With a pivotal road game at Charlotte on tap Wednesday and the Heat barely clinging to the eighth and final playoff seed in the Eastern Conference, coach Erik Spoelstra gave his team the day off on Monday and asked players to really try and stay away from the basketball court in the hopes it might clear their minds and refresh them before the final postseason push.
“I think it can help a lot,” Heat center Hassan Whiteside said of a day away from basketball. “These guys can reflect on things.”
Since its 11-30 start, the Heat (37-40) has been both practicing and playing at a relentless pace, rarely taking days off between games as it has made up ground in the standings and put itself in position to compete for a playoff berth. Sunday’s game was the latest example.
Despite having an early 6 p.m. tipoff, veteran guard Wayne Ellington said players asked Spoelstra if they could come in early for shootaround on Sunday, something the Heat’s veteran, championship teams would rarely do. It was the second consecutive Sunday players asked Spoelstra to do that for an early tipoff. The Heat did the same in a 112-108 loss at Boston.
“I think teams we’ve had in the past, veteran guys they definitely wanted the morning off, and we had a lot of success with that,” Spoelstra said. “This group is a little bit different. Everyone is really committed to their routines.”
Mentally and physically, though, the Heat’s 26-10 run over the past three months has been demanding. Although Whiteside and Josh Richardson said they do not feel mentally drained, both said it has been challenging lately trying to bounce back after tough losses, especially with the weight of a playoff berth on their shoulders.
“Man, it’s tough,” said Whiteside, who recorded his 1,000th rebound of the season and 53rd double-double of the season Sunday, tying Rony Seikaly for the franchise record. “Every time you make a push, it pushes back. We’ve still got a couple games left. We can’t give up.”
Said Richardson: “Spo tells us all the time that getting in these playoffs and trying to get a good spot is the hardest thing we’ll ever do in our professional lives. … We embrace that. We’ve just got to take it for what it is. We’ve got another game in [two] days.”
With back-to-back losses at home to the Knicks and Nuggets this past weekend, the Heat has gone from a having a 62 percent chance of making the playoffs to having a 44 percent chance, according to FiveThirtyEight.com’s playoff predictions.
Wednesday’s game in Charlotte is crucial with the suddenly surging Hornets (36-41) owning a 2-1 season series edge over the Heat. A win at home on Wednesday would push Charlotte past Miami in the standings and give the Hornets the head-to-head tiebreaker, putting the Heat in a precarious position with four games to go against three of the top four seeds in the East (Toronto, Washington and Cleveland) to close out the season.
The Hornets and Pacers (37-40) also face challenging schedules. Charlotte plays at Washington on Tuesday before facing the Heat a night later.
Indiana (the Heat owns the head-to-head tiebreaker with the Pacers) hosts Toronto on Tuesday before Milwaukee visits on Thursday and closies the season at sub-.500 Orlando and Philadelphia. FiveThirtyEight predicts the Pacers will finish with one more victory than the Heat, finishing as the eighth seed.
Spoelstra said before Sunday’s game his team is conscious of the tiebreaker scenarios as well as the future schedules of the team’s competing with them for a playoff berth. Players admitted they have been scoreboard watching and following the games of the Bucks, Hawks, Pacers, Bulls, Pistons and Hornets for several weeks.
But ultimately, Whiteside said after Sunday’s loss, “If we don’t get some wins it won’t matter.”
“These games become so competitive that you have no choice to only focus on the task at hand,” Spoelstra said before Sunday’s game. “[Otherwise] you start going down that rabbit hole of this team should that, this team should this. It never turns out that way. Exhibit A, us the other night [versus the Knicks]. The ones you try to predict for other teams, you don’t need to add that ancillary stress of rooting or not rooting for other teams.
“But I’m OK with [our players] watching games and being a fan about it and being excited about this playoff race. They’ve earned it. There’s been a lot of sweat equity to get to this point, and I want them to enjoy this whole ride. It’s been a roller-coaster ride. There’s a ton of emotion right now. And I love it. I love the guys feeling all this — the emotion of elation, frustration, anger, disappointment. Even the emotions the guys were feeling the other night of what a disappointing loss.
“It could have been the other way where there could have been no emotion coming out of a game like that being where we were three months ago. They’ve earned their right for all these emotions, and that’s great for this group — to go through it.”