This was about more than a head-to-head battle for the eighth and final playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.
This was about an essential first step for what comes next.
Because for the Miami Heat, even though it didn't look that way at times Sunday at AmericanAirlines Arena, this 93-75 victory over the Charlotte Hornets was the easy part.
Up next: road games this week against the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs, Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards.
To be followed in the dwindling days of the regular season by two games against the Boston Celtics and single games against the Toronto Raptors, Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets and Bucks again.
"It's an opportunity to take on all challenges," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
It is why this one, as well as upcoming games against the Orlando Magic, Dallas Mavericks, New York Knicks and even Minnesota Timberwolves stand as so essential.
Because the greatest challenges remain, even as Sunday meant retaining hold on No. 8 in the East.
So the Heat dared any Hornet other than Kemba Walker to beat them, suffocating the All-Star point guard into submission on a 4-of-16 shooting day with a relentless series of traps.
"It's been something that the guys have really been working on," Spoelstra said of a smothering defensive effort that limited Charlotte to .313 shooting.
From there, the Heat put their ensemble approach to work, getting solid efforts from Goran Dragic (19 points), Dwyane Wade (17), Bam Adebayo (16) and others to put it away.
"At the end of the game," Wade said, "the veterans took over."
Including Wade, who got a curious pregame prod from Hassan Whiteside.
"Hassan said, 'D, just give us two minutes,' " Wade said. "I thought that was hilarious. I remember going to Hassan a few times."
Five degrees of Heat from Sunday's game:
1. Big things: For a team that began the season so overloaded with wings that there had to be a trading-deadline selloff of Tyler Johnson and Wayne Ellington, big men continue to provide some of the biggest dividends for the Heat.
Adebayo had another solid effort in the opening lineup, adding nine rebounds.
While his shot wasn't on, Kelly Olynyk again filled out the box score, with four points, nine rebounds and six assists.
And no longer needing to pace himself, Whiteside came off the bench for six points and eight rebounds.
Spoelstra said his big men also were essential in the defensive effort.
"We had to cover a lot of ground," he said. "The bigs were covering a lot of ground."
2. Nothing . . . or all: The Heat shot 2 of 16 on 3-pointers in the first half, with Josh Richardson 0 for 6.
From there, Dion Waiters hit four 3-pointers early in in the third period, to help end the drought, as part of a 5-of-9 period for the Heat from beyond the arc.
Many of those possessions came against the Hornets' zone defense, with Charlotte out-zoning the Heat.
For Richardson, it largely was a nightmare outing on the offensive, compensating with his passing, rebounding and defense. He finished 2 of 17 from the field and 0 for 9 on 3-pointers, but also with six rebounds and five assists.
"On the offensive side I wasn't good," he said. "But on the defensive end I thought I was having a good game. We were super locked in on that side."
3: No Winslow: Heat point guard Justise Winslow missed his eighth game of the season, the first absence due to a thigh bruise.
Winslow previously had missed the first four games of the season due to a sore right hamstring, with the Heat 2-2 in those games. He then missed a December victory over the Houston Rockets with a sore left ankle, and then losses to the Detroit Pistons and Phoenix Suns with a sore left knee.
Spoelstra declined to predict the length of the absence.
"It's a thigh-hip bruise," he said, "so that would be tough to tell."
The Heat had listed Wade as doubtful pregame due to a sore hip, but Wade took his normal turn in the rotation as sixth man. Wade has not missed a game since sitting out a Jan. 30 home loss to the Chicago Bulls with knee soreness, with the second game of a back-to-back set now looming Monday in Oklahoma City.
"He knows how important a game like tonight is," Spoelstra said. "I'm really going to miss that. So many players sit out in this league."
4. Another lineup: The Heat opened with their 24th starting lineup, with Derrick Jones Jr. opening in place of Winslow.
The opening tap marked the first time Jones, Adebayo, Olynyk, Richardson and Waiters played in the same five-man unit this season.
The move was made instead of returning Dragic to the starting lineup, with Dragic playing as Sunday's second reserve.
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The Heat utilized 25 starting lineups last season, with the franchise record 31 in 2014-15, the season after LeBron James left to rejoin the Cleveland Cavaliers.
5. Johnson back: When James Johnson checked in with 41 seconds left in the opening period it was his first action since he played seven minutes in the Feb. 21 road loss to the Philadelphia 76ers.
Johnson then missed four games with a shoulder sprain sustained in that loss, held out of the lineup the following seven games due to "Coach's Decision."
Johnson lost his starting job to Olynyk on Feb. 5 and had seen his minutes cut into by the emergence of Jones, with even Udonis Haslem finding spot minutes ahead of his fellow tri-captain.
Johnson closed with six points, three rebounds and three assists in 17:06.
"He stepped in and gave us phenomenal minutes," Spoelstra said.