MIAMI – Finally.
The Miami Heat can start looking at playoff positioning now knowing no matter what happens, they will have a spot in the postseason.
The Heat earned that right after scoring the final 11 points in a 101-98 victory over the lowly Hawks on Tuesday, preventing what would have been a disheartening loss. More satisfying is the Heat return to the playoffs after losing out a season ago on a tiebreaker.
“The bulk of the team that came back, we felt that the guys earned the opportunity to get another crack at it and it’s gratifying to see the team find a way to persevere, show some resilience to be able to get it done,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “So we’re in, but hopefully we’re not stopping. We still have four games to continue to try to secure this.”
What is next for the Heat?
When Spoelstra says “secure this,” he means the sixth seed. This much we know. The highest the Heat can realistically finish is sixth, which is where they sit this morning. The Heat, Wizards and Bucks all are 42-36 after the Wizards’ 120-104 loss in Houston and the Bucks’ 106-102 home victory over the Celtics on Tuesday. Each has four games remaining.
The Heat, though, are in the best position with the tiebreakers.
If the three teams finish with the same record, the team that is a division winner gets the top spot, which would eliminate Milwaukee and turn it into a tw0-way tiebreaker between the Heat and Wizards. Because the Heat and Wizards split their four games, that tiebreaker would then be their records in the Southeast Division. Miami is 10-5, Washington is 8-6, which is why the Heat currently are listed as the No. 6 team. The Heat have one division game remaining, tonight at Atlanta and a victory will clinch the tiebreaker over the Wizards, thus clinch the three-way tiebreaker with Washington and Milwaukee. Washington has division games remaining at home against Atlanta and at Orlando.
The Heat own he tiebreaker with Milwaukee by virtue of sweeping the three-game series.
Here are the remaining schedules for the three teams:
Miami: at Atlanta, at New York, OKC, Toronto.
Washington: at Cleveland, Atlanta, Boston, at Orlando.
Milwaukee: Brooklyn, at New York, Orlando, at Philadelphia.
All three teams have two home and two on the road. But the Bucks have just one game remaining against a winning team, at the Sixers.
So, what is the best landing spot when it comes to the opponent? That still is yet to be determined.
Toronto’s lead over Boston for the best record in the East remains at two after both teams lost Tuesday. They play tonight in Toronto.
If the Raptors hold onto the No. 1 seed, then the conventional thinking is it is best to finish seventh to face the Celtics, who are battling serious injury issues and could be without guards Kyrie Irving and Marcus Smart for the first round.
But that may only be if Cleveland is third.
If the Heat hold onto the sixth spot, that likely means a first-round matchup with either Cleveland or Philadelphia. Cleveland (48-30) holds a half-game lead over Philadelphia (47-30) and a two-game lead over Indiana (46-32) for the No. 3 seed. The Cavs and Sixers face each other Friday in Philadelphia. The Sixers have won 11 straight against a very favorable schedule but that run has been tempered since All-Star center Joel Embiid had to undergo surgery last week to repair a left eye orbital fracture. Embiid ‘s availability for the first round is uncertain.
Suddenly, facing the Sixers without Embiid is much more appealing that having to play LeBron James and the team that has gone to the Finals in each of the last three seasons, despite the Cavs’ uneven play this season; or even a beat-up Boston team.
All of which means the Heat could have a lot to play for in the final week.
Heat players, though, are prepared to face any team.
“I’m not a calculated guy of who we’re going to get,” Goran Dragic said. “I don’t mess with basketball gods. We just need to play and be ready. If you make some noise, you need to win against the best teams in this league so it doesn’t matter if you get them in the first or second (round). You need to go through everybody, so why not play Cleveland? We’ll see.”
Said James Johnson: “I like our chances with seven games against anybody.”