We’re officially less than two weeks away from the conclusion of the NBA regular season and just under three weeks away from the start of the NBA playoffs.
Over the last week, the Miami Heat endured a cataclysmic implosion — to put it generously — relinquishing its once-3.5-game Eastern Conference lead it held just over a week ago.
They suffered three straight losses to the Philadelphia 76ers (without James Harden or Joel Embiid), Golden State Warriors (without Draymond Green, Klay Thompson or Stephen Curry) and the lottery-bound New York Knicks (without Julius Randle). That doesn’t include its most recent defeat: A 15-point loss to the Brooklyn Nets, where the final score was much closer than the actual game indicated.
The former three each featured fourth quarter collapses — when it sported a combined minus-30.4 NET rating. Oh, and there was also a very heated sideline altercation between head coach Erik Spoelstra and two of the team’s most prominant leaders, Jimmy Butler and Udonis Haslem. Perhaps you heard about that? (Read more about it here!) The feud was ultimately downplayed by Kyle Lowry, P.J. Tucker and even former Heat player Goran Dragic this week, but none of the phenomenons — on- and off-the-court — from an outside view transcribe positivity.
Nevertheless, Miami currently sits at 47-28 and tied for first in the East with seven games remaining. Let’s take a look at the East’s top-six heading into the final stretch:
Eastern Conference standings (thru 4/3):
Uh, yeah, this race is, and will continue to be tight.
But before I discuss Miami’s positioning and where I predict the Heat finish, let’s examine where it stands and its temperature compared to the rest of the other East’s top-4 teams. Without further ado, let’s jump into it!
As I illuminated to above, what a week to forget for Miami. It had the East’s top seed within its grasp heading into the final stretch and earning at least 2-3 wins over any of those four would’ve (obviously) put them in much better position to lock it up than they’re in currently. Now, they’re scrambling without much time to spare.
What their remaining schedule looks like?
MIA’s remaining schedule:
|Mon., March 28||vs. Sacramento||27-48|
|Wed., March 30||@ Boston||47-28|
|Sat., April 2||@ Chicago||43-31|
|Sun., April 3||@ Toronto||42-32|
|Tue., April 5||vs. Hornets||39-36|
|Fri., April 8||vs. Atlanta||37-37|
|Sun., April 10||@ Orlando||20-55|
While it’s an incredibly small sample to extrapolate, if this last week suggests anything, then close your eyes. The road trip will be its most daunting test over its final seven games.
Yes, I’m aware Chicago hasn’t fared well against good teams: They’re 2-18 against the Top-4 in each conference. Could Chicago, who’ve also hit a bump, pick up that ever-so-coveted first victory against Miami? This was meant to be rhetorical, but I’ll spill the beans: Yes, yes they can.
The Heat will also face a scorching-hot Boston Celtics, who are clobbering everyone in their path, and another hot, but not-as-hot team in the Toronto Raptors, who’ve won eight of their last 10. Both teams sport top-10 NET ratings in the month of March.
If Miami’s somehow able to recalibrate their comradery it featured in their first 60 or so games, then they should be in good shape heading into the postseason. Right now, it doesn’t look good — and there’s plenty of reason for concern.
PHI’s remaining schedule:
|Tue., March 29||vs. Milwaukee||46-28|
|Thurs., March 31||@ Detroit||20-55|
|Sat., April 2||vs. Charlotte||39-36|
|Sun., April 3||@ Cleveland||41-33|
|Tue., April 5||@ Indiana||25-50|
|Thurs., April 7||@ Toronto||42-32|
|Sat. April 9||vs. Indiana||25-50|
|Sun., April 10||vs. Detroit||20-55|
While James Harden has appeared in just 14 of Philly’s 20 games since he was acquired, the Sixers have gone 14-6 over that span, including 10-4 in games he’s played in.
Tyrese Maxey has had a very successful sophomore campaign, more than establishing himself as their third-best player behind MVP-candidate Joel Embiid and Harden. Tobias Harris is averaging 15.2 points and has connected on 40.0 percent of his triples over his last nine after struggling to initially find his rhythm after post-Harden trade.
The Sixers are in prime position to snatch the one-seed since they have the NBA’s third-easiest remaining schedule. The least demanding part of their schedule comes at the tail end, playing three of its final four against sub-.500 teams. They just lost to Phoenix and Milwaukee will obviously be a challenging foe, but I’m confident they pick up five wins — at minimum — over their final eight games.
