MIAMI — The wait is over.
After missing out on a few opportunities to clinch a playoff spot over the past week, the Heat (42-36) finally secured a spot in the postseason with a dramatic 101-98 comeback victory over the Hawks (22-56) on Tuesday at AmericanAirlines Arena. It marked the fourth day Miami had a chance to punch its playoff ticket, as it came up empty on the previous three with the help of Saturday’s disappointing home loss to the Nets.
“This first hurdle that we’ve gotten over that we were able to get into the playoffs, that is great,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “It’s well-earned. I don’t want our guys to be so jaded, to have so many years in this league that you can’t enjoy the small victories. This is an important victory for that group in that locker room to go through.”
The Hawks didn’t make it easy, though. Despite having the worst record in the Eastern Conference, Atlanta pushed Miami to the limit.
The Heat found themselves trailing 98-90 with 3:07 to play, but went on to close the game on an 11-0 run to earn the win. Miami’s defense tightened up, as Atlanta missed its final six shots and Josh Richardson blocked two shots in the final 1.3 seconds (including a potential game-winner from John Collins as time expired).
Tuesday was special, and not just because it clinched the organization’s 20th playoff appearance in 30 seasons. But also because of the pain the Heat felt last year, when they missed the postseason by one game following a historic turnaround.
“I just told the team when I walked in that it felt a lot different walking into this locker room tonight than it did just about a year ago on the last game,” Spoelstra said referring to last season’s disappointing finish. “There’s only one way with this group and that’s the hard way. It took us a year to grind and make amends for last year. We put everything we had into it and fell one game short. But we were able to finally get that check mark next to our name.”
It marks Miami’s eighth trip to the playoffs in 10 seasons under Spoelstra and the 18th since Pat Riley arrived in 1995-96.
“I think it would have been better without UD and D-Wade,” James Johnson said with a laugh when asked about the emotion that comes with clinching a playoff spot. “To them, that’s just normal. They kind of set the tone for that and everyone else just sat down at their locker. I am still overwhelmed. I am enjoying this, heart bumping. It feels a lot different than last year, for sure.”
Goran Dragic led the Heat with 22 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and three steals. Hassan Whiteside finished with 18 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks in 28 minutes just days after his postgame rant about his lack of playing time.
Collins, a Hawks rookie who attended Cardinal Newman High, recorded 19 points and 10 rebounds.
The Heat and Hawks will face off again Wednesday night in Atlanta.
Here are our five takeaways …
Heat move up to sixth in East: After Tuesday’s playoff-clinching win, the only real regular-season question for the Heat is: Where will they finish among the eight Eastern Conference playoff teams? Miami entered the day in seventh, but it ended it in sixth. With the Wizards losing to the Rockets and the Bucks defeating the Celtics on Tuesday night, Miami, Washington and Milwaukee all stand at 42-36. But the Heat currently hold the tiebreaker over both teams by virtue of division record. If the season ended right now, Miami would be facing LeBron James and the third-seeded Cavaliers in the first round. The storylines would write themselves if that’s the matchup. But with four regular-season games remaining for the Heat, the battle for playoff positioning could continue until the final day.
“When the 82 games are up, you want to see who you match up with,” Wade said when asked about the tight playoff race. “We know that we’re in position sixth, seventh, eighth any given night. As it looks right now, it will be Toronto, Boston or Cleveland. They’re all very, very good teams. It doesn’t matter who we match up with. We’ll have our work cut out for us. Other matchups have more storylines than others, so we’ll wait and see.”
A strong response from Whiteside: How did Hassan Whiteside respond after creating a stir with Saturday’s postgame rant about his lack of playing time? Pretty well. Whiteside was active from the start, tallying nine points, six rebounds and three blocks in the first quarter. The Heat’s starting center finished with 18 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks in 28 minutes in his third game back from a strained left hip flexor. And he was part of the closing lineup, playing all but one second of the final 7:38. Sure, it came against a weak Hawks team. But this is the Whiteside the Heat need more often than not, especially in the playoffs. His energy and activity level was noticeably up Tuesday, and that’s a positive sign for Miami moving forward.
“Hassan is going to be just fine,” Spoelstra said. “If you guys could leave Hassan to us then we think he’s come a long way. He’s learning how to impact winning. He’s had moments where, especially right before he got hurt, he was playing great basketball.
“And there’s a lot of emotion in competition. A lot of things come out and it’s so much different than it was 10 years ago. Everything comes out and we moved on. You saw his impact tonight. But c’mon let’s be real about it, this is not the first time he’s had an impact in a win this year. So we’ll continue to build on this.”
Another strong defensive performance: The Heat’s defense was good again Tuesday. Miami limited Atlanta to 98 points on 42 percent shooting and forced the Hawks into 18 turnovers. It marked the fourth consecutive game that Miami has held an opponent under 43 percent shooting. The Heat’s defense played a big part in their game-winning 11-0 run, as the Hawks missed their final six shots of the contest. Miami is 26-6 this season when holding opponents to under 100 points. The Heat entered with the league’s eighth-best defensive rating and they’ve been trending in the right direction on that side of the court lately.
“Our defense, especially the last three minutes of the game, was really tremendous,” Dragic said. “They didn’t get open looks. J-Rich was great in the last two possessions. … We wanted this game for us and for our fans. We wanted to clinch the playoffs at home.”
Heat avoid another bad loss: Just a few days after falling to a struggling Nets team that owns the third-worst record in the Eastern Conference, the Heat almost lost to the team with the worst record in the East. Atlanta was without starting point guard Dennis Schroder and starting shooting guard Kent Bazemore, and it was still a close game until the end. In fact, the Heat were down 98-90 with 3:07 to play. But Miami closed on an 11-0 run to earn the comeback win. The Heat already have 11 losses this season to teams at least 10 games below .500. Good thing Miami avoided the 12th.
Olynyk about to cash in: It was a good night for Kelly Olynyk. Not just because the Heat clinched a playoff spot, but because he’s about to take home $1 million. After playing 20 minutes against the Hawks, Olynyk is two minutes and 21 seconds away from earning his $1 million bonus for playing at least 1,700 minutes during the regular season. He’s now played a career-high 1,698 minutes in his first year with the Heat, which easily surpassed his previous career-high of 1,538 in 2016-17 with the Celtics.