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Erik Spoelstra on 24-17 Heat at midpoint: ‘Buckle up. We ain’t hiding from anybody.’

MIAMI — The change in approach has been noticeable with Erik Spoelstra in recent weeks.

Where the Miami Heat coach typically would downplay the standings in favor of stressing the process, Spoelstra regularly has been chronicling where his team stands in the East.

The convergence of dual factors appears to have changed the conversation.

— For weeks now, the Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers, New York Knicks, Indiana Pacers and Orlando Magic have been within a game or two of each other for the fourth and final first-round homecourt playoff seed.

— Last season’s Heat run to the NBA finals featured the treachery of advancing through the play-in round, including a winner-take-all game against the Chicago Bulls for the No. 8 and final East seed.

“I would say that the process hasn’t changed,” Spoelstra said, with the Heat next turning their attention to Friday night’s game against the Atlanta Hawks at Kaseya Center. “We’re still very much process oriented. It’s about building the right habits, building our identity on both sides of the floor, and then, can we sustain and be more consistent? That’s been the biggest challenge. That’s been my areas of focus with the team.”

But with the Heat 24-17 at the midpoint of their 41-game schedule, there have been more than a few peeks at the East race.

“I guess as we approach the halfway point, I think it just keeps things a little bit more relevant and interesting if you are aware of what’s going on, without having to obsess about it,” Spoelstra said. “It’s competitive and there’s more parity.

“So I think the awareness is important, but it’s not the be all, end all.”

Traditionally, coaches have viewed No. 8 as the cut line, with eight of the 15 in each conference advancing to the playoffs.

But with the advent of the current play-in round in 2021, No. 6 is the line of demarcation when it comes to avoiding the subset at Nos. 7-10 competing for the final two playoff berths in each conference. That is where the Heat stood after Wednesday night’s blowout loss to the Toronto Raptors.

So keeping an eye on at least No. 6?

“Yeah,” Spoelstra acknowledged, “I do.”

As for his players, they are unsure of what to make of the first 41.

“Honestly, it’s kind of crazy, because we have had 15 different players start, 22 different starting lineups,” point guard Kyle Lowry said. “So it’s kind of like hard to say ‘Alright, we’re here,’ or, ‘We’re not here.’ ”

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On pace for 48 wins, it would match the Heat’s second-highest win total over the past decade.

“We know what we’re capable of,” guard Tyler Herro said. “We know what we need to do. I think at this point, it’s just about being consistent and bringing the right mindset and the right effort, night in and night out.”

Back the past two games after missing 11 of the previous 12 with calf and toe ailments, forward Jimmy Butler said there remains time to make things even better.

“We cool,” he said. “Honestly, can be better. But we’d rather be seven games over .500 than seven games under .500. So we’ll be just fine.

“There’s plenty of games left. We’ve got some really good teams that we’ve got coming up, so we just got to show that we can compete and we belong at the top of this thing.”

Last season, after finishing seventh in the East at 44-38, the Heat trailed in the fourth quarter of their winner-take-all play-in game against the Bulls.

It was a taste of the type of desperation best avoided in April.

“I think it’s more once you’ve experienced something that’s different,” Spoelstra said, “then you are a little more aware of it and you try to handle it better through experience.”

So a No. 6 sense is particularly relevant as the Heat stand poised to open the second half of their schedule.

“Wherever everybody is in the standings right now, that’s where it is,” Spoelstra said. “Buckle up. We ain’t hiding from anybody. So we’re looking forward to the second half of the season.”

Heat records at midseason and end of season over the past decade:

2022-23: 21-20, 44-38.

2021-22: 27-14, 53-29.

2020-21: 22-19, 40-32.*

2019-20: 29-12, 44-29.*

2018-19: 21-20, 39-43.

2017-18: 24-17, 44-38.

2016-17: 11-30, 41-41.

2015-16: 23-18, 48-34.

2014-15. 18-23, 37-45.

2013-14: 37-14, 54-28.

* — Pandemic-shortened season.