For the Heat, the stakes seem higher Tuesday than a typical regular-season game in late February might be.
And if the first two Heat-76ers games were a harbinger of what to expect Tuesday, the emotional highs and lows will be higher, too.
Win Tuesday and the Heat closes to within one game of No. 7 Philadelphia, while retaining a chance to win a tiebreaker with the 76ers.
Lose and the Heat (31-29) falls three games back of the 76ers (32-26), with no chance to win a two-team tiebreaker and a diminished chance of winning a three-team tiebreaker.
Whether the Heat gets Kelly Olynyk back from a shoulder injury will be determined Tuesday. He participated in a contact practice Monday but said that his shoulder isn’t 100 percent and wasn’t certain if he would play Tuesday. Neither was Erik Spoelstra.
Asked about a return at some point this week, he said: “It all depends on how it responds and how it takes contact and how it takes physical exertion, really. But definitely that looks right. It felt pretty good. Obviously, still, I’m not 100 percent to where it was, but it’s on its way. It just doesn’t feel like my right shoulder.”
The first two Heat-76ers games, both Heat losses in Philadelphia, featured swings even wild by NBA standards.
In the first game Feb. 2, Philadelphia led 86-60 after three quarters before the Heat outscored the 76ers 37-17 in the fourth in a 103-97 Sixers win.
In the second game on Feb. 14, the Heat burst to a 68-44 third-quarter lead before the 76ers erupted on a 60-34 run to win that game 104-102, with the 76ers clobbering the Heat on the boards, 60-29, even while playing without injured center Joel Embiid. Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons had a triple-double in that game with 18 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists.
That means the Heat was good enough to outscore Philadelphia 99-56 the fourth quarter of their first meeting and the first two quarters of their second meeting, but bad enough to be run out of Wells Fargo Center the other five quarters.
So why have these games been so crazy?
“A part of it is a function of how this league is now,” Spoelstra said. “A 15-point lead is nothing the way people shoot the ball. … Why it’s been so dramatic with the 76ers, I don’t know. It’s a very good team. They are talented, they play together, they defend, and when they’re healthy, that’s what they probably envisioned.”
Dwyane Wade, who was with the Heat for the second of those two games, said one lesson learned is: “When they’re in a place when they go on droughts like they did in the other game, then when they make their comeback, you got to be able to stop it early. It’s two teams that just play different styles, but similar in a sense of getting after it. They’re a tough young team and this is a tough young team over here.”
The Heat and 76ers play for the final time, and for the fourth time in five weeks, on March 8 in Miami.
Among all NBA small forwards, Josh Richardson is fourth in blocks per game (0.93), sixth in steals (1.43), 15th in three-point percentage (38.7) and 16th in scoring average (13.3) and overall field-goal percentage (45.5).
Spoelstra said the next step for Richardson is “to understand he doesn’t have to defer. He can continue to grow this season. He is so impactful for us. I want him to be ambitious. I want him to be more for our team. He has that kind of upside. I also would like him to get out of his comfort zone and push it even more.
“J-Rich is a very talented, very good basketball player. I don’t even know what his ceiling is. I just want him to keep pushing to find new levels.”
▪ Wade has been on the Heat for less than two weeks but the lineup featuring Wade, Bam Adebayo, James Johnson, Wayne Ellington and one starter (Richardson) already has played the 14th-most minutes of any five-man Heat lineup, with 45 minutes. Miami has outscored teams by eight in those 45 minutes.
A four-man group of Wade, Adebayo, Johnson and Ellington (with any other teammate) is a plus-21 in 73 minutes.
Of that group, Spoelstra said: “They have some dynamic skill sets they can bring to the table. We’re not expecting it to be a finished product right now. We want them to find a game that works for them and be super dynamic. It would be a heck of a weapon if that second unit can really be a game-changer.”