The previous two years, the NBA play-in round was of minimal consequence for the Miami Heat, a factor of their middling playoff seeds, at No. 5 in 2020 and No. 6 last year.
This time around, as a No. 1 seed, it is different. Each of the three upcoming Eastern Conference play-in games will have the attention of Erik Spoelstra’s team, starting Tuesday night.
The Heat will open their 2022 playoffs Sunday at FTX Arena against either the Atlanta Hawks, Brooklyn Nets, Charlotte Hornets or Cleveland Cavaliers.
One of those teams will be eliminated from playoff contention Wednesday, in the conference’s Nos. 9-10 game, between the Hawks and Hornets. Another will be eliminated Friday, in the game between the loser of Tuesday night’s Nos. 7-8 (Nets-Cavaliers) game and the winner of the Nos. 9-10 game.
The team left standing as the No. 8 season will face the Heat in the best-of-seven opening round, with the Heat holding homecourt advantage.
“We’ve had six months to prepare for the playoffs,” Spoelstra said. “And whoever we’re going to play in the Eastern Conference that first round, we likely will have already played them three or four times. And we don’t feel like we have to cram for a test. That’s the whole point of all these experiences together.
A look at the possibilities, with the Heat for five days operating solely as bystanders:
No. 7 Brooklyn Nets.
Possible seeds: If the Nets defeat the visiting Cavaliers on Tuesday night (7 p.m., TNT) they will be the No. 7 seed and face the No. 2 Boston Celtics in the opening round.
If Brooklyn loses Tuesday to Cleveland, on Friday it will host the winner of Wednesday’s Atlanta-Charlotte game for the No. 8 seed, which faces the Heat in the first round.
The Heat perspective: They went 3-1 in their four-game season series against the Nets, losing in the lone matchup when Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving both were available for Brooklyn.
No possible Heat first-round opponent, when whole, has more upside among the East play-in teams than the Nets.
Burning question: Would the Nets, having routed the Heat in the teams’ most-recent meeting, dare tempt the fates by dropping their play-in opener in order to set up a first-round series against the Heat, knowing that a loss then in a possible second play-in game could end their season?
No. 8 Cleveland Cavaliers
Possible seeds: If the visiting Cavaliers defeat the Nets on Tuesday night (7 p.m., TNT) they will be the No. 7 seed and face the No. 2 Boston Celtics in the opening round.
If Cleveland loses Tuesday to Brooklyn, on Friday it will host the winner of Wednesday’s Atlanta-Charlotte game for the No. 8 seed, which faces the Heat in the first round.
The Heat perspective: There are few better alternatives in the postseason than playing a happy-to-be-there opponent. Just by making the playoffs, the Cavaliers will have more than fulfilled their preseason mandate.
Although Cleveland won the season series 2-1, both of the victories came in games the Heat lacked both Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler. With Butler and Adebayo, the Heat defeated the Cavaliers by 12 on March 11 (albeit on a night Jarrett Allen was sidelined for Cleveland).
Burning question: The Heat were swept in last season’s opening round when they were overwhelmed by the Milwaukee Bucks’ size. Should Allen make it back from his fractured finger, the first round again could come down to the Heat’s ability to compete in the paint.
No. 9 Atlanta Hawks
Possible seeds: The Hawks only can make the playoffs as a No. 8 seed, the seed that will play at the Heat in the opening round.
To make the postseason, the Hawks will have to defeat the visiting Hornets in the Nos. 9-10 game on Wednesday night (7 p.m., ESPN) and then win Friday night (ESPN, Time TBA) at the loser of the Brooklyn-Cleveland game.
The Heat perspective: If John Collins can make it back from his foot strain, the equation could grow far more complex for the Heat, when considering the focus that is required on Trae Young. This also is an opponent than can impact with its size, particularly center Clint Capela.
Unlike the Cavaliers, the Hawks know what it takes to make a deep playoff run, having advanced to last season’s Eastern Conference finals.
Burning question: As it is for almost every Hawks opponent, it likely will come down to whether Young shoots the Hawks in or out of the game. In the teams’ most recent meeting, Young shot 9 of 11 in the first half but then only 3 of 12 in the second half of the Heat’s 113-109 Friday night victory.
No. 10 Charlotte Hornets
Possible seeds: The Hornets only can make the playoffs as a No. 8 seed, the seed that will play at the Heat in the opening round.
To make the postseason, Charlotte will have to win in Atlanta in the Nos. 9-10 game on Wednesday night (7 p.m., ESPN) and then win Friday night (ESPN, Time TBA) at the loser of the Brooklyn-Cleveland game.
The Heat perspective: It likely will come down to offering the most basic level of defense for the Heat, considering the Hornets have shown little inclination on that level.
With Gordon Hayward sidelined in the postseason yet again, with a foot injury, options will be limited for Charlotte other than breakout performances by Miles Bridges, Terry Rozier and LaMelo Ball.
Burning question: Based on this play-in field, the burning question is if Charlotte is good enough to win even one game in this round, let alone the required two. The sense is the Heat would embrace a Hornets matchup.