After clinching a playoff spot for the fourth consecutive season, the Miami Heat will try to improve their Eastern Conference position Friday by taking advantage of the injury-depleted and lottery-bound Boston Celtics.

Miami (41-34), the reigning NBA champion, secured its postseason spot Thursday with a 94-90 overtime victory at Cleveland as Antoine Walker and Shaquille O'Neal scored 20 points each.

"Oh good," Heat coach Pat Riley said upon hearing his team was in the postseason. "My worst nightmare was to win a championship, and then not make the playoffs the following year. We're in, but we're shooting for much higher things.

"I always thought despite the ups and downs that we would at least make the playoffs."

With that goal reached, the Heat now look to win their third consecutive Southeast Division title and improve upon their fourth-place position in the East, one game behind the Atlantic-leading Toronto Raptors. All three division winners are guaranteed home-court advantage in the first round.

The Heat are 1 1/2 games ahead of Washington with seven remaining and have one game in hand on the Wizards, who are without All-Stars Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler for the rest of the regular season due to a knee injury.

Miami appeared unlikely to even make the playoffs when Dwyane Wade suffered a dislocated left shoulder on Feb. 21. The Heat responded by going 15-7 without him and holding opponents to an average of 89.8 points.

Wade - who resumed practice Monday - is hoping to return soon, but Riley is unsure when that will be.

"I do know that he is getting closer everyday, but it's his decision on when to come back," Riley said. "He started playing live, bumping around and that is a whole different level than just practicing and conditioning."

Until then, O'Neal will try to continue leading the way. The All-Star center is averaging 19.2 points and 7.7 rebounds in the 22 games since Wade got hurt. O'Neal was held to nine points and four boards, but Wade scored a game-high 30 in the only meeting with the Celtics this season, a 91-79 victory at Boston - Miami's fourth win over them in five games.

The Celtics (23-51), who have the worst record in the East, are coming off a 98-89 loss at Milwaukee on Wednesday in a game that had major NBA draft lottery ramifications.

Both teams dressed only nine players for the contest due to injuries, and Boston suffered another with Delonte West leaving in the third quarter due to a sprained left ankle. His availability for Friday is uncertain, but Paul Pierce - the Celtics' top scorer at 25.0 points per game - is expected to miss his fourth consecutive game with a sore left elbow.

Boston might also again be without Al Jefferson (left knee bruise) and Brian Scalabrine (strained left hamstring).

The potential absences leave Ryan Gomes as Boston's leading healthy scorer with 11.7 points. The second-year forward has totaled 34 points in his last two games against Miami.

The teams conclude their season series at Miami on April 16.


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