Ethan J. Skolnick

Favorable schedule means Heat still has hope for vital No. 3 seed

Heat forward Joe Johnson, right, shown with Goran Dragic, said Miami’s upcoming games against teams out of the playoff hunt are dangerous because players aren’t fearful of losing. “They’ll do anything,” Johnson said.
Heat forward Joe Johnson, right, shown with Goran Dragic, said Miami’s upcoming games against teams out of the playoff hunt are dangerous because players aren’t fearful of losing. “They’ll do anything,” Johnson said. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

Joe Johnson hasn’t been around this group for even a month, but he’s been around the league long enough to know a little too much about losses. And so, after the Heat went splat against the Spurs, getting doubled up in the third quarter on the way to a 112-88 defeat Wednesday night, Johnson counseled the Heat’s younger contingent.

“We got to put this behind us and move forward,” Johnson told them. “This can’t make or break our season.”

It can’t, and not just because the Heat has company in its misery — no visiting team had won a regular-season game in San Antonio in more than a calendar year — or because, as Erik Spoelstra noted, it only counted for one loss even if it felt like 10. It’s because the Heat’s 2015-16 season, for all its harrowing and heartening happenings, will still be defined by how it handles the next three weeks.

It’s this simple:

If Miami, which entered Thursday’s NBA play tied for the fifth seed, can win seven of its next 10 games, all of which are against teams — Orlando (three), Detroit (two), Brooklyn, Los Angeles Lakers, Sacramento, Portland, Chicago — with worse records, it should position itself for no worse than the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference. Then if it beats Boston in that final game, to finish 48-34, it’s hard to see how Miami won’t steal the third seed.

Yes, steal. Not because what appeared possible prior to the season — I projected 47 wins and the third or fourth spot — but because of all that’s occurred to undermine the Heat since. That includes, but isn’t limited to, the extended absence for the team’s highest-paid player, and pre-All-Star break leading scorer, Chris Bosh. The Wizards and Bulls, among others, haven’t responded to adversity nearly as well.

So, take that seed by tiebreaker? By one game? The margin doesn’t matter. Just get it. In the same vein, it won’t matter if the Heat finishes a dozen games behind Cleveland, or 10 behind Toronto. Miami will be just one, and two, behind each in the seedings, respectively, with the same first-round privilege in the first round and an initial playoff opponent that isn’t much more challenging than what either the Cavaliers or Raptors will encounter — the sixth seed figures to have won five or fewer more games than the eighth seed. Currently, the margin between sixth and eighth is just 3 1/2 games.

Plus, securing the third seed would likely mean a potential second-round matchup against Toronto rather than Cleveland and, as resourceful as the Raptors have been this season, winning without the returning DeMarre Carroll, its core still hasn’t won a playoff series together. Last spring, against Washington, it didn’t even win a game.

The Heat is done with the Raptors and Cavaliers for the regular season. It is also done with the Warriors and Spurs and Thunder and Clippers and Hawks. Instead, it plays five games against three teams (Nets, Magic, Kings) that were 2-8 in their past 10 games entering Thursday.

Johnson, bought out by the Nets in February, called those games the most dangerous because players aren’t fearful of losing.

“They’ll do anything,” Johnson said.

The players, perhaps. Organizationally, however, it makes sense for some of those teams not to push too hard. Brooklyn’s first-round pick is promised to Boston, so there’s no benefit to tanking. But the Lakers are currently the league’s second-worst team and need to preserve that position to avoid sending their pick to Philadelphia — it’s top-three protected in the lottery. The Kings and Magic would benefit from falling further in the standings.

Heat players know the schedule; Goran Dragic, who has been tracking it against those of East rivals,, spoke Wednesday of how Miami has a “five-game stretch that we’ve got to win all of them.” The fifth may be tough, in Portland against the upstart Trail Blazers, who are trying to secure a sixth seed in the West.

But the next four are absolutely necessary.

Win them, and it’s all still there for the Heat.

So why sweat Wednesday’s struggle against the Spurs?

“This is a game you learn from,” Amar’e Stoudemire said. “We know that we’ve got to get that level of play on a consistent basis. We’ve got to have that same mental approach.”

That approach has always included putting an underdog away.

“They’ve always been that way,” Johnson said of the Spurs’ Thursday surge. “You hang a quarter or two with them, and then they just kind of explode.”

The Heat can’t do any less against all the lesser lights it will be seeing soon.

Ethan J. Skolnick: 305-376-3483, @ethanjskolnick

Friday: Magic at Heat

When, where: 8 p.m., AmericanAirlines Arena

TV, radio: Fox Sports Sun; WAXY (790), WAQI (710, Spanish).

Series: Heat leads 59-45.

Scouting report: The first of three remaining meetings between the teams, and the Magic looks much different, after making ill-fated trades for a doomed playoff run. Nikola Vucevic has typically given the Heat trouble. Luol Deng (quad) may rest another couple of days, after missing the start in San Antonio.

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