BOS’ remaining schedule:
|Mon., March 28||@ Toronto||42-32|
|Wed., March 30||vs. Miami||47-28|
|Fri., April 1||vs. Indiana||25-50|
|Sun., April 3||vs. Washington||32-42|
|Wed., April 6||@ Chicago||43-31|
|Thurs., April 7||@ Milwaukee||46-28|
|Sun., April 10||@ Memphis||52-23|
Will the Celtics ever lose again? Some (me) are continually asking this question.
I labeled Boston as the East team I was keeping an eye on throughout the rest of the season in our midseason roundtable. They continue to impress in every way imaginable.
The Celtics — who were 16-19 on Dec. 30 — have been on a torrid three-month stretch and have shown approximately zero signs of slowing down. Since the start of 2022, Boston sports the NBA’s second-best record (30-9) with the best NET Rating (12.8) and defensive rating (104.3) — four points superior to the next-best mark (Dallas Mavericks - 108.3).
Their last six wins have come by 22, 29, 20, nine, 28 and 22 points, respectively; four of those six (Warriors, Utah Jazz, Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves) have been against teams .500 or better, shattering the pre-existing narrative that they couldn’t beat anyone good or healthy.
Boston does possess the hardest schedule amongst the four. Given they’ve won all but three of their 23 games since the start of February, I wouldn’t put it past them to go 5-2 or 6-1 over its final seven-game stretch.
Conversely to Philadelphia, its most daunting path appears at the end — closing the regular season with a road bout against Memphis. Since there’s a four-game difference between the Grizzlies and the Warriors for the 2-seed in the West, Memphis might not be playing for anything come April 10. Thus, it becomes an easier path for Boston to potentially capture the one-seed, assuming the Grizzlies decide to rest bodies.
Alas, six of Boston’s final eight games come against teams above .500. How they finish the regular season is key, though their recent play should indicate that they’re in no trouble of faltering within the next two weeks regardless of who it’s against or where it is.
MIL’s remaining schedule:
|Tue., March 29||@ Philadelphia||46-28|
|Thurs., March 31||@ Brooklyn||39-36|
|Fri., April 1||vs. Clippers||36-39|
|Sun., April 3||vs. Mavericks||46-29|
|Tue., April 5||@ Chicago||43-31|
|Thurs., April 7||vs. Boston||47-28|
|Fri., April 8||@ Detroit||20-55|
|Sun., April 10||@ Cleveland||41-33|
Factoring in Boston and Philadelphia’s well-documented surges coupled with Miami’s abrupt collapse, the Bucks’ recent hot stretch have been flown under-the-radar of late.
They’ve won 10 of their last 13 games, including statement victories over Chicago (twice), Miami, Phoenix (the Suns lost?) and Utah. Giannis Antetokounmpo is having another MVP-like season, posting averages of 29.7 points, 11.6 rebounds, 5.8 rebounds, 1.0 steals and 1.4 blocks on 63.1 true-shooting, mere percentage points below his single season career high (64.4 TS% in ‘18-19). If he’s healthy, they have a puncher’s chance to win any game they play in.
Tankathon has their schedule as the second-hardest amongst the top-4 teams and the third-hardest of the top-6. Milwaukee has six of their final eight against .500 or better squads, including four on the road.
Milwaukee’s defense has been unusually shaky throughout the season, but their 5th-ranked offense — plus the availability of Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton, who are 32-9 with a 11.0 NET Rating when they’re together on the floor — should be enough to position them favorably come playoff time. It wouldn’t surprise me if they finish as a top-2 seed, either.
What about Chicago, Toronto and the play-in squads?
I lumped Chicago, Toronto and the current play-in teams — Cleveland, Brooklyn, Charlotte and Atlanta — into one category because I don’t think any of them will end up with the one-seed, barring anything drastic.
They can, however, climb up in the standings and make things interesting for Miami — who, again, has lost of its mojo — Boston, Milwaukee and Philadelphia to potentially snatch the final homecourt spot.
