So this is what it has come down to for Miami Heat fans: rooting as hard against Dwyane Wade Wednesday as they will against longtime rival Paul George and the Indiana Pacers, while also hoping their favorite team’s fourth attempt to reach the .500 mark is finally the charm.
The Heat, in its quest to make the playoffs and complete one of the most remarkable turnarounds in NBA history after a dreadful 11-30 start, will host the Southeast Division winning Washington Wizards (49-32) in their regular season finale Wednesday night.
But as much as fans will be glued to the action on the court at AmericanAirlines Arena, many will also be looking for score updates from Chicago and Indiana.
The Bulls (40-41) will be hosting the league’s worst team the Brooklyn Nets (20-61) and the Pacers (41-40) will be facing the Atlanta Hawks (42-38), which are already locked into being a road team in the first round of the playoffs and may be motivated to rest their best players.
Should the Bulls or Pacers stumble and Miami (40-41) wins, the Heat would qualify for the postseason for the eighth time in nine seasons under coach Erik Spoelstra.
“This is like our Game 7,” Spoelstra said Tuesday after practice. "I know [our result] doesn’t control everything. But it’s great to go through these experiences and to have meaning and value to the very last game. More than a third of the league is not playing for something right now. So either they’re out of the playoffs or they’ve already been positioned and know where they are.
“There’s only a select few that are playing for something. And I think that’s what everybody always dreams, what this league and competition would be about when you're a kid – every game would have significance. It's our Game 7. Our guys are looking forward to it. We love competition. I’m just thrilled our guys get to experience something like this.”
Whether the Heat qualifies for the playoffs or not, with a win Wednesday Miami would complete the greatest turnaround by any team in league history to get off to a rough start and finish with a .500 or better record.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, five other teams (the 2004-05 New Jersey Nets, 1982-83 New York Knicks, 1980-81 Portland Trail Blazers, 1977-78 Seattle Supersonics and and 1976-77 Chicago Bulls) were 12 games under .500 at one point in their season and finished .500 or better. The Heat’s turnaround would shatter that mark by seven games.
But that’s not what Heat players said they want this season’s legacy to be. They would prefer to join the 1984-85 Cavaliers, 1985-86 Bulls and 1987-88 Spurs as the only teams to be at least 19 games under .500 and still make the playoffs (none of those teams, however, finished better than 10 games under .500).
“It’s kind of like a weird record to set,” captain Udonis Haslem said of being the first team to rally from 19 games under and finish .500. “I think we want to make the playoffs. That’s our goal and that doesn’t change. We’ve got to take care of business [Wednesday] and let the chips fall where they may.”
Said Goran Dragic: “Of course we would be happy with the victory. But if we don't make the playoffs we would be sad. Everything we’ve worked for is to make the playoffs. First, we need to take care of business, try to win at home and hopefully with God's luck Chicago or Indiana, they lose a game.”
With all three games tipping off at 8 p.m. Wednesday, there’s a chance if the Heat wins fans will get a chance to watch the conclusion of the Indiana-Atlanta game or Chicago-Brooklyn game on the big screens inside the arena.
Odds are players and coaches will be huddled together somewhere on the court. It’s become a new tradition following the Heat’s last two victories in Washington Saturday and over Cleveland Monday.
James Johnson called the huddles “significant moments” where guys get together and try to feed each other strength after fully exhausting themselves.
“When you go through stuff that’s painful and you come out of it, it does form a bond,” Spoelstra said. “It was rough the first half of the season but our guys didn’t give up on each other.”
And nobody will, Haslem said, until this season’s last breath is extinguished. That could happen Wednesday night after 10 p.m. Or, the season could live on.
“I’ve got an amazing amount of respect and love for these guys,” Haslem said. “Even including the Big 3 teams, this is probably one of the more fun teams I've been around. These guys really come with a lot of energy. They enjoy being in the gym. They like having fun. They play hard. They work hard. I’m their captain and I couldn’t ask for a better group of guys to have an opportunity to lead.”
COMING UP NEXT
Wednesday: Wizards (49-31) at Heat (40-41)
When/where: 8 p.m., AmericanAirlines Arena, Miami
TV/radio: SUN; WAXY 790, WRTO 98.3 FM (Spanish)
Series: Heat lead 78-38
Scouting report: Miami is looking to sweep the season series for the first time since the 2010-11 season. The Wizards, locked into the fourth seed in the East, sat All-Star guard John Wall in Monday’s win in Detroit and could be inclined to rest more starters with nothing to gain Wednesday. Backup center Ian Mahinmi left Monday’s win with a strained left calf. The Heat is no longer listing forwards Luke Babbitt and Josh McRoberts on the team’s injury report.