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Heat now have edge in East race

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The Miami Heat are in a surprising place -- though a familiar one -- as they go into Wednesday night’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks.

First place in the Eastern Conference.

It’s only by percentage points with the Heat’s 51-22 record (.699) nudging the Indiana Pacers’ 52-23 mark by just .006, but it is the first time since last season, when they finished with the league’s best record, that the Heat have led the East standings.

They still trail Western contenders San Antonio, Oklahoma City, and the Los Angeles Clippers for best record in the NBA standings, which is pretty much out of reach with just two weeks remaining in the regular season. But that hasn’t been the issue.

The team putting all their eggs into the best-conference-record basket has been the Indiana Pacers, who have led from the start in winning their first nine games, 16 of their first 17, and 33 of their first 37 games.

A week ago, the Pacers led the Heat by three games overall and two in the “lost” column after beating the Heat 84-83 in Indianapolis.

Since then, however, the Heat have won three in a row despite being without Dwyane Wade, Ray Allen, and Greg Oden for all three and Mario Chalmers for the first two. The Pacers have lost three in a row and now actually are down a game in the “lost” column, which is critical because you can’t make up for a loss but you can catch an opponent in wins.

The Heat have nine games remaining, six of them at home.

The Pacers have seven more games in the regular season, four of them on the road.

The two have one more date, that coming when they meet in Miami on April 11 with the Heat needing to win to gain a split of the four-game regular-season series.

One thing that has gotten the Heat back on track is their defense. Since giving up 84 points to the Pacers, they have held Detroit to 78, Milwaukee 67, and Toronto 83.

They held the Pistons to just 38 percent shooting and the Bucks to 34 percent before allowing the Raptors to hit 50 percent from the field in the Heat’s 93-83 victory.

The Raptors were only 13-of-32 (41 percent) in the second half, however, as the Heat pulled away from a three-point lead after two quarters to the double-digit victory.

The Heat will be looking to sweep the season series when they host the Bucks for the third and final time just four days after the second meeting. The 14-60 Bucks are fighting with the 16-58 Philadelphia 76ers for the worst record in the league.

Speaking of the 76ers, the Heat finish the regular season at home against them on April 16.

The Pacers, meanwhile, are host to Detroit Wednesday night.

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