The Miami Heat has never been in this precise and peculiar predicament with less than a week remaining in the regular season: tantalizingly close to grabbing home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs and yet one losing skid from missing the playoffs altogether.
Win on Tuesday in Boston (7:30 p.m.,TNT) and the Heat assures itself a top six seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, meaning it won’t need to participate in the play-in tournament involving seeds 7 through 10.
But lose in Boston, and the Heat stands very much at risk of needing to win its way into the playoffs during that play-in round next week. (The NBA has said that teams that merely advance to the play-in are not considered playoff teams unless they advance past the play-in tournament.)
So why does so much swing on the result of Tuesday’s game?
Because of tiebreakers, remaining schedules of the teams jockeying for seeds four through six and because of an unexpected Knicks win at the Clippers on Sunday.
The Heat entered Monday sixth in the East at 37-31, with the same record as the No. 5 Hawks (who own the tiebreaker with Miami) and two games ahead of No. 7 Boston (35-33). Miami trails the No. 4 Knicks (38-30) by one game.
Where the Heat stands in its attempt to jump New York and Atlanta and stay ahead of Boston:
▪ New York: Barring a Heat sweep of this two-game set in Boston, the Knicks always seemed the team most likely to be surpassed by Miami not only because the Heat owns the tiebreaker with New York, but also because of the Knicks’ arduous schedule during the final two weeks of the season.
But the Knicks largely have foiled that notion, winning at the Clippers on Sunday to move to 3-2 on this Western Conference swing with one game remaining, against a depleted Lakers team on Tuesday.
Had the Knicks lost Sunday, the Heat would have jumped New York in the final standings if both teams went 3-1, 2-2 or 1-3 this week.
Now, Miami would need to win more of its final four games than the Knicks would, and that’s ambitious to expect because the Heat closes with a more difficult schedule.
After the game at Boston on Tuesday, the Heat plays host to Philadelphia on Thursday and plays at Milwaukee and at Detroit next weekend.
After the Tuesday night game against a Lakers team expected to be without Dennis Schröder and perhaps LeBron James (the former MVP is questionable) and Kyle Kuzma, the Knicks then end the regular season with home games against San Antonio, Charlotte and Boston.
▪ Atlanta: Even though the teams have the same record, the odds heavily favor the Hawks finishing ahead of the Heat because Atlanta owns the tiebreaker and has the far easier remaining schedule.
The Hawks this week began a two-game home set against a Washington team missing top scorer Bradley Beal, who’s out with a hamstring injury. Beal has been ruled out for both of those games against Atlanta.
After the two games against Washington on Monday and Wednesday, the Hawks close with as easy a schedule as could be imagined: Orlando on Thursday and Houston on Sunday — both in Atlanta.
▪ Boston: A win Tuesday would give the Heat both the season tiebreaker against the Celtics and a three-game lead in the standings against Boston, assuring that Miami would be no worse than sixth in the East and couldn’t be jumped by Boston.
But a Heat loss would leave the Celtics owning the tiebreaker and just one game behind Miami.
That would be a pretty good position for the Celtics — and a precarious one for the Heat — because Boston has the easier remaining schedule: at Cleveland on Wednesday, at Minnesota on Saturday and at New York on Sunday.
So if Boston wins Tuesday, the Celtics would jump the Heat if the Heat loses two of its final three with a difficult schedule and Boston wins two of its final three with a relatively easy schedule.
“It’s going to be a completely different game, I’ll tell you that, on Tuesday,” Jimmy Butler said. “They’re probably going to have Jaylen [Brown] back and he’s a huge difference-maker for them.”
Actually, Brown won’t be. The Celtics announced on Monday that Brown has been diagnosed with a torn ligament in his left wrist and is out for the remainder of the season. He was averaging 24.7 points per game.
No Heat player has publicly expressed a strong desire to avoid the play-in round except Tyler Herro.
The teams that finish seventh and eighth in each conference will play May 18 on TNT, with the winner clinching the seventh seed and the loser meeting the winner of the ninth vs. 10th play-in matchup for the eighth seed.
If the Heat ends up in the play-in tournament, it very likely would host that 7-8 matchup. Miami stands four games ahead of No. 8 Charlotte (33-35).
The Hornets own the tiebreaker with the Heat, but Charlotte has a difficult remaining schedule: home against Denver and the Clippers, at New York and at Washington.
THIS AND THAT
▪ TNT, which will carry Tuesday’s Heat game, also picked up Thursday’s Heat game against the 76ers. Bally Sports Sun will not carry either game.
▪ The start times for the Heat’s final regular-season games at Milwaukee on Saturday and at Detroit on Sunday haven’t been announced, but The Athletic reported that all games those two days will be played at 1 and 3:30 p.m.
▪ Duncan Robinson, on the Heat’s improved offensive efficiency in recent weeks, with Miami standing seventh in the NBA in points per 100 possessions (115.9) over the past month:
“Continuity is a big thing,” he said. “All year we’ve had guys in and out of the lineup, and we’re getting healthier. On top of that, I think that there’s great clarity in what we’re looking for. It’s simple, but it’s clear. I think that allows people to just go out there and play free, be aggressive, be their best versions. It’s definitely been trending in the right direction.”
▪ The Celtics spent Sunday’s postgame session bemoaning how the Heat sliced them up defensively, with Miami’s 79 first half points the second most in franchise history.
“Our defense isn’t as good as it’s been in the past,” Celtics coach Brad Stevens said. “We’re slow to react to the ball moving. Because last year, we were a little bit bigger, but we were better with our ball pressure and quicker into the air space of shooters. This year, we’re a step slow.”