Eventually, reality had to set in.
Although Thursday’s win against the 76ers kept the Heat mathematically in the hunt for the No. 6 seed, it became clear heading into the regular season’s final weekend that escaping the play-in tournament wasn’t realistic.
The Heat needed to win their final two games and, more vitally, the Nets had to lose their final two. With their fate out of their control, the Heat decided to control the only thing they could: Their health.
So on the heels of a statement win over the 76ers and a three-game win streak, coach Erik Spoelstra rested his core players on the second night of a back-to-back. Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro and Kyle Lowry sat and the Heat’s reserves were outscored by the Wizards reserves 114 to 108 on Friday night. In Brooklyn, the Nets soundly defeated the Magic, who were resting their starters. Now it’s official. The No. 7 Heat will play the No. 8 Hawks at either 7 or 7:30 on Tuesday at Kesaya Center. Sunday’s game against the Magic serves only as a formality and Udonis Haslem’s final regular season game.
All things considered, the Heat made the right decision. The race for sixth was noble and potentially dramatic, but Brooklyn’s win Friday would have locked the Heat into seventh place anyway. By rolling over, the Heat’s core players will have four full days of rest before taking on the Hawks in the win-and-take-all play-in game.
If the Heat beat the Hawks, they’ll advance as the No. 7 seed and have at least three more full days of rest before a first-round series against the No. 2 seed Celtics. If the Heat lose, they’d face the winner of a game between the No. 9 Raptors and No. 10 Bulls, with the winner advancing as the No. 8 seed in the East.
The Heat didn’t expect to be in this situation. A year removed from being a possession away from their second Finals berth in three seasons, they were aiming at home court in the first round. But injuries, fatigue, poor shooting and improved competition at the top of the conference have pushed the Heat down the standings. It left them with a tough decision: Fight one more night and risk injury to a key player, or accept the play-in scenario and prioritize health.
“This is our reality and you have to embrace that,” Spoelstra said after Friday’s game.
“It’s just the bed we made. We have to lay in it,” Gabe Vincent said.
Added Kevin Love: “This is the reality of the situation.”
Heat players have missed 282 games due to injury this season, second behind only the Pistons. Lowry has missed 23, Butler has missed 15 and Tyler Herro 14. Others such as Victor Oladipo (33) and Omer Yurtseven (62) were expected to play important roles but never quite carved one out after missing most of the start of the season. To navigate these injuries, Spoelstra has used 25 different starting lineups. But now, everyone except rookie Nikola Jovic is healthy.
“All things considered, this is the best place our health has been all season long and it couldn’t happen at a better time,” Spoelstra said. “We feel good about that.”
If they lose to the Magic Sunday, the Heat would technically enter the play-in tournament having dropped two straight. But, practically, Miami’s regular season is over. It ended after Thursday’s statement win in Philadelphia, in which Butler had 24 points and six assists in 29 minutes, Herro poured in 24 points, Adebayo and Co. limited MVP candidate Joel Embiid to 21 points — his fewest total in a full game since Dec. 31.
Over their last 15 games (not including last night’s loss) the Heat rank 12th in offensive rating and are shooting better than 37% from 3-point range as a team.
“We’re playing good basketball right now,” Herro said.
That’s the rhythm the Heat hope to take into the postseason. Playing well, on a three-game win streak and, most important, healthy and rested,.
For a team that dealt with injuries to Butler, Herro and Lowry in last year’s conference finals and still nearly made the NBA Finals, it could be argued that health is even more important than seeding.
That’s the calculus the Heat have made here and, given the reality of the situation, it was the only sensible play.