What to know about Heat’s push to avoid play-in, rise in standings. Also, injury report and notes

The NBA’s Eastern Conference standings, at least below Boston, are so tightly bunched that the Heat conceivably could jump from 8 to 4 in a matter of 48 hours, or slide the other way, too.

After entering Thursday’s loss in Denver at No. 5 in the East, Miami exited eighth in the East — a half game behind three teams and only 1.5 games behind No. 4 New York.

Entering Friday’s games, No. 4 New York was 35-25, No. 5 Philadelphia was 33-25, No. 6 Orlando was 34-26, No. 7 Indiana was also 34-26 and No. 8 Miami was 33-26 — five games ahead of No. 9 Chicago.

And there will be an opportunity to rise again in the coming days, with two home games that Miami will be expected to win -- Saturday against Utah (5 p.m., Bally Sports Sun) and Tuesday against Detroit.

While there’s little risk of falling below No. 8 - barring a Heat collapse and a simultaneous surge by the Bulls (28-31) or Hawks (26-33) — there’s an internal determination to avoid the play-in, a fate that befalls seeds No. 7, 8, 9 and 10.

“The aspirations in general have always been above the play-in for this group,” Duncan Robinson said Thursday. “That’s why when you have stretches when you’re in that 6 through 9 range, there is a lot of disappointment, more so frustration... We definitely want to get out of a play-in [seed] for sure. Despite what happened last year, it’s not a blueprint for postseason success to be playing in the play-in.”

What happened last year, of course, included Miami entering the play-in as the seventh seed, losing at home to No. 8 Atlanta, then needing a late rally in a play-in elimination game against Chicago to advance and begin an improbable run to the Finals.

So what’s more important — getting home court in the first round (as a top four seed) or avoiding the play-in?

“Definitely home court,” Caleb Martin said. “Trying to get the highest seed is the most important thing right now.” But… “Nobody really wants to be in the play in.”

Three factors have created this opportunity to rise as high as No. 4:

1). The Heat rolling off nine wins in 12 games.

2) The Knicks dealing with a flood of injuries, with OG Anunoby and Julius Randle remaining out with multiweek injuries.

3). The significant injury to 76ers center Joel Embiid, who was averaging 35.3 points and 11.3 rebounds but hasn’t played since Jan. 30 after a knee procedure. The 76ers are 26-8 when Embiid plays and 7-17 without him. He said this week that “the plan” is to return before the regular season ends.

Among the five times essentially competing to stay out of the play-in, keep in mind that Miami has the second-easiest remaining schedule based on opponents’ records, while Orlando has the easiest. By contrast, Philadelphia has the ninth-easiest, while the Pacers and Knicks have the 11th and 16th toughest schedules, respectively.

Also keep in mind that eight of Miami’s final 23 games are against teams with bad records — three against Detroit, two against Washington and two (to close the season) against Toronto, plus one against Portland.

The Knicks and 76ers each have difficult four-game Western swings, and Philadelphia has a difficult upcoming four-game stretch with New Orleans and two road games at the Knicks and one at Milwaukee. Indiana still must play at Golden State and at both Los Angeles teams.

It’s worth noting that finishing with the fourth or fifth seed — and advancing past the first round — assures playing Boston in the second round. So there might be advantages to finishing sixth instead of fifth.

But a year after ousting the Celtics in the Eastern finals, the Heat doesn’t seem concerned about avoiding Boston’s bracket.

Asked about any NBA fan base’s avoid-the-Celtics-bracket narrative, Robinson said: “Any time you try to manipulate the standings like that, you’re playing with karma and the basketball Gods. We have our sights set on winning as many games as possible and putting us in the best possible position come postseason time. Anytime you try to tinker with ‘we want to be here and not here’ and manipulate standings, you’re doing yourself a disservice.”

Jimmy Butler, for his part, isn’t concerned about seeding. “Eighth, seventh, sixth, fifth, five, four, three, two, one, I don’t care,” he said.


The Heat listed Tyler Herro (right foot medial tendinitis), Haywood Highsmith (left knee effusion), Kevin Love (right heel bruise) and Martin (left thumb sprain) as questionable for Saturday’s home game against the Jazz.

The good news is Herro has recovered from the hyperextended left knee he suffered during the Heat’s Feb. 23 win over the New Orleans Pelicans. But the bad news is Herro’s right foot remains an issue.

Herro told the Miami Herald last week: “It’s the same little area that I dealt with in the past with my right foot in my rookie year. It’s the same thing as that. So we’re really trying to manage it right now.”

The Heat ruled out Josh Richardson (right shoulder dislocation) and Dru Smith (right knee surgery) for Saturday’s contest. Richardson will miss his seventh straight game and Smith is out for the rest of the season.

Two-way contract players Cole Swider and Jamal Cain rejoined the Heat for Saturday’s game in Miami after being sent to the G League.


Butler emerged encouraged from the 3-1 road trip, which ended with the 103-97 loss in Denver.

“We were never worried,” Butler said. “We know who we are. It’s almost close to the most important time of the year. We’ll be OK.”

But he also noted that Denver made the plays to win Thursday and “they’re where we want to be in terms of finding a way to win. One of their really good players went down [Jamal Murray, with a second quarter ankle injury] and they kept at it. We’re not quite there just yet, but we’ve got more time to get there.”

Terry Rozier said the Heat is trending “in the right direction for sure.”

Spoelstra said: “Overall, it’s a good road trip. I’m objective enough to see we’ve made some progress in the last eight days.”

Nikola Jovic has now started the past five games for which he has been available; Miami has outscored teams by five points with Jovic on the floor in those games.

He said getting minutes in high-pressure moments, defending elite players such as Denver’s Nikola Jokic, is helping him “a lot. You cannot play against better teams than that. It helps in every way.” Jovic -- who opened Thursday’s game defending Aaron Gordon -- had seven points and six rebounds in 24 minutes against Denver.

The NBA’s deadline to sign a player to a two-way contract is Monday, and it would be surprising if Miami replaced any of its three two-way players (Cain, Alondes Williams, Swider) by that point, or moved a two-way player to a standard contract before that date.

The Heat’s only realistic path to creating a standard roster spot for an external player or a current Heat two-way player is by releasing Smith, who is out for the rest of the season after undergoing knee surgery. But that type of move is typically more of a late-season consideration, if it were to happen at all.