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April Madness? For the Heat, the coming week will have its own tournament feel

April Madness? For the Heat, the coming week will have its own tournament feel

MIAMI — The story of the Miami Heat’s regular season likely is about to be decided over the coming week.

In place of the puff pastry that was the Heat’s victories the past two games against the Portland Trail Blazers and Washington Wizards comes one of the toughest stretches of the Heat’s schedule.

It is a four-game run from Tuesday through Sunday that well could decide the Heat’s place in the playoffs . . . or play-in.

New York Knicks at home on Tuesday night.

Philadelphia 76ers at home on Thursday night.

Houston Rockets on the road Friday night.

And then Indiana Pacers on the road on Sunday.

Each opponent is in a desperate fight for playoff positioning of its own.

“All I’m thinking about is getting ready for Tuesday,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “We love competition. We have a bunch of competitors in our locker room. They love the feeling of how important all these games are and that’s the elation of when you get wins, but there’s also the other side of it — the consequences when you lose.

“When you really care about something, you have both realities. So we understand we have to play well, we understand all the cliches that you have to take it one game at a time. You start getting ahead of yourself, there are only eight games left, so I think it’s a little bit easier just to stay in the moment and just focus on literally one game and that’s what we’ll do.”

With the Knicks, this final stretch of the season could see them land anywhere from No. 2 to No. 6 in the East.

For the 76ers, there is, like the Heat, the desperation to avoid the play-in round, where one or two losses would mean the end of the season before the best-of-seven opening round of the playoffs.

With the Rockets, there is a fight-to-the-finish with the Golden State Warriors for a Western Conference final spot in the play-in round.

And then there are the Pacers, who stand as the team holding the No. 6 East spot — the last postseason spot above the play-in — that the Heat covet.

It starts Tuesday against the Knicks, the final game of the three-game season series the Knicks lead 2-0. It is a statement game for the Heat not as much about head-to-head seeding as it is about the possibility of facing the Knicks in the first round.

It is a visit that assuredly will include ample transplants in the stands in visiting-team colors.

“Both teams got something to lose, at the end of the day,” Heat center Bam Adebayo said. “So there’s going to be a little more edge.”

Then there is Thursday night against the 76ers, a game that stands even more intriguing amid the anticipated return of sidelined Philadelphia center Joel Embiid, who is traveling with the team as he completes his knee rehab.

The Heat lead that four-game season series 2-1. Should the season series close 2-2, the next head-to-head tiebreaker would be conference record, where the 76ers still could catch the Heat. The game also could impact a potential three-way tie between the Heat, 76ets and Pacers.

The game against the 76ers also will feature the return of guard Kyle Lowry, who was dealt by the Heat in January and then signed in February with his hometown 76ers.

While the following night in Houston does not directly impact the Heat head-to-head in the playoff race, it comes with its own challenges on the second night of a back-to-back set with considerable overnight travel. The Heat are 5-6 on the second nights of such sets.

While Houston also will be completing a back-to-back set, it will be one that does not involve travel, with the Rockets at home on Thursday night against the Warriors.

Considering the magnitude of that matchup against Golden State, it is likely the Rockets will prioritize Thursday night against the Warriors when it comes to that back-to-back set.

And then will come Sunday in Indiana, which arguably stands as the most significant game remaining on the Heat schedule, with the three-game season series tied 1-1. The winner of that game also will grab the upper hand in a potential three-team tiebreaker between the Heat, Pacers and 76es.

“It will be the best to simulate how the playoffs are going to be,” Heat guard Terry Rozier said of this upcoming run. “This is a great four-game stretch, but we got to take it one game at a time. The Knicks we play next, we got to worry about that one and get that one at home and protect home court.”

Survive the coming four games and the Heat close with three of their final four at home and three of those final four against teams with losing records.

“We’re excited for this stretch,” guard Duncan Robinson said. “We’re going to embrace it.”

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