Heat already thinking playoffs so they won’t have to ‘scrape and claw at very end’ like last year

Coach Erik Spoelstra’s Miami Heat have lost four straight to the Orlando Magic – including this season’s opener – entering tonight’s game at AmericanAirlines Arena.

MIAMI – The Miami Heat could look back at several games last season when they missed the playoffs because of a tiebreaker.

But one team that popped up more than once was the Orlando Magic.

After defeating the Magic in the 2016-17 opener, Miami lost three in a row to a team that won just 29 games. This season’s series started much like last season’s ended, with the Heat dropping a 116-109 decision, in Orlando.

Now, with the Heat battling for playoff position, they must take advantage of another inferior Magic team starting with tonight’s 7:30 p.m. game at AmericanAirlines Arena.

The Magic were considered an Eastern Conference bottom feeder healthy. But tonight, they could be missing five of their top six players and four who started on opening night.

“It doesn’t matter if they (are missing) a couple of their main guys,” Heat guard Goran Dragic said. “A lot of guys respond in this league when they get their opportunity. They’re going to come out and play tough. It’s how we have to approach it. It’s not going to be an easy game. We’ve already had problems with Orlando in the past. So, we need to be ready.”

Out are forward Terrence Ross (sprained knee ligament, fractured tibia) and center Nikola Vucevic (broken bone left hand).

The loss of Vucevic especially hurts. The 7-footer is averaging 20 points and 13 rebounds against the Heat the last two seasons.

Additionally, the Magic list Evan Fournier (sprained ankle), Aaron Gordon (strained calf) and Jonathan Isaac (sore ankle) as questionable. The lone regular starter definitely available is guard Elfrid Payton.

The Magic enter having lost eight in a row.

“It’s still all about us,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We have enough things that we have to take care of; defend more consistently. That got away from us a little bit. Against New Orleans, we wanted to be able to play much better at home, to establish something here.

“We have great respect for the Orlando Magic. They handled us in the opening game. I don’t know exactly who is going to play for them, but we have enough things we want to really focus on and take care of in our own camp.”

The Heat, who are 7-8 at home, enter with their own health issues. Although center Hassan Whiteside is expected to return after missing 13 games with a bruised left knee, Miami will be without Dion Waiters (left ankle sprain), James Johnson (right ankle bursitis), Justise Winslow (left knee strain), Rodney McGruder (left tibia surgery) and Okaro White (left foot surgery).

The Heat are not feeling sorry for anybody with injury issues and they certainly are not looking past any opponent, no matter how shorthanded.

“We’re trying to get into the playoffs,” Tyler Johnson said. “We’re playing for playoff position right now. Even though some people will call it early, we’re trying to put ourselves in a position where we don’t have to look back, we won’t have to scrape and claw at the very end like we’ve had to in years past.

“We already lost one to them. It’s just pretty easy to get motivated for these games.”

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