Breaking down the schedules: What are Heat’s chances of moving up in Eastern Conference race?

The NBA is in its stretch run and the Miami Heat are hoping to make a move up the playoff ladder. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky)

SACRAMENTO –The Heat are in a good spot with 14 games remaining and five games clear of No. 9 Detroit in the Eastern Conference.

But Miami has turned its attention from returning to the postseason after last season’s disappointing final night to moving up in the standings.

Miami (36-32) fell to eighth, one half game behind Milwaukee, with Monday’s 115-99 loss at Portland. But eighth or even seventh is not the goal. Though a longshot, Miami is alive for the No. 3 seed being 3.5 games behind Indiana – which had a difficult game at Philadelphia on Tuesday – but it has to climb five teams to get there.

First, the Heat must focus on moving up one spot at a time, with the Bucks, No. 6 Philadelphia and No. 5 Washington realistically within reach.

And breaking down the schedule, the Heat are in pretty good shape to make a move, especially after finishing up this road trip that ends with games in Sacramento on Wednesday and two nights later in Los Angeles against the Lakers.

Here is a breakdown of the six teams battling for the final six spots in the East ranked from the most favorable to the most difficult.

Philadelphia: 36-29, 6th in the East

Games remaining: 11 home, 6 away; 5 vs. winning teams, 12 vs. losing teams.

Philadelphia not only should set its sights on moving up, but it should start thinking about the No. 3 seed. The Sixers entered their home game against the Pacers on Tuesday just two games behind No. 3 Indiana. And look at that schedule: Two games against the Knicks, Hornets and Hawks; one each against Memphis, Orlando and Dallas. That’s nine games against the eight teams that are looking to position themselves for the best possible draft pick (i.e. ‘tanking’). That does not include two against Brooklyn and one at Detroit, who may be tanking by the time they meet. After Tuesday, the Sixers face just four teams with winning records.

Miami: 36-32, 8th in the East

Games remaining: 8 home, 6 away; 6 vs. winning teams, 8 vs. losing teams.

The Heat have just four road games remaining after Friday. Miami plays six games against the eight teams that are tanking, including two each against the Knicks and Hawks, one against the Kings and Bulls. The Heat, though, does play Oklahoma City twice. As for key head-to-head games against others in this group, Miami plays at Indiana and hosts Cleveland. If Miami defends its home court – eight of 12 are at home starting Monday – it could make a nice climb.

Cleveland: 38-28, 4th in the East

Games remaining: 8 home, 8 away; 8 vs. winning teams, 8 vs. losing teams.

Nobody expected this. By now, the only race Cleveland was expected to be part of was for the No. 1 seed. But the dysfunctional Cavs still can’t play defense, even after blowing up their team and gifting Dwyane Wade to the Heat. Cleveland’s remaining schedule is right down the middle. The Cavs played at Phoenix late Tuesday and still have a home game left against the Suns and two games remaining against the Knicks. In their favor: Most of their toughest games (Milwaukee, two vs. Toronto, New Orleans, Washington) are at home.

Washington: 38-29, 5th in the East

Games remaining: 8 home, 7 away; 9 vs. winning teams, 6 vs. losing teams.

Washington and Milwaukee both have tough schedules but for different reasons. The Wizards had one more home game entering Tuesday (they hosted Minnesota), but they had the second most games against winning opponents of the six teams. They are in the midst of that stretch now. Following Tuesday’s game against the Timberwolves they are at Boston, home against Indiana, at San Antonio and home against Denver. And they face Boston and San Antonio again, along with Houston and Cleveland on the road. Then there is the John Wall factor. The Wizards played well without him but they know they need him.

Milwaukee: 36-31, 7th in the East

Games remaining: 6 home, 9 away; 8 vs. winning teams, 7 vs. losing teams

The most disappointing team in the East, the Bucks now easily could finish eighth. Milwaukee has a tough Western swing with games at the Clippers, Warriors, Lakers (a difficult opponent despite their losing record) and Nuggets. The Bucks also travel to Cleveland and Philadelphia. Their next two games are against Orlando and Atlanta and they must take advantage before the final 13-game stretch.

Indiana: 39-28, 3rd in East

Games remaining: 7 home, 8 away; 11 vs. winning teams, 4 vs. losing teams.

The Pacers are fortunate to be in the three spot because the schedule is pretty unforgiving from here on out. It started Tuesday night in Philadelphia and then they play Toronto, at Washington, the Lakers, at New Orleans, the Clippers and Miami before a Western swing takes them to Golden State, the Clippers and Denver with a game at Sacramento thrown in. To top off that stretch, Indiana then has home games against Golden State and Toronto. Ouch.

[Heat mailbag: Could Pat Riley coach this Heat team as it is currently made up? Has Spo found his starting five?]

[Heat’s Justise Winslow continues ascent and this time without Dwyane Wade in uniform]

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