The East race: 5 teams for 3 spots, separated by 2 losses
MIAMI (AP) — The last game of the Miami Heat season, the last regular-season game of Dwyane Wade's career, is April 10 in Brooklyn. If he had his way Wade would play for a few largely ceremonial minutes, get a ton of shots up and then grab a seat on the bench to watch the clock run down to the playoffs.
Odds are, it won't happen that way.
This race for the bottom of the Eastern Conference bracket is likely going down to the wire. For the Heat, that means the end of Wade's career could come quicker than they wanted.
There are three unclaimed playoff spots in the East, with five teams still in the thick of the race, the whole batch separated by two losses. No. 6 Brooklyn (38-37), No. 7 Detroit (37-37), No. 8 Orlando (37-38), No. 9 Miami (36-38) and No. 10 Charlotte (35-39) have two weeks left to decide who's in and who's out.
And Wade can envision that Heat at Nets game deciding playoff fates — as well as his own fate.
"I think we all know it's going to come down to the end," Wade said. "It's not the way I wanted it to be. I'd like the last game not to be that way so I could just shoot all my shots. Now we'll have to play a good basketball game. It is what it is."
Everybody's playing for something bigger right now.
The Magic are trying to reach the postseason for the first time since 2012. Brooklyn, for the first time since 2015. Charlotte and Detroit haven't been to the playoffs since 2016. Miami went last year, and want to get Wade there for a 14th time in his 16-year career. At minimum, two of those droughts are going to end whether the Heat qualify or not.
"There's no reason why we can't win," said Magic coach Steve Clifford, whose team has won six straight — its longest such streak in more than eight years — and beat Miami on Tuesday to leapfrog the Heat into the No. 8 spot. "We have more than enough talent and we're playing well. So, to me, that's it."
There is, of course, a financial incentive for making the postseason as well.
The NBA hasn't announced the 2019 playoff pool dollar figure, but since that amount never seems to decrease from one year to the next it's reasonable to expect that it'll be $20 million again this season. That means all playoff teams, at minimum, would receive $298,485 apiece to split among players and staff. By finishing sixth in the East, the minimum figure for that club to share would be $433,748.
For some NBA guys, a share of that is merely pocket change. To lower-paid players and staff, it definitely matters. Plus, with every team guaranteed two home games that will likely sell out, that's some more serious revenue opportunities through tickets, concessions and souvenirs for clubs.
"There is no room for error right now," Detroit coach Dwane Casey said when asked about the playoff push.
Based on opponent winning percentages, Brooklyn has the toughest remaining schedule in the NBA — six games against teams that have already clinched East playoff spots and then the finale with Miami. But the Nets could catch a huge break if any of their remaining opponents, including Milwaukee twice, rest stars to get ready for the postseason.
A slate that looks daunting on paper really might not be so tough.
"The only way to learn about it is to go through it," Nets coach Kenny Atkinson said. "And we're going through it right now."
Brooklyn came from 27 points down last week to beat Sacramento. Charlotte's hopes stayed alive on Jeremy Lamb's gamewinning 50-footer to win at Toronto. Teams are clearly fighting for everything.
"It's competition," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "It's what you want."
The lone downside to fighting for the playoffs?
By making it in, you likely won't have a shot to draft Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, R.J. Barrett or any of this year's presumed can't-miss picks. The only exception to this rule is Boston, which is playoff-bound and still could draft as high as No. 2 overall this year if Sacramento gets lucky — or unlucky — and bucks the lottery odds to move way up the list.
But then again, the odds are already stacked really high against the bottom-of-the-East-race clubs in the race for a draft-night splash.
Had the draft order been set on Wednesday, Miami would have a 1 percent chance for the No. 1 pick and Charlotte would have a 1.5 percent chance. Odds are, if the season was over now, Miami would be picking 13th. By making the playoffs, the Heat would probably pick 15th or 16th. Not exactly a huge difference, and the Heat desperately want to get Wade to the postseason.
"No one is going to give it to us," Heat guard Dion Waiters said. "We've got to go out there and take it."