Ethan J. Skolnick

This Miami Heat team needs home-court advantage more than most

‘I remember my first playoff series, the reason we won it was we had home court. We won all four games,’ Dwyane Wade said of his first-ever playoff series as a rookie in 2004.
‘I remember my first playoff series, the reason we won it was we had home court. We won all four games,’ Dwyane Wade said of his first-ever playoff series as a rookie in 2004. pportal@elnuevoherald.com

You’re forgiven for forgetting.

After all, it has been seemingly forever, nearly a full dozen years, since Dwyane Wade first played a postseason game.

So, while you can probably recall snippets of the Heat rookie’s first playoff series against the New Orleans Hornets — especially the crafty runner to win Game 1 and the go-ahead three-pointer in Game 5 — you’re probably fuzzy on some other details.

Wade might not remember every play either, because he’s experienced so many since and is set to experience more, even as his former superstar sidekicks, such as Shaquille O’Neal, are already getting inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. But he has retained enough to include that April 2004 affair in his library of lessons, as was evident when he was asked Monday why home court matters to the current Heat.

“It would great to start off on home court, with a mix of a team that’s playing and really counting on younger guys,” Wade said. “That would be great. I remember my first playoff series, the reason we won it was we had home court. We won all four games.”

They did, and largely because the youngest of all their young players — on a team that also included rotation youngsters Udonis Haslem, Caron Butler, Rasual Butler — generally played with more poise in front of his home crowd.

In his first road playoff game, Game 3 of the series, Wade, then a point guard, made 1 of 8 shots and had six turnovers, with no assists, as Miami scored just 71. In his second road game, Game 4, he had 10 assists, but made just 4 of 12 shots, as veteran point guard counterpart Baron Davis tallied 23. In his third road game, Game 6, he outscored Davis, 27-13, though Miami still lost. In fact, the Heat went 0-6 on the road in that postseason, including the second-round series loss to the Pacers.

But at least in the first round, Wade and his young teammates had Game 7 at home, a cushion that allowed it to drop road games and still recover.

This Heat squad has some similarity, with a veteran presence (Wade, Luol Deng, Amar’e Stoudemire and Joe Johnson where Brian Grant and Eddie Jones once were), but also with some raw components (rookies Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson, plus Hassan Whiteside and Tyler Johnson without a playoff appearance, and Goran Dragic without a playoff start).

How will the inexperienced players perform in a hostile setting? How can anyone know, when even Wade scuffled some at first?

So this team needs the early cushion that the 2003-04 team had. It needs a chance to get its bearings — and footing. It needs home court advantage, more than it needs a particular opponent.

That is the major reason why these last six games matter so much — more even than the satisfaction that would come with securing a playoff seed that squares with the preseason predictions, even after all the season’s jagged edges, including the loss of Chris Bosh.

But this isn’t just about feeling good; it’s about playing on. Last postseason, home teams were 48-33; in the postseason prior, they were 50-39. No, the Heat hasn’t had horrible splits this season — it is 25-13 at home and 19-19 on the road, which is a fairly typical variance, with the latter record tied for a respectable fourth in the Eastern Conference.

But the playoffs can be quite different.

Quite stressful.

Quite humbling.

Quite fracturing.

Even for veterans.

Wade knows better than anyone. We’ve seen him at his best, carrying the Heat to a championship in 2006 on the Mavericks’ floor, furiously finishing the Bulls along with LeBron James in 2011, and so on. We’ve also seen him at his worst, railing into Erik Spoelstra in frustration in 2012. This is what the playoffs do.

This is why you need to put yourself in the best possible position before they begin.

This is why Wade is rushing to return from a bruised back and sore neck, which still have him questionable for Tuesday’s critical contest with Detroit.

This is why Wade acknowledged he checks out-of-town scores, “looking to see if you can get some help from the other side.”

This is why he’s harping on closing strong, as one of the team’s leaders.

“For the guys who have been there before, [they] understand,” Wade said. “But for the guys who haven’t been, it’s just words to them. So you can talk all you want. Until they experience the playoffs, until they understand what it is, it’s just words. Our job is just to try to continue to drive home the importance of winning on the road, the importance of figuring out the way when things are not going well.”

Get the third or fourth seed, and the playoffs have a shot to go better.

Tuesday: Pistons at Heat

When/where: 8 p.m. American Airlines Arena.

TV/radio: TNT, SUN; WAXY 790, WAQI 710 (Spanish).

Series: Heat leads 51-48.

Scouting report: Detroit has beaten the Heat twice this season, sinking a total of 31 three-point shots. Miami has changed its defensive coverages since but will need to get out to shooters. The Pistons are trying to hold off the Bulls for a playoff spot but still have an outside chance to move up from their current seventh position.

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