There is an elevator and a trap door for the Miami Heat with their next step in the standings.
Based on the moment, it could go either way for Erik Spoelstra’s team, with no middle ground.
Secure a No. 6 seed or higher in the Eastern Conference and there is a guaranteed best-of-seven opening-round playoff series. Anything less, and there is the perilous play-in round, where a loss or two means no actual playoffs at all.
At No. 6 in the East going into Tuesday night’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, the second stop on this four-game trip, it is all there for the taking . . . or giving.
With Sunday’s loss to the Charlotte Hornets a sobering reminder of the tenuousness of the situation, the Heat recognize exactly what they’re playing for both now and the balance of the season.
“It’s not something that we’ll obsess about,” Spoelstra said of the standings, with 31 games remaining in the regular season. “It’s really more about our process of how we’re improving every day.
“But there’s a human side of it. There’s a competitive side of it. So we are starting to at least note the teams that we’re right there with. And having that awareness can give you a healthy perspective.”
As long, Spoelstra said, as it does not become an obsession.
“You don’t need to overwhelm yourself of those result thoughts right now,” he said. “But that’s the part that also makes it a little bit fun.”
At the moment, fun has become an abstract after Sunday’s loss in Charlotte.
But it’s also somewhat who the Heat have been this season, also with losses to the lottery-bound Detroit Pistons and San Antonio Spurs.
“I think we play better, quote, unquote, the teams that have better records than us,” forward Jimmy Butler said. “I’m not downplaying any of these teams because we just got our tails handed to us. But I think we tend to play the right way and do what we’re supposed to do whenever the team is better than us in the standings and we’re trying to chase those guys.”
Chase mode still is in play for the Heat to move up from No. 6, with Cleveland 2 1/2 games directly ahead, at No. 5. But there also are the New York Knicks, Thursday’s opponent at Madison Square Garden, just one game behind, at No. 7, the first of the four play-in spots.
“One game at a time,” center Bam Adebayo said. “We don’t look ahead. We’re focused on one game at a time.”
Still, the standings also are staring them in the face, including that trap door into the great unknown of the play-in round, postseason depths the Heat have yet to visit.
“I think the standings give us a goal in mind of where we need to be at and where we want to be,” guard Tyler Herro said.. “It gives us something to chase. But we just got to keep playing our game, keep playing well, and get wins.
“But because of the play-in, obviously we’d like to avoid the play-in game. For us, as a team, we’re trying to get to three, four, around there.”
While the play-in has only been around for two previous seasons (with a hybrid utilized in the 2020 quarantine bubble at Disney World), it has raised the stakes for a team in the Heat’s current seeding range.
“In terms of the play-in, we’re definitely aware of that,” guard Gabe Vincent said. “We’re aware of where we are with that. But in terms of being aware of where everybody else is at, I personally am not paying much attention to that.”
So while the standings matter, it’s not to the degree of the Heat wanting to be their best selves, something clearly lacking Sunday in Charlotte at the start of this four-game trip.
“I’m just concerned about the Miami Heat,” Vincent said. “So I’m not paying too much attention to the standings. I’m just trying to stack days and help my team win games.”