Here’s how the play-in standings currently look:
Play-in standings (thru 3/27)
|Team||W-L||GB||Remaining SOS rank (per Tankathon)|
|Team||W-L||GB||Remaining SOS rank (per Tankathon)|
|Cleveland Cavaliers||41-33||-- (5.5 GB of top-seed)||20st (11th easiest)|
|Charlotte Hornets||39-36||2.5 GB (8)||14th|
|Brooklyn Nets||39-36||2.5 GB (8)||30th|
|Atlanta Hawks||37-37||4 GB (9.5)||26th|
After Charlotte’s nine-point road win over Brooklyn Sunday, the first set of play-in games would be Hawks-Nets and Hornets-Cavs if the season ended today. So the Heat would hypothetically face the winner of Hornets-Cavs while the loser plays the winner of the Hawks-Nets for the 8-seed.
Now that Kyrie Irving is available for full-time work, there’s a world in which Brooklyn — with the league’s easiest schedule the rest of the way — bypass the Hornets, Cavs and potentially the Raptors to avoid a play-in spot. Though that became a more strenous task after Sunday’s loss. It helps they’ll play just two of their remaining seven games on the road — against the Knicks and Hawks — with bouts against Detroit, Houston and Indiana.
The Hawks, who sport the Association’s third-best offense and the fifth-worst defense, have five on the road and three at home. Atlanta’s been a poor road team (13-23; -2.8 NET) compared to the inverse (24-14; 4.0 NET) and close the season with three of four away from home against Toronto, Miami and Houston. I can see them going .500 over their final eight and potentially bump up to the 9-seed, but I don’t expect them to move up into the 7-8 spot.
Cleveland has a 2.5-game lead on both Charlotte and Brooklyn and just one-game back of Toronto for the final non-play-in spot. I expect both to jostle back-and-forth for the remainder of the season. The Hornets seem to be peaking at the right time and could also find themselves fighting for the final non-play-in spot, especially since they have the easiest remaining schedule of the bunch.
Where do I think Miami finishes? And what should they be hoping for?
Good news: Miami’s week out of H-E-double hockey sticks is over. The bad news? I’m not sure it was just a week-long thing. Plenty of tangible problems arose, and while it’s repairable (I think?), it’s not an immediate fix.
Needless to say, the Heat need to figure it out — and quickly — in order to salvage their season.
Mere days ago, this discourse around the Heat folklore was who the preferable opponent among the four play-in teams. Now? Stacks of papers are flying everywhere, desks have been flipped, screws have been loosened loose and Miami’s attempting to find the switch to re-ignite their fire.
Amid the collapse, I still think Miami lands home court. Obviously, its best-case scenario is to end up as the one-seed. Though depending on where they end up, a first-round date with Chicago, Toronto, Cleveland or Brooklyn creates an even tougher path. If the Heat don’t fix things, then forget it. This becomes an entirely moot conversation and they’ll be bounced within a week-and-a-half. If the Heat do fix things, then they need to be clicking on all cylinders — it’s as simple as that.
There’s not necessarily a preferable opponent per say, at least in my eyes, but there’s definitely more favorable opponents to play than others. Among the other nine, the most advantageous would likely be Charlotte or Cleveland with Atlanta not far behind (they’re all good, too). That would currently require Miami to be a top-2 seed. Among the non-play-in squads, I’d pick Chicago — but on the other hand, Chicago’s ability to get a bucket any time it wants late in games with multiple shot creators does pose a problem for Miami, everything else aside.
Point is, the East’s top-10 is loaded. The road to the Finals will be a battle to the death. And waiting on the other side will presumably be a 60-win Suns team, a healthy Warriors team or a very deep Grizzlies squad.
The East’s depth makes it all the more important for Miami to hopefully find the screwdriver and re-tighten their screw(s), so it can have an easier — albeit still challenging — postseason path. This team has fought at least a man or two down the entire season and now it’s completely unraveled with virtually everyone back. Spoelstra is going to have to make some very tough decisions down the stretch on who to play and when, but that’s a different discussion for a different space.
Time continues to tick and it’s not going to stop for this.
We’ve now crossed the two-week deadline warning. Miami’s as formidable as anyone with a fully-locked in squad (and not a stupidly locked in one). It’s more than fair to panic or have concerns as a fan, regardless if the players or coaches do or not. Its collapse came out of virtually nowhere — a common denominator for most collapses. The Heat are currently hanging by a thread, so where they slot in the standings is going to be very important to monitor as the season concludes — and for more reasons than one.