There is no pretense with these Heat players, no attempt to downplay the most critical 72 hours, so far, for this 2020-21 Miami Heat team.
“Those are the crucial games of the season,” Goran Dragic said of nationally-televised games in Boston on Sunday and Tuesday. “This is basically the playoffs for us.”
Win both and the Heat would win the season series against Boston and almost assuredly would avoid the play-in tournament that awaits the seventh through 10th seeds in each conference. Lose both, and the Heat would find itself very much in jeopardy of being subjected to the play-in round.
If the teams split these two games, Boston would win a tiebreaker against the Heat, by virtue of the Celtics’ win in their only previous meeting this season. And that would leave the Heat in a precarious spot entering a closing schedule of Philadelphia at home on Thursday and Milwaukee and Detroit on the road next weekend.
The Heat (36-31) will enter Sunday’s 1 p.m. game standing sixth in the East, one game ahead of the No. 7 Celtics (35-32). Miami is just one-half game behind No. 5 Atlanta (37-31), though the Hawks own the tiebreaker between the teams.
And the Heat is just one game behind the No. 4 Knicks (37-30) and owns the tiebreaker against New York, which plays on the road against the Lakers and Clippers immediately following these two Heat-Celtics games in double-headers on ESPN on Sunday and TNT on Tuesday.
While several players have shrugged off the play-in possibility, Herro makes this clear:
“I don’t want to be in a play-in game,” he told Bally Sports Sun’s Jason Jackson. “I just want to be be in playoffs. I’m trying to give everything I have to be in those top six seeds. It’s time.”
Here’s what would help against Boston: If Herro and Dragic - who have had injury-interrupted seasons - can replicate Friday’s big night in their win against Minnesota and mirror their play against Boston in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals.
That’s the variable between a Heat team that’s a low playoff seed and one potentially far better than that.
Herro - who returned from missing six games with a sore right foot to score 27 points in 29 minutes against the Timberwolves - averaged 19.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, 4.8 assists and shot 52.3 percent from the field in that 4-2 series win against the Celtics in last year’s playoffs. That included his epic 37-point outburst in Game 4.
“I love playing in big games,” Herro said. “I’m excited to go to Boston and try to win those two games.”
Herro, who has missed 18 games with an assortment of issues, pronounced himself healthy.
“The [foot injury] had been lingering for awhile,” he said. “I had to sit out a couple games to let it calm down. Tough to sit and watch this time of year. I’m back and healthy. Mentally I feel confident again. It was good to see me and Goran have a good night on the same night.”
Dragic - who had 23 points in 32 minutes against Minnesota - averaged 20.5 points and 4.7 assists against Boston in the 2020 playoffs and seems to be playing his best basketball late in a season in which he has missed 21 games. Dragic has scored at least 18 points in four of Miami’s past five games.
“When context and pressure and meaning of games becomes more, that’s typically when he plays his best basketball,” Erik Spoelstra said.
If Dragic and Herro play like they did Friday, is the Heat as good as anyone in the East? “I think so,” Jimmy Butler said.
Bam Adebayo agreed: “When we’re clicking on all cylinders, we’re a hard team to guard.”
Two new components in this Heat-Celtics rivalry: Center Dewayne Dedmon - the Heat has outscored teams by 63 points in his 161 minutes - and Trevor Ariza, who likely will be one of several Heat players assigned to slow Jayson Tatum, who scored 27 in the Celtics’ 107-105 win in Miami in January.
Tatum, who is averaging 26.3 points, was riding a scintillating stretch - scoring 35, 60, 33 and 27 in consecutive games - before crashing to Earth with a 9-point, 3 for 15 shooting night in Friday’s loss at Chicago.
Butler, who scored 26 in that January loss to Boston, likes where Miami stands.
“We’re getting more and more healthy,” he said. “So you can throw so many different lineups out there to help us win games, so many different defenses. Guys are making shots. The offense looks great. I like where our season is set.”
Heat guard Victor Oladipo (sore knee) did not accompany the team to Boston and remains out indefinitely. Andre Iguodala (quad contusion) traveled and is questionable. For Boston, Jaylen Brown (ankle sprain) is questionable.