It might be what every sports fan in South Florida is talking about this afternoon, but coach Erik Spoesltra didn’t want anything to do with addressing the decisions being made by the Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks to rest key players in games the Heat desperately needs those teams to win to help Miami qualify for the playoffs.
“I’m not talking about any other teams,” Spoelstra said Wednesday morning after shootaround as his team was preparing to face the Washington Wizards in a must-win game to keep its faint playoff hopes alive. “But I’m OK with the fans talking about it and getting involved with it. That’s what’s exciting about this [playoff] race. But I’m not talking about anybody else but our team and what we have to do tonight.
“Everybody is on their own journey.”
The Heat, who need to beat the Wizards and either a loss by either Indiana or Chicago to make the playoffs, will need either the short-handed Nets or Hawks to pull off an upset to reach the postseason. Neither is likely to happen.
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Brooklyn, which owns the worst record in the league at 20-61, is resting three key players – including leading scorers Brook Lopez and Jeremy Lin – and will have six players out in total against the Bulls (40-41).
Atlanta, locked into the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference following Tuesday night’s win at home over Charlotte, is resting five key players against Indiana (41-40): All-Star Paul Millsap, former All-Star center Dwight Howard and starters Kent Bazemore, Dennis Schroder, and Tim Hardaway Jr.
It’s one thing for teams like Atlanta that have qualified for the postseason to rest its best players before the start of the playoffs. It’s another thing for teams out of playoff contention to rest healthy players late in the season – especially in the case of the Nets, which stand to gain nothing from tanking toward the end of the season.
Although Brooklyn owns the worst record in the league it’s already swapped its upcoming draft position with the Boston Celtics as part of the blockbuster trade made to acquire Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett back in 2013.
“It sucks,” Tyler Johnson said of the Nets’ decision to rest Lopez, Lin and Trevor Booker, a key player off their bench. “It definitely sucks especially because the [Nets] just beat [the Bulls Saturday] and we’re figuring maybe it’s a mental thing and they can go in there [to Chicago] and get another one at home just to end the season.
“We’re still pulling for the young guys over there in Brooklyn,” Johnson continued. “We’re pulling and hoping to see some big games from some young guys over there.”
The Heat, which avoided facing All-Stars LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in Monday night’s overtime win over the Cavaliers because both sat out to rest in preparation for the playoffs, will face a Wizards team Wednesday resting three starters themselves as they prepare to open the playoffs against the Hawks.
Coach Scott Brooks said he’s sitting All-Star point guard John Wall, shooting guard Bradley Beal and forward Markieff Morris. Backup center Ian Mahinmi is also out because of injury.
But again, the decisions by Atlanta and Washington seem more understanable to most on the outside looking in than what Brooklyn is doing Wednesday night.
“It depends on the situation,” Johnson said of what bothers him most about teams resting players late in the season. “If we were in that situation and a [playoff] matchup was already set it’s hard to say what we would do – just because you want to go into the playoffs as healthy as possible and don't want to risk anything. For us obviously, we’re playing everybody. But to a team like that [in the playoffs already] it's understandable.
“Our situation only works if we get a win anyway. If we don't win, we can’t control anything at all.”
Point guard Goran Dragic said it would be fitting for Miami to make the playoffs this way – with Brooklyn and Atlanta resting key starters in important games – considering the long odds the Heat has already overcome this season.
“This would be the story of the NBA I think,” Dragic said. “Going back to when we were 11-30 – even in the beginning of the season if you’re honest. A lot of guys were counting us out. Then of course how we started the season. Those guys were getting louder and louder. Then we come back and everybody was jumping on that bandwagon. I think that would be great if all the odds are against us and we make the playoffs. That would be an unbelievable story.”
Naturally, though, if the Heat doesn’t make it regret over some bad losses will surely set in. It already has in a lot of ways for the Heat, Dragic admitted.
“It’s always going to be that in the back of your head, back of your brain,” Dragic said. “Oh man we lost that game and that game. It doesn’t make sense, though, because those games are in the past. You cannot change nothing – especially that New York game [two weeks ago]. That really hurts at home.”
The March 31 loss to the Knicks – who played without Derrick Rose and Carmelo Anthony – is the game most Heat fans will remember most if the team falls short of missing the playoffs. But Johnson says the list is much longer than that.
“I remember being up seven against Orlando here and we ended up going into double overtime and losing,” Johnson said. “We were up seven with a minute and some change left and couldn’t hit free throws. Then we were up four, couldn’t hit free throws and they ended up coming back and sending the game to overtime. That was the game Serge Ibaka caught it, turned and made it at the buzzer. I think about that one a lot.
“There's definitely others. The Knicks here – that was definitely one that stings. Even the Nuggets a couple days after that, I felt like we could have come out a little bit different. But it’s woulda, coulda, shoulda at this point.”
Do the Heat at all feel like maybe this season was just cursed from the start and the team was just destined to miss the playoffs?
“No,” Johnson answered. “We had every opportunity to do it. Regardless of how we started, people are going to look at our 30-11 record [in the second half and] they’re going to be like you played amazing the second half of the season. But honestly it could have been 32-9 or better.”