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Breaking down Heat’s unenviable place in playoff chase with just four games left

ATLANTA — With the NBA idle Monday in deference to the NCAA championship game at the Final Four, it allowed those in the playoff race to take stock of where they stand during the final week of the regular season.

For the Miami Heat, it is a sobering reality.

When they resume their schedule Tuesday night against the Atlanta Hawks at State Farm Arena, four games remain, with each critical for any remaining slim hope of avoiding the play-in bracket and gaining direct entry into the best-of-seven first round.

“When you’re thinking about all these games in the middle of July and you’re ramping up to get in shape and doing all that,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, “you want to play games with meaning.

“When you say that there’s games with meaning, that also means there’s games with consequences. For it to have meaning, there’s consequences if you lose. And that’s the whole point of all of this right now.”

As a refresher:

— The top six seeds in each conference advance to the best-of-seven first round, bracketed with No. 3 the home team against No. 6, and No. 4 the home team against No. 5, in the series played on a 2-2-1-1-1 basis.

— The team that finishes in seventh place then hosts the team that finishes in eighth place on April 16, two days after the conclusion of the regular season, with that winner becoming the No. 7 playoff seed and playing as the road team against the conference’s No. 2 seed.

— The following night, the team that finishes in ninth place hosts the team that finishes in 10th place, with the loser eliminated and the winner moving on to a winner-take-all-game for a playoff spot. That matchup of ninth place and 10th place in the East will be between the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks.

— On April 19, the loser of the seventh place-eighth place game will host the winner of ninth place-10th place game for the No. 8 playoff seed, with the loser eliminated and the winner becoming the No. 8 playoff seed and playing on the road against the conference’s No. 1 seed, which is the Boston Celtics.

Based on the Heat’s record they can finish as high as No. 3 (unlikely) in the East and as low as No. 8 (quite possible).

“Win as many as you can,” forward Jimmy Butler said of the Heat’s remaining four games. “It’s been that way all year long. It’s not going to change. If we end up in the play-in, we end up in the play-in and we all have a job to do anyways.

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“But like that’s how we’ve always played. We never made it easy on ourselves. Why make it easy now?”

So where does the East race stand in regard to the Heat? Here’s where:

* * *

No. 3 Orlando Magic

Record: 46-32.

Heat factor: The Heat hold the tiebreaker, having taken the season series 3-1. That record also could help the Heat in multi-team ties. If the Magic close 1-3, the Heat could pass the Magic (due to the tiebreaker) with a 4-0 finish.

Remaining schedule: Tuesday at Rockets (38-40), Wednesday at Bucks (47-31), Friday at 76ers (44-35), Sunday vs. Bucks (47-31).

* * *

No. 4 New York Knicks

Record: 46-32.

Heat factor: The Knicks won the season series 2-1. That record also could hurt the Heat in multi-team ties. The only way for the Heat to pass the Knicks would be for the Knicks to close 0-4 and the Heat 4-0.

Remaining schedule: Tuesday at Bulls (37-41), Thursday at Celtics (62-16), Fri. vs. Nets (31-48), Sunday vs. Bulls (37-41).

* * *

No. 5 Cleveland Cavaliers

Record: 46-33.

Heat factor: The Heat hold the tiebreaker, having taken the season series 3-1. That record also could help the Heat in multi-team ties. If the Cavaliers close 1-2, the Heat could pass the Cavaliers (due to the tiebreaker) by closing 4-0.

Remaining schedule: Wednesday vs. Grizzlies (27-51), Friday home vs. Pacers (45-34), Sunday home vs. Hornets (19-59).

* * *

No. 6 Indiana Pacers:

Record: 45-34.

Heat factor: The Pacers clinched the season series 2-1 with Sunday’s 117-115 victory over the Heat. If the Pacers close 1-2, the Heat could pass them with a 4-0 finish.

Remaining schedule: Tuesday at Raptors (25-53), Friday at Cavaliers (46-33), Sunday vs. Hawks (36-42).

* * *

No. 7 Philadelphia 76ers

Record: 44-35.

Heat factor: The Heat and 76ers tied the season series 2-2. The next tiebreaker (unless the Heat surpass the Magic for the Southeast Division title) would be conference record. The Heat are 29-20 against the East, with three East games remaining; the 76ers are 28-21 against the East, with three East games remaining.

Remaining schedule: Tuesday vs. Pistons (13-65), Friday vs. Magic (46-32), Sunday vs. Nets (31-49).

* * *

No. 8 Miami Heat

Record: 43-35.

Tiebreaker factors: The Heat hold tiebreaker advantages over the Cavaliers, Magic and most likely over the 76ers (based on conference record), lacking that advantage against the Knicks and Pacers.

Remaining schedule: Tuesday at Hawks (36-42), Wednesday vs. Mavericks (48-30), Friday vs. Raptors (25-53), Sunday vs. Raptors (25-53).