Friday with first place at stake was "going to feel like a Game 7" in the postseason.

There was a different take on it after beating Indiana to earn a split of the four-game season series.

"It's not as big as everyone wanted to make it," James said. "For us, it's big because we wanted to play better than we did on that last trip in Memphis. In that sense, it's been a while since we put together a 48-minute game. Tonight, we were as close to 48 minutes as possible."

The Heat will now have less than 24 hours to show just how motivated they are to maintain their grip on the top spot in the East and the right to host a Game 7 in Miami -- should it come to that -- through the first three rounds of the playoffs. The Heat benefited from that luxury last season when they beat the Pacers in Game 7 of the conference finals, then went on to win Games 6 and 7 at home against the  San Antonio Spurs to win their second consecutive championship.

"We've played a lot of meaningful games," James said. "This is not biggest game we've played in our four years together. I think it's always great to have competitive games like this in the regular season, but we've played in Game 7 in the Finals before, so it doesn't get no bigger than that."

The Heat face the Atlanta Hawks on Saturday on the second night of a back-to-back set. It's a matchup that could also serve as a potential preview of the first-round playoff series, with the Heat holding the No. 1 seed and the Hawks trying to hold off the New York Knicks for the No. 8 spot.

Before Friday's game, James and the Heat talked about how entering the playoffs as healthy as possible registers as a far bigger priority than battling the Pacers for the East's top seed. Those goals didn't have to be mutually exclusive. While Wade's status remains uncertain for the last three games of the regular season, the Heat got Udonis Haslem back from a two-game absence with a stomach virus and also saw Chris Andersen return after missing recent games with knee and back soreness.

What Friday's win revealed is that pushing the Pacers for the No. 1 seed and getting healthy for next week's opening round of the playoffs no longer has to be an either/or scenario. After playing the Hawks, the Heat finish the season at Washington on Monday and at home Wednesday against Philadelphia.

"I would love to see us play with this intensity to our identity [Saturday] night as well," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "If we do that, the results seem to take care of themselves."

Until then, Miami is perfectly fine just allowing the playoff picture to play out.

The Heat have left the seed talk to the Pacers all season long.

And they see no reason to change that approach now.

"When you're playing the best team in the East at that time, you want to make sure you play as best as possible," Heat center Chris Bosh said. "We have been talking about this 1-seed too much for too long. I'm just looking forward to [Saturday] ... and we'll worry about those things later."

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