During his pregame news conference prior to the Heat's game against the Bobcats, an intense Eric Spoelstra said it was "code red now" for his team and that the Heat needed to treat its next four games (including yesterday's win against the Bobcats) like playoff games.
"The way we’re treating the four games is equivalent to a four-game series,” Spoelstra said. “It’s time. It’s time for us to respond. It’s code red now; that’s how we have to treat it."
The Heat are currently tied with the Boston Celtics for the second seed in the Eastern Conference, with the winner of Sunday's huge game sole owner of the second seed. Boston by virtue of its current 3-0 regular season record against Miami owns the tie-breaker regardless of the outcome of the game tomorrow. Consequently, Miami needs to finish the season with a better overall record than Boston to win the seed.
This is just one of the reasons why the Heat need to win its final three games of the season. I assess this and three other reasons why, for Miami, the playoffs have already begun.
Including opening night, Miami has not had much success against the Boston Celtics in the regular season. The Celtics have played exceptionally good defense against Dwyane Wade, in denying his penetration, making the role players spectators rather than participants in the offense and not allowing LeBron James the driving lanes in order to do his damage.
Although each of the losses were close (the average margin of victory has been 5.3 points), each game saw the Celtics hit Miami with huge offensive runs to basically control each game. The victory margins were not indicative of how thoroughly Miami was taken out of its game plan by Boston.
But several things have changed since then: Miami has been playing better team ball and shown a willingness to step away from the ISO-oriented play that the Celtics neutralized in the previous meetings. Meanwhile, Boston's defensive ace in the middle, Kendrick Perkins, played exceptionally well against the Heat in the last meeting, while a then healthy Shaq ran the floor well and controlled the paint in the first two.
This meeting may see Shaq return from injury (I would bet on it) as well as Jermaine O'Neal and Nenad Kristic in the paint. This trio is not nearly as devastating to Miami as Perkins and healthy Shaq, but they may be able to play effectively in limited minutes on Sunday.
Regardless of the outcome of the game. Boston would still be considered a better team and favored to beat Miami in the playoffs by most pundits. But Miami would finally have a chance to begin to dent that persistent "Celtics own the Heat" stigma going into the postseason play.
Home court advantage in the first two rounds would be theirs if they win the final three games of the season.
Boston certainly has the ability to win a playoff game in Miami but in the event that these two teams do face off against one another in the second round and the series goes seven (of which over 90 percent of home teams win), it's certainly better to have Game 7 on one's own court.
Boston's big four has been together since 2008 and would have less concern about winning a playoff series without home court advantage. Miami will be making its first playoff run together and wants to give itself an added advantage of playing with the home court advantage in its first attempt at playoff success in the LeBron-Wade-Bosh era.
If the Heat wins their next three games, they are assured home court in all but the final two series of the postseason.
While it can be a bit overstated, the importance of going into the playoffs on a roll (both the Celtics and Lakers entered the playoffs last year looking sloppy and unprepared for the post-season, yet both made it to the finals), it also bares mentioning how important it is to have a rhythm going into the postseason.
If Miami wins its next three games (two of which would be against top five seeds in the East), it would be a significant confidence boost for a team still grappling with consistency issues. Wins over its next three opponents would be just the starting point the team needs to go into the playoffs feeling as though it can make noise in the postseason.
I think if Miami looses two or three of its final regular season games, it will be bombarded with questions and criticism about its inability to "win when it counts," which are not the kinds of questions newly assembled teams want to have to answer heading into the playoffs.
Currently, the Miami Heat are tied with the Lakers with identical 55-24 records. Because of the Heat winning both regular season meetings with LA, if the playoffs started right now, Miami would host Game 1 of the finals. Since the Lakers are the team that most pundits are predicting with advance to the finals and play the Eastern Conference Champion, the Heat would be well advised to finish with at least an identical record as the Lakers, in case of a finals matchup.
Now right now, most people are not picking the Heat to get to the finals. Most say that the Bulls or Celtics are more likely to win the East, while the Heat "lack the depth to beat either team in the postseason."
Nevertheless, assuming that the Heat are not basing their chances on the analysis of critics based outside of Miami, the team is still firmly in control of its destiny and in my opinion have a good a chance of winning a title as any other team at the top of either conference.
If the Heat win out, they will secure home court against every team in the West, except for the Spurs, who, due to a recent six-game losing streak had several analysts jumping off their bandwagon to the more secure confines of the Lakers, who have won the West for three straight years.
However, if Miami survives the Bulls, Celtics and Knicks and advances to the finals with home court advantage against the Lakers, it will be in an ideal position to win its first title since 2006.