After one year out, the Heat is back in a familiar spot: the NBA playoffs.
Despite losing 110-93 at Portland to end a three-game West Coast swing, the Heat clinched the franchise’s 19th playoff appearance in 28 seasons earlier Saturday evening by virtue of Chicago's 94-90 loss to Detroit.
And if you’re keeping track, that’s now 17 postseason appearances in 21 years since Heat owner Micky Arison hired Pat Riley to run the franchise. Riley coached 11 of those seasons and controlled personnel all 21.
For Erik Spoelstra, it’s his seventh playoff appearance in eight years as coach.
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“When you step back, you don't want to take it for granted, getting in there, how tough it is in this league,” Spoelstra said.
“We always have big expectations. That doesn't change from year to year. Getting [over] that hurdle does mean something to us but we still have more we're working for.”
Keep in mind Miami advanced to postseason without the services of leading scorer Chris Bosh for the past 23 games because of a blood clot that has since dissipated.
“Making the playoffs is a big deal,” Hassan Whiteside, who will be appearing in his first playoff series, said after Saturday’s game.
The Heat will open the postseason on Saturday, April 16 or Sunday, April 17, against an undetermined opponent, with playoff tickets set to go on sale Thursday.
It will be Miami’s first postseason game since a Game 5 NBA Finals loss to San Antonio in 2014, which ended LeBron James’ four years with the franchise.
The Heat entered the day third in the East but ended it in sixth at 44-32, thought bunched closely with No. 3 Charlotte (44-31), No. 4 Atlanta (45-32) and No. 5 Boston (44-32), which already has clinched a two-team tiebreaker with Miami.
Charlotte also clinched a playoff berth with Chicago’s loss on Saturday, and the Hawks clinched earlier last week.
The postseason achievement came on a day that the Heat shot errantly (38.6 percent) and often seemed a step slow defensively on the second-night of a back-to-back set.
Only Whiteside (20 points, 13 rebounds, 4 blocks) played particularly well for Miami when the game was still close in the first half.
The Heat offered little resistance defensively, with Portland closing at 51.9 percent from the field and 10 for 16 on three-pointers.
Saturday’s loss also put the Heat in the slightly awkward position of celebrating something significant on a night it lost handily.
“That's hard to enjoy off a loss like this,” Joe Johnson said. “Every time we take control of the third spot and control our own
destiny, we have a tendency to not have a great performance. We would love to have homecourt advantage in the first round.”
Said Luol Deng: “To be honest with you, we believed the whole time we’d be in the playoffs, so it’s good to clinch but it’s not a surprise. I think right now, instead of just looking at the standings and where we’re going to end up at the end of the year, we’ve really got to focus on us and trying to figure it out right now. How can we go into the postseason being at our best?”
Playing without Dwyane Wade, the Heat trailed by only two after a quarter, but was blitzed 39-20 in the second and went to the half down, 59-42.
“Our offense was a little bit sluggish,” Spoelstra said. “We hadn't played like that in a while, where it looked like we were in mud. It was a disappointing game.”
Portland led 87-67 after three and Miami never drew closer than 16 in the fourth quarter.
“Our defense wasn’t where we wanted it to be,” Deng said. “We’re disappointed with the way we played. I really think they played harder than us. I don’t want to make any excuses, like West Coast trip, last game, back-to-back. We still have got to be professional.”
Gerald Green, starting in Wade’s absence, followed Friday’s 30-point eruption in Sacramento by scoring just seven points on 3 for 9 shooting. Goran Dragic had 15 points but just one assist and three turnovers.
Portland’s starting backcourt of Damian Lillard (18 points) and CJ McCollum (24 points, six-for-six on three-pointers) outscored the Heat’s starting guards, 42 to 22. And Portland guard Gerald Henderson scored 17 off the bench.
Deng missed eight of his first 10 shots and closed 5 for 13, with 14 points and 13 rebounds. Johnson added 13.
On the second night of a back-to-back, Spoelstra expanded his rotation to nine, giving first-half minutes to Josh McRoberts, who scored eight.
“He brings us passing [and we’re] a little bit bigger when we do that,” Spoelstra said. “I wanted to go a little bit deeper in the rotation tonight; just felt like we needed some energy. I like what J-Mac brings. We always become a smarter team when he's out there. But I don't think his minutes were indicative of anything.”
The Heat finished 1-2 on its West Coast trip and 17-13 overall against Western Conference teams this season.
“I'm not into grading a road trip,” Spoelstra said. “That’s for you guys. I'm trying to get my ball club better. Our only focus is getting rest and getting ready for a big one on Tuesday vs. Detroit. We have some work to do.”
Miami now closes the regular season with six games against Eastern Conference opponents: Detroit and Chicago at home, a home-and-home with Orlando, and games at Detroit and at Boston.
▪ Miami's playoff appearance means that its first-round pick will go to Philadelphia to complete a 2010 sign-and-trade with Cleveland when Miami acquired LeBron James. The pick was top 10 protected again this year but would not have been next year.
The Heat has no second-round pick either, having surrendered that to Orlando last summer as motivation for the Magic to take Shabazz Napier’s contract.
▪ The Heat and Trail Blazers (41-36) are rare examples of teams that lost All Stars in free agency and still remained playoff-caliber.