With the NBA All-Star Games activities out of the way, the Miami Heat now can get back to the real business of the season: The race in the Eastern Conference and, longer term, the competition for best record in the league.
Finishing first in the East gives the Heat home-court advantage through the conference finals.
Getting the best record overall gives them home-court for the Finals.
Early on, the Indiana Pacers were pretty much acceded the former with their hot start. But when the Heat resume play Tuesday night in Dallas, they will be only two games back of the Pacers in the “lost” column with the two teams having two meetings remaining in the regular season (March 26 at Indianapolis and April 11 in Miami).
Suddenly, it looks to be a race again in the East.
The Heat are four games back of Western Conference Leader Oklahoma City overall but, as with the Pacers, have only two more losses than the Thunder with the two set to meet for the second and final time Thursday in Oklahoma City.
The number of losses is more critical because you can make up deficits against a team in wins, but not in defeats. It’s like a game lost is on your permanent record. An advantage in wins can be temporary.
Of course, it’s not exactly a fatal blow if the Heat don’t gain home-court advantage in the playoffs. History has shown they have a way of making up such disadvantages.
They had the advantage of the extra game at home through all of last year’s playoffs, but in 2012 the Thunder owned the home-court in the Finals.
The Heat gained a split of the first two games, then won three in a row at home for the title. That’s not going to be possible this time, however, because the NBA has switched to a 2-2-1-1-1 format for the finals instead of the 2-3-2 that had been used the last several years.
In 2011, the Bulls had the home-court advantage in the Eastern finals and won the opener in Chicago. But the Heat responded by winning four a row, the second game at Chicago, two in Miami, and the fifth game back in Chicago to move on.
Against Dallas in the Finals, the Heat had the home-floor advantage and won the opener, but lost the series when the Mavericks won four of the next five, including Game 6 in Miami.
Other issues would seem to take precedence over the competition to finish with the best record in the league.
Here are some things to watch for:
-- How much will Dwyane Wade be able to handle over the final two months of the regular season? He has missed 15 of the first 51 games, mostly because of tender knees. Wade played less than 12 minutes in Sunday night’s all-star game after sitting out the Heat’s last two games.
Starting Ray Allen in Wade’s place upsets the rotation, taking away from the punch Allen gives the Heat coming off the bench. But is recently acquired Toney Douglas, who started the Heat’s last two games, the answer in the playoffs?
-- How much will Greg Oden, acquired in the off-season to add muscle inside, be able to play? Coming back from his injury history, Oden has played in nine games for the Heat, averaging 8.1 minutes an appearances.
At times he has looked as if he could be a contributor inside, but he still has to prove he can hold up over the long run.
-- What about the schedule? After finishing up a stretch of six consecutive road games with the outings in Dallas and Oklahoma City, the Heat will have 17 home games remaining against 12 on the road.
That’s favorable, but they also have seven sets of back-to-back games on consecutive nights, including two in the first 10 days of March. That could mean less time for Wade and more of a load for LeBron James to carry.
There likely will be other issues to crop up over the next few weeks, but those are three of the bigger ones at the moment.