INDIANAPOLIS — The good news is the Heat are coming back to Miami for a four-game homestand. The bad news is they are about to face one of the hottest teams in the NBA.
The Heat return home — on Monday after a mechanical issue with their team plane forced them to stay in Indianapolis on Sunday night — from a winless two-game trip to face LeBron James and the Cavaliers on Tuesday. As bad as Miami has been on the road (1-11 in past 12 road games), the Heat have been dominant at home recently with wins in nine of their past 10 games played at AmericanAirlines Arena.
But the Cavaliers will put the Heat’s home success to the test, as Cleveland brings a five-game winning streak to Miami. James is averaging 34.4 points on 61.5 percent shooting to go with 9.6 rebounds and 11.2 assists during this stretch.
And the Heat are expected to be without starting center Hassan Whiteside (left hip flexor strain) for the ninth consecutive game. Whiteside is listed as out for Miami’s matchup with Cleveland.
“It’s going to be a great atmosphere on Tuesday,” said Dwyane Wade, who played in 46 games with the Cavaliers this season before he was traded to the Heat on Feb. 8. “Our arena is going to be excited for this game. I’m sure they want to continue to play well. Our team will be excited for it. And I always look forward to the matchups. Obviously for me it’s about trying to get a ‘W’ for us as we come down the stretch versus a very good team, so we look forward to it.”
It’s not just a big game because of the opponent. It’s also a big game because the Heat have just eight regular-season games remaining in the middle of a battle for playoff positioning.
Miami entered Monday in the Eastern Conference’s eighth and final playoff spot — one-half game behind No. 7 Milwaukee, 1.5 games behind No. 6 Washington and four games behind No. 5 Indiana and No. 4 Philadelphia. The third-place Cavaliers have a 5.5 game lead on the Heat.
With Toronto and Boston pretty much locked into the No. 1 and No. 2 spots, respectively, the Heat would be looking at a first-round series with the Raptors if the season ended Monday.
But it seems like a vulnerable Celtics team could be the most favorable possible first-round opponent for Miami. Boston star point guard Kyrie Irving’s availability for the start of the playoffs is in question after he underwent a “minimally invasive procedure” on his left knee Saturday to alleviate irritation.
In order to face the Celtics, the Heat would need to finish seventh. The sixth spot could bring a much more challenging opponent in James and the Cavaliers, which are currently third in the East.
But teams can’t just pick where they finish, as those around Miami in the standings like No. 6 Washington and No. 7 Milwaukee will help dictate where it ends up.
“It’s tricky. I always think karma can get you back, especially in the playoffs,” point guard Goran Dragic said when asked if seventh is the best possible spot for the Heat. “We just need to continue to do our jobs and try to win games, and then in the end we’ll see who we’re going to get. But yeah, now with all these injuries everybody wants to have Boston. But you never know, maybe [Irving] is going to come back earlier.”
So, the Heat will try to continue to find their stride with the playoffs approaching. Despite an unassuming 9-7 record since the All-Star break, Miami has actually been playing well with the league’s eighth-best net rating since the break.
That’s even better than Cleveland, which is ranked 11th in this category during that stretch.
“We’re trending in the right direction,” Heat forward James Johnson said. “We’re not going to make no excuses and we’re going to continue to play hard.”