The battle for the third through sixth Eastern Conference playoff seeds seems destined to remain unsettled until the season’s final day, with Atlanta, Charlotte, Boston and Miami all bunched tightly.
And unless Detroit, which is 3 1/2 games behind Miami, surges late and one of the other teams unravels, that means the Heat, Hawks, Hornets, Celtics will likely play each other in the first round.
“Every time we take control of the third spot and control our own destiny, we have a tendency to not have a great performance,” Joe Johnson said after the Heat fell to sixth, at least momentarily, with Saturday’s 110-93 loss in Portland. “We would love to have homecourt advantage in the first round.”
After Charlotte’s loss in Cleveland on Sunday, Atlanta rose to No. 3 in the East at 45-32, with Miami and Charlotte at 44-32. Boston was 44-32 entering its late Sunday night game at the Lakers.
“We believed the whole time we’d be in the playoffs, so it’s good to clinch, but it’s not a surprise,” Heat forward Luol Deng said. “We’ve really got to focus on us and trying to figure it out. How can we go into the postseason being at our best?”
Finishing third (or sixth) would mean not having to face likely top seed Cleveland until the conference finals, should the No. 3 or No. 6 seed make it that far.
Other key points to keep in mind:
▪ Remaining schedules: Boston would seem to have the easiest of the four and Charlotte the most difficult.
In order, Miami plays at home against Detroit and Chicago (both on TNT), at Orlando, home against the Magic, at Detroit and at Boston.
The Celtics meet both New Orleans and Milwaukee at home, then play at Atlanta, and finish at home against both Charlotte and the Heat.
Atlanta plays Phoenix, Toronto and Boston at home, then closes at Cleveland and at Washington.
And Charlotte plays at Toronto and at the Knicks, then home to the Nets, then at Washington and at Boston, and then home to Orlando.
▪ Settled tiebreakers: The Heat already has clinched a tiebreaker against Atlanta, by virtue of its 3-1 season series edge. Miami is assured of losing a tiebreaker to Boston, which won the first two meetings between the teams, with one game remaining.
Atlanta and Boston have each clinched tiebreakers against Charlotte.
▪ Unresolved tiebreakers: The Heat and Hornets split their four games, and any tiebreaker between those teams will come down to division record. That, at this point, would favor the Heat, which is 9-5 in the division with only two games left, both against Orlando.
Charlotte is 7-7 in the division, with games left at Washington and against Orlando. If the Heat and Hornets finish with the same division record, conference record would be the next tiebreaker, and that would favor Charlotte.
▪ Three-team tiebreakers: A multi-team tie would favor a division winner, regardless of whether all the tied teams are in the same division. In several scenarios, this would favor the Heat.
Say Miami, Charlotte and Boston tie for third through fifth. If the Heat can win one of its last two against Orlando, the Heat would be guaranteed a better Southeast Division record than Charlotte and thus would be the division champion if the teams finish tied. And Boston already has lost the Atlantic Division to Toronto. So that three-team tiebreaker would favor Miami, according to the NBA.
THIS AND THAT
▪ The Heat never drew closer than 16 in the second half against Portland and finished the road trip 1-2. Only Whiteside (20 points, 13 rebounds, four 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.
▪ The Heat flew home Sunday and will get a better sense Monday about how soon Dwyane Wade can return from back and neck soreness after missing two games.
▪ Miami’s playoff appearance means that its first-round pick will go to Philadelphia to complete a 2010 LeBron James sign-and-trade with Cleveland. The pick was top 10 protected again this year. The Heat’s second-round pick will be sent to Orlando in the Shabazz Napier trade.
▪ Josh McRoberts played in the first half Saturday, but Spoelstra said not to draw any conclusions about whether he will be inserted into the rotation.
“I like what J-Mac brings,” Spoelstra said. “We always become a smarter team when he’s out there.”