Fourth place in the Eastern Conference is up for grabs. Though neither team has played like it lately, the Miami Heat and the Atlanta Hawks are the top contenders for the highly coveted spot.The Heat look to ride Dwyane Wade to their first back-to-back wins in a month and send the Hawks to their fourth straight defeat Friday night when the Southeast Division rivals square off in Atlanta.
Though the order is still uncertain, the top three seeds in the East playoffs look like they'll go to Cleveland, Boston and Orlando. The race for the final spot that gets home-court advantage in the first round, however, is still wide open.
The Hawks (32-25) are currently in fourth place, but they've lost three straight and four of five since the All-Star break.
The fifth-place Heat (30-26) are 1 1/2 games back, having failed to take full advantage of the Hawks' recent struggles.
It's become increasingly clear since the break that Miami's fortunes rest almost entirely on Wade. The star guard is averaging 35.8 points and 10.5 assists while shooting 55.8 percent from the field and 93.5 percent from the free-throw line in four second-half games. He hasn't gotten much help, though, and Miami has gone just 2-2 in that stretch.
After scoring a career-high 50 points in a loss at Orlando on Sunday, Wade had 31 and a career-high 16 assists in a 103-91 win over Detroit on Tuesday night. Miami hasn't won consecutive games since a three-game streak Jan. 24-28.
"This is the time of the season when you've got to turn it up and we need wins," said Wade, who scored 10 in the final 9:47 on Tuesday.
"Some nights my shot's not going to be going, but I've proven I can do other things. Just trying to get my teammates involved tonight. Knowing coming off of scoring 50, this team was going to be looking at you early on, so I just got other guys involved until things opened up for me."
Wade's teammates sounded like they appreciated his effort.
"MVP. That's all I can say," point guard Mario Chalmers said. "He's leading us. He's our leader. That's what we need from him and that's what he's doing."
The Hawks hope to slow down Wade in their first game at Philips Arena since Feb. 10. Atlanta played its first five games of the second half on the road, getting outscored by an average of 7.6 points in that 1-4 stretch.
The Hawks suffered a particularly disheartening defeat in their last game Wednesday night. They nearly overcame a 17-point deficit, but the rally fell short when Flip Murray's 14-footer bounced off the rim as time expired in the 110-109 loss to Denver.
"It was a shot I should have made," said Murray, who had 15 points while starting in place of Mike Bibby, out with an illness. "I had a chance to win the game with my last shot and I short-armed it. But it was a shot I should have made. Other than that it was a good game."
The Hawks hope both Bibby and starting forward Josh Smith can play against Miami. Smith was excused from Wednesday's game to tend to a personal matter.
These teams have split their first two meetings, both in Miami. Wade was held to 21 points and 9-for-24 shooting in an 87-73 loss Dec. 12 before bouncing back with 35 points and 13-for-19 shooting in a 95-79 victory Jan. 26.
The Heat had won six of seven in Atlanta before dropping both games there last season.