For a moment, put aside everything else and consider this: If the Miami Heat can master the NBA tank-a-thon, they’re practically guaranteed a playoff berth.
At a time of the season when winning rates as an inconvenience to many, the Heat, at 36-32, have six games remaining against teams that currently are forwarding their results to tank central. Those six include Wednesday night against the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center, a game against the Chicago Bulls and two apiece against the Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks.
Win against the teams that could care less and it gets the Heat to 42 wins, with 42-40 looking like enough to move back into the postseason.
For the Heat, there already have been several losses to the league’s lesser half, but many of those came before opponents became fully engaged in Ping-Pong ball instead of basketball, such as the already completed 2-2 season series against the Orlando Magic, as well as previous losses to the Knicks, Bulls and Hawks.
But Wednesday’s game is a sobering reminder of the trap of the tank, with the Heat losing 89-88 to Sacramento on Jan. 25 at AmericanAirlines Arena, a game the Kings sat Vince Carter and since-traded George Hill, when rookie guard De’Aaron Fox scored a game-winning putback with 3.3 seconds to play.
Goran Dragic, who failed to box out Fox, said it is a case when a long and lasting memory is essential.
“And I think that’s good, because you are aware of what happened, so it doesn’t happen again,” he said. “It’s kind of a good thing.
“Every team you play against Sacramento, the first thought for me is that box out.”
Dragic said last season offered a stark reminder about the danger of letting such games get away, with the Heat missing the postseason at 41-41 on a tiebreaker.
“Last season, when it was over, when it hits you that you’re not going to play for the next five, six months, then you started thinking about it,” he said.
In the moment, Dragic said, it’s not about the playoffs or tanking or anything but finding a way.
“Right now it’s tough because we are in the middle of the season and you have so many games,” he said. “But if we’re going to make it, then of course you’re not going to want to look back.”
Not all of the Heat’s remaining games against losing teams will necessary be with an opponent fixated on lottery combinations. The Los Angeles Lakers, Friday’s opponent at Staples Center at the end of this three-game trip, owe their 2018 first-round pick to either the Boston Celtics or Philadelphia 76ers. The Brooklyn Nets, who the Heat host at the end of the season, owe their first-round pick to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Neither has reason to tank.
But six of the Heat’s remaining 14 games are against organizations (albeit not necessarily players and coaches) who could care less.
“You get caught up doing that and you’ll be wishing you did something different all the time,” forward Josh Richardson said of making assumptions.
The Heat lately have been efficient at taking what has been given, with recent routs of the Memphis Grizzlies and Phoenix Suns, both at home, where the tank-a-thon tends to be most pronounced. But the Kings will be home, as will the Knicks and Hawks during one of the Heat’s two remaining game against each.
“We know they’re dangerous,” Richardson said of the Kings, “because of what happened last time.
“You don’t want to think back when the season’s over.”
And then there is the matter of the Heat being without a road victory since Jan. 29, entering the game in Sacramento on an eight-game road losing streak, with the Heat coming off Monday’s 115-99 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.
“We’re not looking at the standings every day,” guard Tyler Johnson said. “There’s still a lot of basketball left to be played. If you start obsessing over that it just kind of brings something different, outside stimuli into the locker room when there’s so many things you got to worry about during an NBA season. You start checking that, now you’re just worried about another thing.
“Our biggest thing is just take it game by game. There’s 14 left. We have Sacramento, all we can do is learn from this one. Go to Sac and take care of business there, go L.A. take care of business there and then defend home court.”