Twenty four days. Five teams. Three playoff spots.
The race for the sixth, seventh and eighth seeds in the Eastern Conference should be compelling, as compelling as any bottom-tier playoff race can be.
The Heat enters Monday ninth in the conference at 34-36, the same record as No. 8 Detroit but losing the tiebreaker to the Pistons (at the moment). Miami stands one half game behind No.7 Milwaukee (34-35) and just 1.5 behind No. 6 Indiana (35-34).
The Heat is 3.5 back of No. 5 Atlanta.
The Heat’s 12 remaining games include eight against teams that are currently in playoff position. But there’s an asterisk: Cleveland, which visits Miami on April 10, might rest any or all of its Big Three after playing in Atlanta the night before.
The Wizards, who host the Heat on April 8 and visit Miami for the April 12 finale, might be playing for nothing meaningful if they’ve secured the No. 3 seed by then. (The Wizards are five up on Atlanta in the Southeast Division).
Miami’s 12 remaining games, evenly split between home and road: home to Phoenix and Toronto; at Boston, at Detroit and at the Knicks, home to the Knicks and Nuggets; at Charlotte, at Toronto and at Washington; and home to Cleveland and Washington.
Assessing the four other contenders for those final three playoff spots and where they stand compared to Miami, which has won 23 of its last 29:
Where they stand: 10th in the conference, a game behind Detroit and Miami
Tiebreaker with the Heat: Chicago would win it, based on winning two of three in the season series.
The schedule: Easier than Miami’s, with just six against playoff teams and an easy final three.
Home (6): March 22 vs. Pistons, March 24 vs. 76ers, March 30 vs. Cavaliers, April 1 vs. Hawks, April 10 vs. Magic, April 12 vs. Nets.
Road (6): March 21 vs. Raptors, March 26 vs. Bucks, April 2 vs. Pelicans, April 4 vs. Knicks, April 6 vs. 76ers, April 8 vs. Nets.
Whether LeBron James plays in that TNT-televised game on March 30 remains to be seen. The Cavs will have been off for two days but that Bulls game is the first of a back-to-back set, with Philadelphia visiting Cleveland March 31.
The variable: The Bulls, on paper, might be the weakest of the five contenders after trading Taj Gibson and losing Dwyane Wade for the season, though Dion Waiters’ extended absence drags the Heat down an extent, too.
Where they stand: Eighth in the conference, tied with Miami but owning the tiebreaker.
Tiebreaker with the Heat: Detroit leads the season series, 2-1, and would clinch the tiebreaker by beating Miami at home on March 28.
If the Heat wins that game, the next tiebreaker would be conference record, with the Heat 21-21 at the moment and Detroit 20-22. The third tiebreaker would be record against Eastern Conference playoff teams.
The schedule: Road-stacked, but only four of 12 against teams holding playoff position, including tough road games at Houston and Memphis.
Home (4): March 28 vs. Heat, March 30 vs. Nets, April 5 vs. Raptors, April 10 vs. Wizards.
Road (8): March 21 vs. Nets, March 22 vs. Bulls, March 24 vs. Magic, March 27 vs. Knicks, March 31 vs. Bucks, April 7 vs. Rockets, April 9 vs. Grizzlies, April 12 vs. Magic.
• The variable: The Pistons have lost three of their last four and haven’t won more than two in a row since mid-January.
Where they stand: Seventh in the conference, one half game ahead of Detroit and Miami
Tiebreaker with the Heat: Miami owns it, by virtue of a 3-1 victory in the season series
The schedule: More difficult than Miami’s, with eight of its final 13 on the road, including two trips to Boston and visits to Portland and OKC.
Home (5): March 24 vs. Hawks; March 26 vs. Bucks; March 31 vs. Pistons; April 2 vs. Mavericks; April 10 vs. Hornets.
Road (10): March 21 vs. Trail Blazers, March 22 vs. Kings, March 28 vs. Hornets, March 29 vs. Celtics, April 4 vs. Thunder, April 6 vs. Pacers, April 8 vs. 76ers, April 12 vs. Celtics.
The variable: The Bucks are playing well and surprisingly have won 12 of 18 since losing one of their top players, Jabari Parker, to a season-ending injury.
Where they stand: Sixth in the conference, one game ahead of Milwaukee and 1.5 over Detroit and Miami
Tiebreaker: Heat would win it, by virtue of a 2-1 edge in the completed season series.
The schedule: Comparable to Miami’s, with difficult remaining road games against Boston, Memphis, Toronto and Cleveland. The Cavs game is not part of a back-to-back set, increasing the chances of LeBron James playing.
Home (7): March 20 vs. Jazz, March 24 vs. Nuggets, March 26 vs. 76ers, March 28 vs. Timberwolves, April 4 vs. Raptors, April 6 vs. Bucks, April 12 vs. Hawks.
Road (6): March 22 vs. Celtics, March 29 vs. Grizzlies, March 31 vs. Raptors, April 2 vs. Cavaliers, April 8 vs. Magic, April 10 vs. 76ers.
The variable: The Pacers have gone 6-11 since Feb. 8, with every win followed by a loss in their last 10 games.