Five takeaways from the Heat’s dramatic, playoff-clinching 101-98 victory over the Atlanta Hawks at AmericanAirlines Arena on Tuesday:
1. There was certainly joy, and a sense of accomplishment, inside the Heat locker-room on a night the Heat assured itself a playoff berth a year after barely missing, and took a step in validating management’s decision to keep this group together this season.
But the joy was measured, the enthusiasm restrained. There was no music blaring in the locker-room, no open displays of merriment.
"I thought the magnitude of it would be a little different coming into the locker-room, guys yelling and champagne flying but none of us are satisfied," James Johnson said. "We definitely reached our goal. We don't want to just go to the first round and sit on the wall. We're trying to dance.
"I think it would have been better [more celebrating] without UD [Udonis Haslem] and D-Wade. To them, that's just normal. They kind of set the tone for that and everyone else just sat down in the locker. I am still overwhelmed. I am enjoying this. It feels a lot different than last year for sure."
Wade, asked if he and Haslem were buzz-kills in the postgame locker-room, smiled.
"We want them to enjoy it, be proud of it," Wade said. "We didn't play our best game. You want to come in the locker-room feeling great. Once it all settles, you understand you got a win and clinched the playoffs. It's definitely satisfying especially for the guys in this locker room last year that missed it because another team made it. But it's definitely gratifying for this group that worked so hard to get to this point where you make the playoffs."
Josh Richardson paused to compare this feeling to the one on the final night of last season, when the Heat won but missed the playoffs by virtue of losing a tiebreaker to Wade’s Bulls.
"Different ends of the spectrum," he said. "Last year, guys huddled in and crying and mad and sad and now we're excited and we're ready for the next few games and we get to see that second season."
Said Goran Dragic, who led Miami with 22 points: "Really satisfied, really happy we made the playoffs. This is in the making one year and a half. I am not counting the first part of last season, only the second one. We are really happy we made it but we're still not done. Still four games left. We still need to compete. We don't want injuries to happen."
Erik Spoelstra put it all in perspective this way: "I just told the team when I walked in that it felt a lot different walking into this locker room tonight than it did just about a year ago on the last game. There’s only one way with this group and that’s the hard way. It took us a year to grind and make amends for last year. We put everything we had into it and one game short. But we were able to finally get that check mark next to our name.
"The guys that were not with us last year, we also mentioned that everything that we went through, they inherited our experiences. The bulk of the team that came back, we felt that the guys earned the opportunity to get another crack at it and it’s gratifying to see the team find a way to persevere, show some resilience to be able to get it done. So many close games. And like I said, this is just the path of this team. It has to be written like this. So we’re in, but hopefully we’re not stopping. We still have four games to continue to try to secure this or move up depending on what’s happening in the next few minutes."
2. The Heat finished the night in sixth in the East, which would mean a first-round series against Cleveland if the season ended today.
But so much could change. Miami, Washington and Milwaukee are all tied at 42-36, with the Wizards seventh and the Bucks eighth.
Miami would win a two-team tiebreaker with Milwaukee. A two-team tiebreaker with Washington would hinge on division record. After Tuesday, the Heat has a 10-5 division record and Washington is 8-6. So the Heat would clinch the tiebreaker with Washington by beating Atlanta on Wednesday.
In a three-team tie with the Heat, Bucks and Wizards, the winner of the Southeast division would be the sixth seed – meaning Miami or Washington. That takes precedence over cumulative records in games among the teams, according to NBA tiebreaker procedures.
But don’t assume Cleveland will finish third. Though the Cavs are rolling, they are just one half game ahead of No. 4 Philadelphia, which has won 11 in a row. The teams meet Friday in Philadelphia.
So does Miami care who it plays?
"I don't mess with basketball gods," Goran Dragic said. "We just need to play and be ready. If you make some noise, you need to win against the best teams so it doesn't matter if you get them in the first or second. You need to go through everybody, so why not play Cleveland? We'll see."
Said Wade: "We know that we're in position sixth, seventh, eighth any given night. As it looks right now, it will be Toronto, Boston, Cleveland. They're all very very good teams. It doesn't matter who we match up with . We'll have our work cut out for us."
But Wade conceded: "Other matchups have more storylines than others."
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer offered some straight talk before the game:
"I think everybody should be hesitant to say anything is going to be significantly different until it happens," Budenholzer said of anyone picking a team other than Cleveland to advance from the East. "Toronto is having a heck of a year and Boston and everything they're doing with a lot of injuries themselves. Some of the teams middle and back of the pack are interesting. But until somebody beats whatever team LeBron is playing for, it always feels like that team he is playing for is the team to beat in the East."
James’ team has advanced to Finals seven consecutive years – four with the Heat and the past three with Cleveland.
3. Two days after being fined for complaining about his playing time, Hassan Whiteside was active and engaged and seized on an opportunity to play down the stretch.
Whiteside finished with 18 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks and put the Heat ahead for good with a tip in with 58 seconds left. The Heat outscored Atlanta by 20 with Whiteside on the court.
"I was just trying to get as many offensive rebounds as I could," Whiteside said. "Those guys did a great job of finding me. I really wanted to get this one. Clinching the playoffs was huge in my mind."
Wade said it was needed: "Hassan had a great game today. And that's needed for our team, for his confidence."
Spoelstra’s take afterward: "Hassan is going to be just fine. If you guys could leave Hassan to us then we think he’s come a long way. He’s learning how to impact winning. He’s had moments where, especially right before he got hurt, he was playing great basketball. And there’s a lot of emotion in competition. A lot of things come out and it’s so much different than it was 10 years ago. Everything comes out and we moved on. You saw his impact tonight. But c’mon let’s be real about it, this is not the first time he’s had an impact in a win this year. So we’ll continue to build on this."
4. Josh Richardson’s defense remains elite. He sealed the game by blocking Damion Lee’s jumper with 1.3 second left and John Collins’ 28-footer with 0.6 seconds left. In between, he hit two free throws as Miami closed the game on an 11-0 run.
"It’s inspiring and that’s what his teammates mentioned to him after the game," Spoelstra said. "Not only to be willing to take on that challenge, but to be able to really close the game without fouling and to use his physical gifts and his instincts, all the above. I thought it was just very fitting that we had to win this game with a defensive stop."
5. Kelly Olynyk and Wayne Ellington continue to close in on key numbers. Olynyk will receive a $400,000 bonus for Miami making the playoffs, according to ESPN. And he needs to play only two minutes and 21 seconds to reach 1700, which would earn him a $1 million bonus.
Ellington hit three three-pointers, leaving him 12 short of Damon Jones’ franchise record for threes in a season (225).