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Heat in danger of facing play-in game

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Miami will need to treat the last month of the regular season like the playoffs.

Miami Heat v Denver Nuggets Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

The Miami Heat’s blowout losses to the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets the last two nights have placed them in the uneviable position we feared they’d be in after struggling to start the season — not guaranteed a playoff seed and having to win a play-in game.

The Heat hold the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. The NBA changed its rules this season and will hold play-in games for both the seventh and eighth seeds. (In last year’s Bubble, only the eighth seed had a play-in tournament if the eighth- and ninth-seeded teams were fewer than four games apart in the standings.)

And because of the pandemic-condensed schedule, the play-in games would run from May 18 to May 21, just two days after Miami’s regular season finale May 16. The Heat will need to treat the last month of the regular season as playoff games in the hopes of making into one of the East’s top six seeds.

Mark Cuban of the Dallas Mavericks has criticized the play-in tournament for this very reason.

“The worst part of this approach is that it doubles the stress of the compressed schedule. Rather than playing for a playoff spot and being able to rest players as the standings become clearer, teams have to approach every game as a playoff game to either get into or stay in the top 6 since the consequences, as Luka said, are enormous. So players are playing more games and more minutes in fewer days.”

Cuban’s statement, of course, ignores the fact that the NBA created the play-in tournament precisely to raise the stakes of those final regular season games. We’ve all seen teams rest their key players to close the season — much to the chagrin of fans who want to see good basketball. The Heat even did that in the Bubble, choosing to rest Jimmy Butler and Goran Dragic in the seeding games instead of having them play through injuries.

Now, the Heat don’t have that luxury. Their April 23 game in Atlanta and their two May match-ups with the Boston Celtics become pivotal match-ups.

Miami can avoid a play-in game. But they need to make up some ground in the standings starting tomorrow night in Minnesota.