With four weeks left in the regular season, the Miami Heat (32-35) sits a half game back of the Milwaukee Bucks (32-34) for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
But let’s call this what it really is: a five-team race for three spots with the Indiana Pacers, Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls all in the mix.
Entering Tuesday's action, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index Playoff Odds were projecting the Heat to finish with the same record as the Bulls (40-42) and to miss the playoffs based on the head-to-head tiebreaker Chicago owns. That means ESPN’s analysts believe the Heat will finish 8-7 over its final 15 games – a significant drop after Miami has won 21 of its last 26 games.
Of the five teams in the mix for the final three spots, Miami's strength of schedule ranks third (.479). The Heat play nine of its final 15 games at home and only four on the road against teams .500 or better. This five-game homestand which begins with New Orleans on Wednesday is where Miami ultimately has to make its biggest push if it wants to reach the postseason. Only the Toronto Raptors, the last game on the homestand on March 23, has a winning record.
After that, the schedule gets tougher for the Heat. Miami hits the road to face Boston, Detroit and New York, the first two assignments obviously being the tougher of the three. The issue for the Heat is that its last four games of the season – at Toronto (April 7), at Washington (April 8), versus Cleveland (April 10) and versus Washington (April 12) – are all against the East's best squads. That could be a blessing (if those teams start resting players for the playoffs) or a curse (if those teams are still battling for seeding).
Anyway, here's a look at what Indiana, Detroit, Milwaukee and Chicago all have left on their slates.
Indiana (34-33): The Pacers picked up a huge win over the Heat on Sunday (though Miami still owns the head-to-head tiebreaker). Right now, ESPN's projects Indiana will finish 42-40 and with the sixth seed in East. When it comes to the schedule, the Pacers face the second toughest (.510 winning percentage) among the five teams vying for the final three spots. Eight teams with .500 records or better remain including five games on the road. There’s also five home games against teams worse than .500. Here are the big ones to watch for Indiana: at Toronto (3/19), vs. Utah (3/20), at Boston (3/22), at Memphis (3/29), at Toronto (3/31), at Cleveland (4/2), vs. Toronto (4/4) and vs. Milwaukee (4/6). Indiana closes the season at Orlando, at Philly and home against the Hawks. By then, the Magic and 76ers will clearly be playing for better draft position and the Hawks likely will have secured the fifth seed.
Detroit (33-34): The Pistons own a 2-1 head-to-head edge over the Heat and host Miami on the second night of a back-to-back on March 28. ESPN projects Detroit to finish 41-41 and with the seventh seed. The Pistons have the fourth-easiest strength of schedule (.476 winning percentage) among the group and only six of their final 15 opponents have records of .500 or better. But eight of those games are on the road. After Tuesday’s blowout loss at Cleveland, the Pistons head home Wednesday and host a very good Utah squad on the second night of a back-to-back. So, the Heat could pull even with Detroit by the end of the night Wednesday. Here are the other big games left to watch for Detroit: vs. Toronto (3/17), at Chicago (3/22), at Milwaukee (3/31), vs. Toronto (4/5), at Houston (4/7), at Memphis (4/9), vs. Washington (4/10). Detroit wraps up the season at Orlando on April 12.
Milwaukee (32-34): Nobody has a tougher schedule down the stretch (.541 winning percentage) than the Bucks, who play eight teams .500 or better including six on the road. Plus, only five of Milwaukee's final 16 games are at home. ESPN's BPI is projecting the Bucks to finish 39-43 and place 10th in the conference. The Heat also own the head-to-head tiebreaker with Milwaukee 3-1. After Wednesday's game at the Clippers, Milwaukee's other tough games include: at Warriors (3/18) on the second night of a back-to-back, vs. Chicago (3/26), at Celtics (3/29), vs. Detroit (3/31), at Oklahoma City (4/4), at Indiana (4/6) and at Boston (4/12).
Chicago (32-35): The Bulls schedule looks tough right now, but it's actually the easiest (.463). Of the seven teams .500 or better Chicago still has to play, five of those games are at home including Wednesday’s against Memphis. That’s why ESPN has the Bulls making the playoffs right now ahead of Miami. After Memphis, most of Chicago’s toughest games are over the next two weeks: at Washington (3/17), vs. Utah (3/18) on the second night of a back-to-back, at Toronto (3/21) and then home vs. Detroit (3/22) on the second night of a back-to-back. After a pivotal road game at Milwaukee on March 26, the Bulls host Cleveland on March 30. That’s four days between games. After that, Chicago’s schedule gets significantly easier with road games at New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia and Brooklyn. Chicago’s last two games are at home against Orlando and Brooklyn. So if the Heat wants to surge past the Bulls, Miami better do it now.