Thursday, July 18, 2024

NBA playoff race: Heat coming apart at wrong time, suddenly in danger of having to face Nets in first round

The Miami Heat have gone from a near-lock to claim the East’s No. 1 seed to being just one game up in the loss column on both the Bucks and Sixers, and just two on the Celtics, with nine games to play. 

Miami has taken two disastrous losses over the past three days, first falling to the Sixers, who were playing without Joel Embiid and James Harden, before completely melting down against the Warriors — who were without, among others, Stephen Curry, Draymond Green and Klay Thompson

Fortunately for the Heat, they currently own the tiebreaker over both Milwaukee and Philadelphia by virtue of their better conference record, so the lead there is effectively two games. Boston might be the biggest threat. For starters, the Celtics own the tiebreaker vs. Miami via a 2-0 head-to-head advantage. Second, Boston still has one game against the Heat remaining, on March 30, at Boston. 

Including the Celtics date, Miami faces six teams who are currently fighting for their own playoff/play-in positioning over their final nine games, including the Nets, Bulls, Raptors, Hornets and Hawks. The Celtics, to be fair, have an even tougher home stretch, but there isn’t a team in the league playing better than them right now. You have to like their chances to finish strong. 

And here’s the problem: With three teams all within range of overtaking the Heat, if only one of them does it, and the Heat end up as the No. 2 seed, that could very well mean a first-round matchup with the Nets, who are about to get Kyrie Irving back on a full-time basis and could have Ben Simmons by the time the postseason rolls around as well. 

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As it stands at this moment, the Nets would play the Raptors in the first play-in game. Whoever wins that game would face the No. 2 seed. You have to wonder how all three of these teams (Bucks, Sixers and Celtics) are going to approach these last two weeks. They can go for the No. 1 seed, but if they fall just short, they’ll be the ones playing Brooklyn in the first round. No disrespect to the No. 6 Cavs, but they’re going to be everyone’s preferred matchup short of securing the No. 1 seed. 

The Sixers have shown signs of not wanting to press their luck. They sat James Harden twice in games against Miami, and Embiid once. They might regret that first one without Harden, which they lost. 

However it works out, Miami has to get its act together. One glaring issue is fourth-quarter offense, where the Heat entered play on Wednesday ranked 23rd league-wide, a slightly better mark than their 26th overall ranking in clutch situations. The Heat have a lot of guys who qualify as late-game shot creators, namely Jimmy Butler, Tyler Herro and Kyle Lowry, but it’s not happening for them right now. 

Miami’s ability to get tough clutch buckets largely propelled it to the Finals two years ago. I still have faith in that coming together, and it’s mostly because of Herro and, to a lesser extent, Lowry. To me, Butler is not the same kind of force he was in the Bubble. Relying on a third-year guy in Herro as your top individual creator/tough shot maker in the playoffs sounds dicey, but with enough ancillary support I think he’s up for the task. 

Oh, and it would also probably help if the Heat stopped trying to fight each other. On Wednesday, Jimmy Butler and Eric Spoelstra went at it in the huddle — like, for real — and the next thing you know Udonis Haslem was telling Butler he would “beat [his] a**” as teammates thankfully kept them apart. 

Here’s some pretty clear audio. 

Of course, the Heat played this off after the game as nothing more than emotions running hot when the team was in the middle of a second straight cruddy performance against an undermanned opponent, and that’s probably all it is. In fact, maybe this ends up as the fire that lights Miami on a solid closing stretch to secure the No. 1 seed and head into the playoffs on the right note. We’ll see.

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