How big is Sunday’s game vs. Pacers for Heat? A look at the matchup and what’s at stake

Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra gestures to his team during the second quarter of an NBA basketball game against the New York Knicks on Wednesday, March 21, 2018, in Miami. (AP Photo/Joe Skipper)

OKLAHOMA CITY — Earning home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs has been the Heat’s ultimate goal all along.

To accomplish that, Miami must finish as one of the top four teams in the Eastern Conference. That looks less likely after Friday’s loss to the Thunder, but that target is still within reach with nine regular-season games remaining.

In order to have any realistic hope of reaching that goal, Sunday’s road game against the Pacers will have to result in a win. But the Heat will have to do it without center Hassan Whiteside, who is expected to miss his eighth consecutive game with a left hip flexor strain.

Miami is currently in seventh place, with a one-half game lead on the No. 8 Milwaukee Bucks. Entering Saturday, the Heat are also 1.5 games behind the No. 6 Washington Wizards, and three games behind the No. 5 Indiana Pacers and No. 4 Philadelphia 76ers.

Falling to Indiana on Sunday would put Miami four games away from home-court advantage in the first round with eight regular-season games remaining. A hole that is likely too deep to overcome.

The good news for the Heat is they will be one of the East’s eight playoff teams barring an epic collapse, with a 6.5 game lead over the ninth-place Pistons entering Saturday.

“If you want to move up, you have to keep winning,” Heat guard Tyler Johnson said. “You can’t hope for teams to lose. You’ve got to control your own destiny.”

It won’t be easy, as the Pacers are 25-13 at home and have surprised many with their ability to bounce back after trading away Paul George last offseason. Indiana has posted a 16-8 record over its past 24 games, led by breakout star Victor Oladipo.

“I think from a preseason standpoint, everyone was surprised by the way they came out playing,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said of the Pacers. “But when guys get opportunities in this league, anything can happen. If you look at the makeup of their team, you can tell why they’re good. They play to their strengths and it’s obviously been a great surprise to 98 percent of the world that Victor Oladipo can play. But Victor Oladipo can play. He just didn’t have the opportunity that he has in Indiana to be the guy.”

The Heat believe there isn’t much separating them from the Pacers, even though Indiana currently has what they want — home-court advantage in the first round. Miami has won two if its three matchups with Indiana this season, and the Heat have actually been the better team since the All-Star break with a 5.7 net rating (ranked eighth-best in league) compared to 0.1 for the Pacers (ranked 18th).

“Hey, this is absolutely what you want, as professionals and playing this sport,” coach Erik Spoelstra said, “you want your games to have this kind of impact. We’re playing well, too.”

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