Yes, Tuesday’s drubbing of Cleveland gave hope to the Heat that it could compete with the Cavaliers in a playoff series.
The Heat, incidentally, can clinch a playoff spot Thursday with a win at home against Chicago and a Detroit loss at home against Washington.
But let’s be real here:
Washington, the Heat and Milwaukee — the three teams jockeying for positions six through eight in the East — would be better served by playing Boston, which will likely be the second seed, because the Celtics are expected to be without Kyrie Irving in the first round of the playoffs after a knee procedure. (And Boston has said Gordon Hayward, injured opening night, isn’t coming back this season).
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The Heat enters Thursday’s game against the Bulls in seventh, 1/2 game ahead of No. 8 Milwaukee and 1 1/2 games behind No. 6 Washington.
Finishing seventh likely means a matchup with No. 2 Boston, which is three back of Toronto for the top seed. Finishing eighth means a likely matchup with No. 1 Toronto.
Finishing sixth could mean a matchup with Cleveland unless the 76ers or Pacers jump the Cavs over the final two weeks, which isn’t out of the question.
The third-seeded Cavaliers enter Thursday just a half a game ahead of No. 4 Philadelphia and one game ahead of No. 5 Indiana.
Judging from the remaining schedules — which is a tricky proposition and comes with no guarantees — the Heat appears in good position to finish at least seventh. But there is a risk of moving to sixth if Washington struggles with its road-heavy schedule.
The Heat has home games left against Chicago, Brooklyn, Atlanta, plus Oklahoma City and Toronto on the final week of the season. That Raptors finale might be meaningless for Toronto. Miami also has road games next week at the Hawks and Knicks.
Miami’s relatively easy schedule means the Heat has a very good shot to stay ahead of the Bucks, who have road games at Golden State, at the Lakers and at Denver on its current ongoing Western swing, plus road games at the Knicks and at Philadelphia, as well as home games ahead Boston, Brooklyn and Orlando.
The bigger question is whether Miami jumps Washington into sixth, with the Wizards having five road games (Detroit, Chicago, Houston, Cleveland, Orlando) plus home to Charlotte, Atlanta and Boston.
Jumping to sixth naturally would be more appealing for the Heat if Philadelphia or Indiana jumps Cleveland into third. A Heat-76ers or Heat-Indiana first-round series would probably be tossups.
The problem, of course, is nobody knows if Cleveland will hang onto third.
So rising to sixth would come with risks for the Heat. Staying in seventh would mean a potentially winnable first round series with Boston.
Here’s why the Heat can clinch Thursday: A loss by Detroit Thursday means the Pistons could finish no better than 41-41. Since the Heat split the season series 2-2 with the Pistons the next tiebreaker used is conference record.
Miami owns that edge by virtue of its 27 conference victories. Detroit, which is 20-26 in conference play, could finish with no more than 26 conference wins with a loss Thursday.
Sacramento coach Dave Joerger, on one reason for the Heat’s success: “They’ve really adapted to the league… with guys can open up the court. The game’s being played with one big and four other guys. You are either a shooter or a play-maker. They did that with Chris Bosh, Chris playing strength five [center]. That’s why James Johnson is a four [power forward]-slash-one [point guard]. It’s pretty cool.”
▪ With Hassan Whiteside potentially returning Thursday night against the Bulls, a couple things to keep in mind:
Per basketballreference.com, the Heat allows 99 points per 100 possessions with Whiteside on the court, which is best on the team by far, with Miami.
With Bam Adebayo, it’s 106 points per 100 possessions, just below the Heat 106.7 average.
But I found this interesting: Players defended by Whiteside are shooting 47.8 percent; those players shoot 49.1 percent overall.
Players defended by Bam Adebayo are shooting 42.8 percent, compared with 47.8 percent overall.