With the regular season wrapping up, the Heat may or may not face a favorable opponent in the first round.
At the risk of jinxing our favorite squad, let me get something out of the way: The Miami Heat are making the NBA playoffs. With the Detroit Pistons’ overtime loss Thursday to the Houston Rockets, the team’s magic number is down to three. This is a story about best and worst-case playoff scenarios, but we’re going to keep things reasonable. Blake Griffin and Co. aren’t catching the Heat. And conversely, the Heat probably aren’t going 10-0 down the stretch.
Luckily, the Eastern Conference playoff picture is still muddy enough that Miami doesn’t need to win out to improve its playoff standing. As of this writing, Miami sits in seventh place in the East, 1.5 games ahead of the eighth-place Milwaukee Bucks — and 3.5 games back of the third-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers. The Heat’s relatively favorable schedule down the stretch could spell trouble for some teams just ahead of Miami in the standings. But if the Heat blow one or two winnable games in the final weeks of the regular season, Miami could find itself matched up against an unnecessarily tough first round opponent.
Here are the remaining schedules of the bottom five Eastern Conference playoff teams, with relative difficulty of the team’s schedule in parentheses:
7. Miami Heat (10th easiest in the league): at Thunder, at Pacers, Cavs, Bulls, Nets, Hawks, at Hawks, at Knicks, Thunder, (probably-resting) Raptors
8. Milwaukee Bucks (14th easiest in the league): at Bulls, Spurs, at Clippers, at Warriors, at Lakers, at Nuggets, Celtics, Nets, at Knicks, Magic, at 76ers
1. Best-case scenario: Heat finish the season 8-2, rise to the 5th seed, play the 76ers in the first round
This may not seem like a very optimistic best-case scenario. Hear me out. The Philadelphia 76ers’ current remaining schedule is a joke. It’s unrealistic to expect Philly to lose more than three or four more times. They’re probably going to settle into the 4th seed.
The Heat can expect the Pacers — and even the Wizards, if all goes perfectly — to lose more than that. The Pacers almost certainly won’t earn the fifth seed: they’ve yet to take their west coast road trip, and they have tough dates at Warriors, at Nuggets and at Raptors in their future. If Indy loses those three games plus Sunday’s showdown against the Heat, they could win the rest of their games and still wind up seeded lower than a Miami team that finishes 8-2.
Similarly, the Wizards face tough tests at Rockets, at Cavs and against the Celtics in the season’s final weeks. It’s not super likely that the Heat will post a record two games better than the Wiz — who will soon see John Wall return after six weeks on the sidelines — the rest of the way. But it’s possible in the best-case scenario.
Which brings us to the playoffs. This may be an unpopular opinion in Heat Nation, but a fifth-seeded Miami team should want to play Philadelphia in the first round. The Sixers are talented enough to make me look silly in a few weeks for writing this, but Philly might be relatively easy for coach Erik Spoelstra to plan against in a seven-game series. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid have played a combined zero playoff minutes. Neither of them are dynamic scoring threats with the shot clock winding down. Philly will need lots of help from role players to put up enough points to outlast the Heat in a potential matchup. If I had to pick any team for the Heat to face in the first round, I’d pick the Sixers.
Worst-case scenario: Heat finish 4-6, fall to the 8 seed, play the Raptors in the first round
If you’ve watched the Heat all year, you may have noticed that Miami has an unfortunate tendency to play down to poor competition. (Cough, Kings, cough.) If the Heat give away winnable games down the stretch, Milwaukee could leapfrog the squad. That would set up a first-round matchup against a scary-deep Toronto team.
But even in this nightmare scenario, the Heat would square off against a Raptors team that has left plenty to be desired in past postseason runs. (Never mind that the Heat also took two of three from the Raps this regular season.) The Raptors shouldn’t want any part of even a low-seeded Heat team.
Even the best-case scenario I outlined could go awry. It’s entirely possible that the 76ers could overtake the Cavaliers for the third seed, leaving the fifth seed set for a playoff date with LeBron James. Even a red-hot Heat team should want no part of a series against The King, who has not lost in the Eastern Conference playoffs since before I could legally drive a car.
And what I might call an average-case scenario could work out in the Heat’s favor. If the season were to end today, the Heat would play the Kyrie Irving-less Celtics in a Kelly Olynyk revenge series. Miami could do much worse than that in a hypothetical first-round matchup.
Bottom line: We can schedule watch all we want. If the Heat want to prove they’re a real contender, they’ll have to beat the best teams in the NBA. I’m excited to see whether they can.