MIAMI – The Miami Heat are facing their toughest stretch of the final 10 games of the season.
Beginning Friday in Oklahoma City, the Heat will take on three straight teams jostling for playoff positioning, two being teams the Heat are chasing in the East.
Miami, fresh off a convincing victory over the lowly Knicks on Wednesday, plays the Thunder for the first time this season before traveling to Indiana on Sunday and returning home to face the Cavaliers on Tuesday. The Heat enter the weekend seventh in the East, two games behind No. 5 Indiana and 3.5 games behind No. 3 Cleveland.
“We’re ready for the challenge,” Kelly Olynyk said. “It’s going to be three tough games. That’s three playoff teams and two of them are on the road and that’s what the playoffs are going to be like. It’s a good test for us and a good chance for us to go in there and see what we’re made of.”
The Heat (39-33) have played well against winning teams of late, taking 4-of-6 games during its recent run of nine wins in 13 games, one of those loses in overtime at Washington.
“This is what you want as competitors,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You want to go out every night and measure yourself and see how far we’ve come. We think we’ve been playing good basketball. OKC obviously has been playing at a high level right now. It’s a good challenge.”
And the Heat hope to receive a lift in the near future by the return of Dwyane Wade (mild left hamstring strain) and Hassan Whiteside (left hip flexor strain). Wade missed the last five games and Whiteside sat out the last six. Both have been working their way back and could return soon. Both players are listed as out for the OKC game.
The Thunder (42-30) have won three straight and sit third in the West entering Thursday’s games one/half-game ahead of New Orleans and San Antonio. The Heat and Thunder have not met this season and play twice in the final 10 games, meaning this is the Heat’s first look at OKC with Paul George and Carmelo Anthony as Russell Westbrook’s running mates.
But more pressing to the Heat is reversing a trend that started two months ago: Before surviving a one-point game in Los Angeles against the Lakers last Friday, the Heat had lost nine straight road games.
“It’s going to be a tough road trip,” Goran Dragic said. “Those teams are playing well, they’re going to be in the playoffs. We need to take care of our business. We bring that effort and it’s going to be a great challenge for us especially on the road. I think we’re ready. We can beat anybody as long as we’re focused.”
After Cleveland, the schedule become much easier down the stretch. Miami plays five straight games against four the five bottom feeders of the East; at home against Chicago, Brooklyn and Atlanta and at Atlanta and New York. The Heat then conclude the regular season with home games against OKC and Toronto.