A look at where things stand for Heat in playoff race at break: ‘We’re going to catch fire’

What once was unprecedented now has precedent because of the Miami Heat.

Last season, the Heat became the first No. 8 seed to reach the NBA Finals during a non-lockout-shortened season before falling to the Denver Nuggets in the championship series. With the way things are going, the Heat might need to pull off a similar feat this season if it’s going to make another deep playoff run.

As the end of the week-long All-Star break nears, the Heat will reconvene for practice on Thursday in seventh place in the Eastern Conference with a 30-25 record after winning six of its final eight games prior to the break. That’s the same record the Heat had after 55 games last regular season.

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The parallels don’t stop there.

After 55 games last season, the Heat had a bottom-10 offense and a top-10 defense. That’s again the case this season, as the Heat entered the All-Star break with the NBA’s 22nd-ranked offensive rating and eighth-ranked defensive rating.

Despite the same team profile and the exact same record after 55 games, Heat All-Star center Bam Adebayo insists things feel different this season simply because there are new faces in the locker room.

“It definitely feels different,” Adebayo said. “We have a different team, different dynamic. But for the most part, the record, yes. The record looks the same. But the feel, the games that are happening, they feel totally different. It’s a totally different ball game. We got different players out there and we’re trying to figure out how this thing can jell.”

Following last month’s trade for guard Terry Rozier and last week’s addition of guard Delon Wright on the buyout market, seven of the Heat’s 15 players on standard contracts weren’t on the 15-man roster last season — Jaime Jaquez Jr., Josh Richardson, Thomas Bryant, Orlando Robinson, Rozier, Dru Smith and Wright.

“Obviously, on the defensive end. That always helps,” Adebayo said when asked how Wright will help the Heat. “I feel like he’s going to be a great point guard for us. He’s going to come in, get guys involved. I’m not going to say he’s going to run the show because everybody kind of does that with the way our offense is, but he’s just an added tool to our tool kit.”

But the core of the Heat’s roster from last season — led by the trio of Adebayo, Jimmy Butler and Tyler Herro — remains mostly intact. And Butler is expected back for the Heat’s first game after the break on Friday against the New Orleans Pelicans at Smoothie King Center after missing the final three games before the break because of a death in his family.

The goal during the Heat’s 27-game post-All-Star break sprint (14 road games and 13 home games) will be to make this season feel different entering the playoffs. To accomplish that, the Heat must avoid the NBA’s play-in tournament after needing to qualify for the playoffs through the play-in tourney last season.

That means finding a way to finish the regular season with a top-six playoff seed. The play-in tournament, which is done during the week between the end of the regular season and the start of the playoffs, features the seventh-through-10th-place teams competing for the final two playoff seeds in each conference.

The good news for the Heat is it’s just a half game behind the sixth-place Indiana Pacers (31-25), 2.5 games behind the fifth-place Philadelphia 76ers (32-22), three games behind the fourth-place New York Knicks (33-22) and 4.5 games behind the third-place Milwaukee Bucks (35-21) in the East standings. So while catching the No. 1 Boston Celtics (13 games ahead of the Heat) and No. 2 Cleveland Cavaliers (seven games ahead of the Heat) appears highly unlikely with only 27 regular-season games left, there remains a chance for home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs as a top four seed if the Heat can start to rack up wins during the final weeks of the schedule.

The bad news for the Heat is that it could fall further in the East standings if the losses mount, as the eighth-place Orlando Magic (30-25) holds the same record as the Heat but is behind in the standings because Miami holds the head-to-head tiebreaker. The ninth-place Chicago Bulls (26-29) are four games behind the Heat.

But finishing worse than ninth place in the East and completely out of playoff contention is unlikely for the Heat, standing six games ahead of the 10th-place Atlanta Hawks (24-31).

According to Basketball Reference’s playoff probabilities report, the Heat currently has just a 31.3 percent chance of finishing at No. 6 or better in the East to make the playoffs without needing to take part in the play-in tournament. That model has the Heat with no chance to close as the No. 1 or No. 2 seeds, 1.8 percent for a No. 3 finish, 4.7 percent for No. 4, 9.2 percent for No. 5 and 15.6 percent for No. 6.

Basketball Reference’s modeling has the Heat’s most likely finish listed at 40.8 percent for eighth place in the East (and a spot in the play-in tournament) despite currently sitting in seventh place in the standings.

“We went through so much last year,” Adebayo said. “The ups, the downs, the injuries. Going on crazy runs and then going on crazy droughts. I feel like all of us, it just helps us mentally prepare for when we do get in those up-and-down battles in the playoffs.”

One thing that should definitely help the Heat is the fact that it has the fourth-easiest remaining schedule, according to Tankathon.com, based on the current combined winning percentage of teams left to play. The only teams in the NBA with an easier schedule than the Heat, according to this measurement, are the Celtics, Brooklyn Nets and Magic.

But with less than eight weeks left in the regular season, a play-in tournament appearance for the second straight season remains a very real possibility for the Heat. That’s a possibility the Heat hopes to avoid because its run to the NBA Finals as a No. 8 seed last season was unprecedented for a reason.

“I’d say our connectivity was at an all-time high the past few games and I think we’re playing as a real cohesive unit,” Jaquez said during the break. “I think that momentum that we have that we were building going into the All-Star break is going to continue. We’re going to catch fire.”