MIAMI-- Erik Spoesltra obviously has nothing against Miami fans. Not even the guy who shows up every game dressed as a banana.
The Heat coach loves the homecourt advantage his team has at AmericanAirlines Arena, where it is 26-4 this season. But Spoelstra would rather not be in Miami on Thursday night.
"We would probably prefer this one was on the road again and have that opportunity that we had last week," Spoelstra said after Miami's 96-72 home walloping of Toronto on Wednesday while referring to facing Chicago at home Thursday.
The Heat, you see, are still smarting over last Thursday's 96-86 overtime loss at Chicago. It was their big opportunity to get a road win this season over one of the NBA's elite, something they don't have.
After Wednesday's game, Heat players LeBron James and Udonis Haslem both agreed with Spoelstra they would prefer to have Thursday's game instead in Chicago. Instead, the United Center is booked that night for the WWE, er, the NHL playoffs.
"I relish the road as well," James said. "But the schedule is what it is. And we're going to welcome them here."
Actually, welcome is not the right word. The Heat against the Bulls has developed into the NBA's best rivalry, and there will be no gifts exchanged between the teams beforehand as if it were an international friendly.
"We all were pretty down because we had a great opportunity to win in that building," said James of last Thursday's loss, which he called his toughest moment so far this season.
While the Heat might really want revenge in Chicago, they'll have settle for trying to get it in Miami. But, hey, a win over the Bulls anywhere still could prove pivotal for the Heat's playoff hopes.
A chance at the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference looked to be gone after last week's loss, but the Bulls opened the door back open when they somehow lost in overtime Monday at home to Washington. The Heat (44-17) are two games behind Chicago (47-15) in the loss column. So if they win out and the Bulls lose one other game, Miami could seize the top seed.
"I know the guys will be looking forward to it," Spoestra said of Thursday's game.
At least the Heat didn't stub their toes Wednesday. Playing without stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, who were rested and will both play against the Bulls, Miami did trail by as much as 39-32 in the second quarter.
But nobody was too worried. The Raptors (22-41) are quite dreadful and weren't able to keep up that pace. And the Heat weren't resting James.
James used the night to polish his resume for MVP. He made 10 of his first 11 shots and finished 12-of-15 from the field for 28 points.
"He's LeBron," said Heat forward Shane Battier. "He's the MVP. So chalk it up to another day at the office."
James got to clock out early. With the Heat outscoring Toronto 64-33 the rest of the way after they had fallen behind by seven, James didn't need to play in the fourth quarter and ended up logging just 30 minutes on the night.
But James' departure did little to hamper Miami's amazing second-half defense. The Raptors managed just 11 points in the third quarter and 12 in the fourth, and their 23 points for the second half tied a Toronto futility record for a half.
Spoelstra lauded his defense after the game. But the Chicago game was what most people wanted to talk about.
"We're well aware that everything is still up for grabs right now," said Spoelstra, who said decisions how he will rest players down the stretch will be made on a "day-to-day" basis. "So, if you have an opportunity, you try to take it. But that can't be our only focus and obsess about that right now."
If the Bulls win Thursday, it's simple. They would win the tiebreaker between the teams with a 3-1 season-series edge would clinch the No. 1 seed. Then both teams could give their top players plenty of rest before next Thursday's regular-season finales. Obviously, the Bulls, who sat out All-Stars Derrick Rose (foot) and Luol Deng (rib) for Wednesday's 100-68 rout at Charlotte, would be overjoyed with that scenario.
But a Miami win would knot the season series 2-2 and push the race for the top seed perhaps to the final day. If the Heat win out this season and the Bulls lose one other game to an East team, Miami would win the tiebreaker due to a better conference record. Of Chicago's four remaining games, only Saturday's against Dallas is against a West team.
If Miami were to win out and Chicago has one other loss that is to the Mavericks, the teams would have the same conference record. The next tiebreaker is record against East playoff teams. The Heat would win that one if Philadelphia makes the playoffs and not Milwaukee and the Bulls would if the reverse is true.
Enough of the complex stuff. Thursday has become a big game.
"Obviously, the stakes are higher," Battier said of Chicago having lost to the Wizards. "We're playing for something now as opposed to playing the string out. It's exciting.
Of course, James is never one to play out the string.
"If we're going to go out there and guys are going to be uniform, we need to play for something," James said.
There's still plenty to play for even if the game isn't in Chicago.
Chris Tomasson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter@christomasson