Playoff? Yes, we’re talking playoffs as Heat-Pistons square off tonight

Miami Heat’s Hassan Whiteside, left, and Goran Dragic watch during the second half of the team’s NBA basketball game against the Brooklyn Nets, Friday, Dec. 29, 2017, in Miami. The Nets won 111-87. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

MIAMI – It’s never too early start thinking playoffs. So why not on the day the Heat play their first game of the new year against one of the teams they expect to be in direct competition with for post-season positioning.

Just 3.5 games separate the seven teams holding the fourth through 10th spot in the Eastern Conference. Miami (19-17) is No. 7, 1.5 games behind tonight’s opponent and the No. 4 seed, Detroit (20-15).

Things are so bunched Miami could end the night No. 6, one-half game out of the fourth spot or No. 8, 2.5 games out of the fourth spot.

“We’re playing for playoff position right now,” Tyler Johnson said. “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’re not having to scrape and claw at the very end like we’ve had to in years past.”

Nobody knows better than the Heat how much every game counts. A year ago, even a 30-11 finish could not get Miami into the post season, not after starting 11-30. The Heat ended the season tied with Chicago for the eighth seed and lost the tiebreaker.

“You want to get up there as much as possible,” guard Goran Dragic said. “It’s still more than 44 games (46 entering Wednesday). A lot of things can happen. First of all, we need to be consistent, especially here at home. For now, we’re playing better away than at home. We need to play good at home too.”

The Heat are 8-9 at home and 11-8 on the road. They have the fewest wins of any of the top eight teams in the East and are one of two teams in the conference with a better record on the road than at home.

The Pistons are 8-10 on the road. The two teams play four times this season with Detroit winning the first meeting, 112-103, at home in November.

“We really want to play well in front of the fans,” center Hassan Whiteside said. “We are really out to protect home court.”

Two of the worst home losses have come in two of the last three games. Miami was embarrassed by the Nets, 111-87, Friday, a game in which it trailed by 38 points in the third quarter. That came six nights after a 15-point loss to the Pelicans.

Heat players have been at a loss for words for weeks as the poor performances at home have mounted. But Dragic said today perhaps players relax thinking things are easier at home.

“Maybe because when you go on the road you know you’re playing against everybody, the fans, the players,” he said. “You know you’re in a hostile environment. Here, I don’t know. Maybe we think it’s going to be easy. I don’t know. Hopefully that’s going to change tonight.”

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