MIAMI — It is getting close to winning time for the Miami Heat, and the two-time defending NBA champions can sense it.
Forward LeBron James piled up 32 points, seven rebounds and eight assists, and the Heat earned an important win in the battle for the top record in the Eastern Conference, defeating the Toronto Raptors 93-83 Monday night at AmericanAirlines Arena.
By virtue of the win and the Indiana Pacers’ loss to the San Antonio Spurs earlier Monday, the Heat (51-22) lead in the competition for the best record in the East. The Pacers (52-23) are in second place by percentage points.
“We can smell the playoffs,” James said. “It’s right around the corner.”
Indeed, the Heat can put an unimpressive March — they went 10-8 — in the rearview mirror. They can now focus on finishing strong in a regular season that concludes April 16.
James said the Heat has played with “a sense of urgency” since their March 16 win over the Houston Rockets. Even last week’s loss to Indiana wasn’t all bad, James said.
“Even though we lost, we put ourselves in a position to win,” said James, whose team hosts the Pacers on April 11 in the teams’ last regular-season meeting. “We don’t talk about (the standings much). It’s a long season, and we still have work to do.”
James did much of his work Monday in the first three quarters, when he had 29 points.
The Raptors, who trailed by as many as 14 points in the third quarter, rallied within 81-78 with 6:13 left in the game. However, the Heat went on a 6-0 run to regain their cushion.
The loss was damaging to the Raptors, who are tied by the Chicago Bulls for third place in the East.
Toronto (42-32) was led by reserve guard Greivis Vasquez, who had 17 points. Shooting guard DeMar DeRozan had 16 points, but that is seven points below his average.
Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry bumped knees with James in the second quarter and had to leave the game in the third. Raptors coach Dwane Casey said the severity of the injury was not immediately known.
“His knee puffed up pretty good,” Casey said of the swelling. “We pulled him out. He couldn’t go.”
DeRozan said it hurt not having Lowry out there.
“He usually gets up and goes (when he gets knocked down),” DeRozan said. “But we know what is best for him — sit out and rest. We understand the big picture. We know he is going to be all right.”
The Raptors had five scorers in double figures and shot 50 percent from the floor, but there was a glaring problem.
“We only shot 10 free throws,” Casey said of his team, which made five of the 10. “We couldn’t generate anything to the basket.”
Miami, which made 18 of 22 from the foul line, won its third straight game despite using its 20th different starting lineup this season.
The Heat was without shooting guards Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen and center Greg Oden but still had enough to snap Toronto’s three-game win streak.
The Heat, who got 18 points from forward Chris Bosh, are 15-7 without Wade this season.
Miami also got 13 points and seven rebounds from forward Chris “Birdman” Andersen, who was 5-for-5 from the floor and 3-for-3 from the foul line.
Toronto, which has clinched a playoff berth for the first time since 2008 and is 35-20 since it traded small forward Rudy Gay, battled the Heat early.
Miami held a 24-23 lead after the first quarter as James had 10 points. James added 11 points in the second quarter as the Heat, which at one point trailed by 10 points, stretched their lead to 54-51 heading into the break.
Miami headed into the fourth leading 74-65 as the Raptors shot just 33.3 percent in the third quarter.
That set up Toronto’s brief rally in the fourth quarter, which was not enough to keep the Raptors from going 0-4 against the Heat this season.
As for the battle with the Pacers, Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said he is aware of the race.
“Guys will look at the standings — I will look at the standings,” he said. “It’s not like we’re naive to it. But I didn’t talk about it (with the team). I talked about our attitude and mental preparation.”
NOTES: Heat PG Mario Chalmers (thigh bruise) returned to the lineup Monday after a two-game absence. … Miami SG Dwyane Wade (hamstring) sat out his third game in a row. It was the 22nd game he missed this season. … Heat C Greg Oden (back) also sat out his third straight game. He has missed 51 games this season. … Miami G Ray Allen (flu) missed his fourth consecutive game. … Heat F Udonis Haslem started for just the 11th time this season, while G Toney Douglas made his ninth start. … Raptors F Patrick Patterson entered Monday’s game early in the first quarter, playing for the first time since he injured his right elbow on March 7. He missed 13 games. Patterson finished with two points in eight minutes Monday. … Raptors PG Kyle Lowry entered Monday with career-high averages in points (17.5 per game), assists (7.6), rebounds (4.8), steals (1.6), plus a career-best 3-point percentage (.379). … Miami’s five-game homestand continues Wednesday against the Milwaukee Bucks. … Toronto returns home for two tough games: Wednesday vs. the Houston Rockets and Friday vs. the Indiana Pacers.
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