For most of the Miami Heat roster, this is all new, having to try to advance to the NBA playoffs through the play-in tournament.
To Kevin Love and Caleb Martin, having been there before with other teams, it essentially is March Madness in April.
“You’ve got to come ready to play,” Martin said, with the Heat hopeful of advancing to the playoffs with a Tuesday night victory over the Atlanta Hawks at Kaseya Center, the new name for the Heat’s arena. “I mean, all I know is this isn’t a situation we were banking on. So you have to come in prepared like it’s the NCAA Tournament, like you’re one and done. So come in ready.”
“I feel like because there’s so much at stake, it almost feels like a one-and-done type situation,” Love said. “It almost feels like a Game 7 or a March Madness type situation.”
Neither Love, last season with the Cleveland Cavaliers, nor Martin, two years ago with the Charlotte Hornets, were able to make it out of the play-in. So they particularly appreciate the urgency.
“It’s definitely a spot even coming out of the [All-Star] break, we didn’t see ourselves in,” Love said. “But this is the reality of the situation.”
While Sunday’s regular-season finale against the visiting Orlando Magic remains, that game is meaningless in the standings, with the Heat already locked into seventh place in the Eastern Conference.
Tuesday, though, has significant meaning. If the Heat win that game against the Hawks, they are in the playoffs as the No. 7 seed, to face the No. 2 Boston Celtics in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals.
Should the Heat lose Tuesday’s home game, they get a second chance at the playoffs on Friday night, when they host the winner of Wednesday’s game between the ninth-place Toronto Raptors and the 10th-place Chicago Bulls. The winner of that Friday game advances to the best-of-seven opening round of the playoffs as the No. 8 East seed, to face the No. 1 Milwaukee Bucks.
The playoffs open April 15.
For a team that finished last season as the No. 1 seed in the East and advanced within a victory of the 2022 NBA Finals, it is not the postseason path of choice for the Heat.
“This,” coach Erik Spoelstra said, “is our reality and you have to embrace that. This is a totally new experience for all of us. It’s not exactly where we wanted to be heading into this season, if you go back to training camp. But that is totally irrelevant.
“We have this in front of us and it’s competition and it’s great competition with a lot at stake. That is something to look forward to, particularly with the competitors that we have in our locker room.”
For weeks, the Heat have stressed the need to avoid the play-in round. Those hopes ended with the Brooklyn Nets on Friday night securing the sixth and final direct East seed into the playoffs.
“At the end of the day,” guard Tyler Herro said, “there’s teams that aren’t in the play-in that would rather be in the play-in than not be in the playoffs at all. We’re not really too worried about where we’re at.
“I feel like we’re playing good basketball right now. And the opportunity is there in front of us, and all we have to do is win a game, get into the playoffs. And like we’ve been saying all year, when we’re at our best, we can play with anybody.”
With the Heat sitting most rotation players Friday, their road loss to the Washington Wizards proved moot. Few if any of the rotation players will play Sunday, in a game where an Orlando loss would benefit the Magic in terms of lottery seeding.
And then it becomes about trying to make things right.
“I think it’s just the bed we made,” guard Gabe Vincent said of the seventh-place finish. “We have to lay in it. We have to take some responsibility for the position that we’re in, go out there and put our best foot forward.”
With Spoelstra confident that still can happen.
“Maybe this is the path for this group,” he said. “That’s the way I look at it. We’re a dangerous team. We’re finding our health, we’re getting a confidence about how we’re playing.”