With the NBA having the courtesy to step aside Monday night to leave the basketball stage to North Carolina and Kansas, it allows a reset of where the Heat stand in the race among four teams for the top seeds in the Eastern Conference.
To put into perspective just how unsettled the playoff picture stands in the Eastern Conference, consider that the Heat at the moment could play any one of six possible opponents when the first round of the playoffs open the weekend of April 16-17: Toronto Raptors, Chicago Bulls, Cleveland Cavaliers, Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets or Brooklyn Nets.
And then consider that because the play-in tournament to determine the Nos. 7-8 seeds (who will play the Nos. 1-2 seeds) will not be concluded until just over a day before the start of the postseason, clarity on a first-round opponent could be a long way off.
So getting a read on where the Heat stand in their playoff race might be less of a puzzle then determining the opponent at the start of the playoff road for Erik Spoelstra and his team.
For the Heat, the simple math is this: Produce a 2-1 finish to the season, and No. 1 in the East is theirs, regardless of any other outside result.
“We don’t really pay attention to that,” guard Max Strus said of the race for the top over this final week. “We don’t talk about it too much. All we really care about is winning games. And when the dust settles, wherever we land at, we’ll be all right, and we’ll go from there.
“We don’t really pay attention to it. And no matter where we’re at at the end of the year, we’re ready for the playoffs and ready to compete, no matter what seed we are.”
To that end, a breakdown of the teams chasing the top four seeds in the Eastern Conference as Sunday’s night approaches:
No. 1 Miami Heat
Head-to-head: 2-2 vs. Bucks; 1-2 vs. Celtics; 2-2 vs. 76ers.
Conference record (second tiebreaker): 33-16.
Schedule: Tuesday vs. Hornets; Friday vs. Hawks; Sunday at Magic.
Current playoff matchup: Vs. No. 8 Hawks (play-in team).
Comment: With two victories in their final three games, the Heat are the No. 1 seed regardless of any outside results.
Because of the schedules of their competition, it is possible that with a victory Tuesday over visiting Charlotte, the Heat could clinch the No. 1 seed before taking the court Friday against Atlanta in their home finale.
No. 2 Boston Celtics
Head-to-head: 2-1 vs. Heat; 2-1 vs. Bucks (one remaining); 2-2 vs. 76ers.
Conference record: 32-18.
Schedule: Wednesday at Bulls; Thursday at Bucks; Sunday at Grizzlies.
Current playoff matchup: Vs. No. 7 Cavaliers (play-in team).
Comment: If the Heat go 1-2 and the Celtics close 3-0, Boston will gain the No. 1 seed by virtue of taking the season series 2-1.
But it also is difficult to envision Boston pushing its rotation players in the back-to-back road set on Wednesday in Chicago and Thursday in Milwaukee. That could make 51-31 the Celtics’ best likely finish, particularly with their final three on the road.
No. 3 Milwaukee Bucks
Head-to-head: 2-2 vs. Heat; 1-2 vs. Celtics (one remaining); 2-1 vs. 76ers.
Conference record: 30-18.
Schedule: Tuesday at Bulls; Thursday vs. Celtics; Friday at Pistons; Sunday at Cavaliers.
Current playoff matchup: Vs. No. 6 Raptors.
Comment: If the Heat go 1-2 to close at 52-30, the Bucks could tie by winning out. In that case the Heat and Bucks would close with identical 34-18 conference records. That would take it to the next tiebreaker of record vs. the 10 East teams in the playoffs/play-in.
The Bucks also would win a three-team tiebreaker involving the Heat and 76ers.
No. 4 Philadelphia 76ers
Head-to-head: 2-2 vs. Heat; 1-2 vs. Bucks; 2-2 vs. Celtics.
Conference record: 29-19.
Schedule: Tuesday at Pacers; Thursday at Raptors; Saturday vs. Pacers; Sunday vs. Pistons.
Current playoff matchup: Vs. No. 5 Bulls.
Comment: As against the Bucks, if the Heat close 1-2, the 76ers could tie by closing 4-0. However, that still would leave the Heat with a one-game edge in conference tiebreaker (Heat would close at 34-18 vs. East with a 1-2 finish, 76ers at 33-19 with a 4-0 finish).
The only way for the 76ers to pass the Heat for No. 1 would be the Heat closing 0-3 and the 76ers 4-0.
NBA overall race
The Heat (51-28) would play as the road team in the NBA Finals against the Phoenix Suns (62-16) and Memphis Grizzlies (55-23), and also could play as the road team against the Golden State Warriors (50-29) and Dallas Mavericks (49-30). The Warriors have clinched the tiebreaker over the Heat.