Heat Check

Heat-Raptors in Round 1? Why a favorable schedule could lift Miami ahead of 8th seed

Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) drives past Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo (13) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in Toronto.
Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) drives past Miami Heat center Bam Adebayo (13) during the first half of an NBA basketball game Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018, in Toronto. AP

The Heat missed the playoffs last season because the Bulls owned the head-to-head tiebreaker against them and when both teams finished with identical 41-41 records it was Chicago that got in over Miami as the eighth and final seed in the Eastern Conference.

Being left out of the postseason is not something All-Star point guard Goran Dragic says he nor his teammates want to experience again.

“I think this group knows,” Dragic said Wednesday when asked if the Heat is aware how valuable each of the team’s final 24 regular season games are and how tight the playoff race in the Eastern Conference is. “We were in this kind of position last year. It’s not fun when you win the last game and then you’re waiting on somebody else to see if you’re going to make the playoffs or not.

“We need to take care of business here at home, especially because we have a lot of home games in March. I think we have a good advantage on those teams.”

Though the Heat (30-28) is seeded eighth in the conference – 1 1/2 games up on Detroit (28-29) – as play around the league resumes Thursday night following the All-Star break, the opportunity is clearly there for Miami to climb back up in the standings and not go into the final week of the regular season against Oklahoma City and Toronto at home nervous about making the postseason.

Although seventh-seeded Philadelphia (30-25) has the easiest remaining schedule in the league according to playoffstatus.com (only 11 of the Sixers final 27 opponents are still in the playoff hunt), the Heat has the third-easiest schedule (15 home games – more than any other team in the East). The other four teams battling with Miami and Philadelphia for the final five playoff spots in the East, meanwhile, have tougher roads to plow through.

Some more favorable Heat scheduling points to consider:

▪ The division-leading and fourth-seeded Washington Wizards (33-24) have the toughest remaining schedule in the league with 19 of its final 25 games against teams still in the playoff hunt. Although Washington is 7-2 since John Wall had knee surgery, only three of those wins were against teams in the playoff picture and the Wizards still have to play another month without Wall. Miami, which split the first two games of the season with the Wizards, still has two games left against Washington – on the road March 6 and in Miami on March 10 when the Wizards will be playing on the second night of a back-to-back.

▪ Fifth-seeded Indiana (33-25) has flourished behind All-Star guard Victor Oladipo, but the Pacers play 16 of their final 24 games against teams with winning records still in the playoff hunt. Plus, 14 of the final 24 games are on the road. Indiana is 13-14 on the road this season and 20-11 at home. Miami already won in Indiana earlier this season and has a 2-1 lead in the season series. There is one pivotal game left between the teams at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 25. With another impressive road win, the Heat would own the season series tiebreaker.

▪ Sixth-seeded Milwaukee (32-25) was already swept in the season series by the Heat 3-0. Although the Bucks play the same number of teams in the playoff hunt as Miami does (13) after the All-Star break, only 12 of Milwaukee’s final 25 games are at home. The Bucks are 19-10 at home and 13-15 on the road. Milwaukee’s first eight games after the All-Star break are all against teams in the playoff hunt. The Bucks close the regular season at Philadelphia on April 11.

▪ The seventh-seeded Sixers, who already have beaten the Heat twice at home, have the easiest remaining schedule in the league, but the most remaining back-to-backs (6) of any team fighting for a spot in the East. And, Philadelphia plays the Heat twice in Miami (next Tuesday and again March 8).

▪ Ninth-seeded Detroit, meanwhile, plays 15 of its final 25 games on the road (the Pistons are 9-17 away from Little Caesars Arena) and has four back-to-back sets left (one more than Miami). The Pistons also open up a six-game West Coast trip at Utah on March 13 and face four teams on the trip fighting for playoff position. Though Detroit owns a 2-1 head-to-head lead on the Heat, the Pistons play the final game of the season series in Miami on the second night of a back-to-back March 3.

The Heat, which lost seven of its last eight games before the All-Star break and were only 14-12 at home, have proven capable of winning big games on the road this season. The good news is none of its remaining road opponents are seeded in the top four in the West or in the top three in the East.

Miami’s toughest remaining home games are March 27 against Cleveland and April 11 against Toronto, which could be sitting players before the playoffs at that point. Only three of the Heat’s final nine road games are against current playoff teams out West – at New Orleans on Friday, March 12 in Portland and April 9 in Oklahoma City.

ESPN’s Basketball Power Index, however, still doesn’t project the Heat to rise in the standings. Miami is slotted to finish 43-39 and with the eighth seed in the East ahead of Detroit (40-42). Those same simulations have the Wizards finishing fourth (46-36), the Sixers fifth (46-36), the Bucks sixth (44-38) and the Pacers seventh (44-38).

That means the Heat would face projected No. 1 seed Toronto (59-23) in the opening round of the playoffs and play the winner of Washington-Philadelphia in Round 2 if Miami were to pull off an upset of the Raptors.

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