Heat again faces play-in reality, this time on road vs. 76ers: ‘We know what we’re stepping into’

The play-in tournament didn’t need to be the Miami Heat’s reality for the second straight season.

Just one more Heat win would have led to a fifth-place finish in the Eastern Conference and an automatic playoff berth.

Only two more Heat wins would have led to a fourth-place finish in the East and home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs.

But the reality is the Heat will be required to qualify for the playoffs through the play-in tournament for the second straight season. With the Heat closing the regular season in eighth place in the Eastern Conference at 46-36, it will travel to take on the seventh-place Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday at Wells Fargo Center (7 p.m., ESPN) for the right to the East’s No. 7 playoff seed.

“No. I’m not even thinking about that at all,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said following Sunday’s regular-season finale when asked if there’s any frustration with again ending up in the play-in tourney. “That doesn’t even make sense to me. We have to prepare for the competition and game on Wednesday, and it will be fun. We’re looking forward to it.

“Look, this is the best time of the year, these kind of environments, the games, the context, all of that. You can’t expect it to be easy no matter what the scenario would be.”

The Heat’s scenario definitely won’t be easy, hitting the road to take on Joel Embiid, Tyrese Maxey and the scorching 76ers in Wednesday’s play-in game. The 76ers closed the regular season on an eight-game winning streak and posted a dominant 31-8 record this regular season when Embiid, the NBA’s reigning MVP, was available.

Since recently returning from meniscus surgery in his left knee, Embiid averaged 30.4 points, 9.2 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.2 blocks per game in his final five appearances of the regular season. The Heat and 76ers split their four-game regular-season series. 2-2, and the only game Embiid played against the Heat this regular season resulted in a 109-105 76ers win on April 4 in Miami.

“Obviously, we played Philly multiple times and we know what we’re stepping into,” Heat guard Tyler Herro said. “It won’t be easy, but it’s a challenge that us competitors are looking forward to.”

Injuries and inefficient offense helped make the Heat a play-in team.

The Heat closed the regular season with the fifth-most missed games in the league due to injury at 269 games, according to Spotrac’s injury tracker. As a result, the Heat set a new franchise record with 35 different starting lineups this regular season.

The Heat also ended the regular season with the NBA’s 21st-ranked offensive rating. Lifted by its fifth-ranked defensive rating, the Heat is one of only two teams with a bottom-10 offense that finished the regular season with a winning record.

“We’re going into this confident,” Heat center Bam Adebayo said. “We’ve had a lot of ups and downs throughout this season, these past seasons actually, and this is the time of the year where our backs are against the wall and you start to find out who everybody is.”

The NBA’s play-in tournament features the seventh- through 10th-place teams competing for the final two playoffs seeds in each conference ahead of the April 20 start of the playoffs.

How is the play-in tournament structured?

The seventh-place team in each conference hosts the eighth-place team in a play-in game. The winner of this matchup earns the seventh playoff seed.

The ninth-place team in each conference hosts the 10th-place team in another play-in game. The loser of this matchup is eliminated from playoff contention, while the winner will go on the road to take on the loser of the No. 7 vs. No. 8 play-in game for the right to the eighth playoff seed.

In the East, this means the No. 7 76ers will host the No. 8 Heat on Wednesday in one of the East play-in games. The No. 9 Chicago Bulls will host the No. 10 Atlanta Hawks in the other East play-in game on Wednesday at 9:30 p.m.

The winner of the Heat-76ers matchup will claim the East’s No. 7 playoff seed and open the playoffs with a first-round series against the second-seeded New York Knicks that will begin Saturday at Madison Square Garden.

The loser of the Heat-76ers game will get one more opportunity to qualify for the playoffs, hosting a Friday matchup against the winner of the play-in game between the Bulls and Hawks. The winner of this play-in game clinches the East’s No. 8 playoff seed and will open the playoffs with a first-round series against the top-seeded Boston Celtics that will begin Sunday at TD Garden.

“We just got to go out there and compete, play basketball the right right way and do something very difficult, which is to win on Philly’s floor,” Heat forward Jimmy Butler said, looking ahead at Wednesday’s play-in game. “This is the time of the year where you’re going to have to do that anyways if you want to win a championship. Obviously, we’re going to have to do that if we want to get to No. 7.”

The Heat is still dealing with injuries to multiple rotation players. Duncan Robinson (back) and Terry Rozier (neck) missed the final four games of the regular season, and Kevin Love left Sunday’s regular-season finale early with a left upper arm contusion. Whether Robinson, Rozier and/or Love play in Wednesday’s critical play-in game is up in the air, with more clarity expected when the Heat issues its injury report for the contest on Tuesday afternoon.

The Heat has also struggled against the NBA’s best teams, posting a 3-20 record this regular season against the teams with the NBA’s top 10 records.

“Just win,” Butler said of the goal this postseason after helping the Heat make three East finals appearances and two NBA Finals appearances in his first four seasons with the organization. “When we win, ain’t nobody going to have a problem, everything is fine and dandy. You just got to win. If you win, it quiets all the noise and everything else takes care of itself.”

The Heat did just that last postseason. After losing the first play-in game and then winning the win-or-go-home second play-in game to enter last season’s playoffs as the East’s No. 8 seed, the Heat became the first No. 8 seed to reach the NBA Finals during a non-lockout-shortened season before falling to the Denver Nuggets in the championship series.

Heat coaches and players are quick to point out last season has nothing to do with this season. But considering the Heat again finds itself in the play-in tournament, last season’s deep playoff run serves as an example of what’s still possible from this less than ideal play-in position.

“I think the thing we take away from last year is just that anything can happen,” Herro said, with the Heat’s last NBA championship coming in 2013 as the East’s No. 1 seed. “Obviously, it’s not ideal to be in the No. 7 or 8 spot. But we’re here and that’s our reality. We can make moves from wherever we’re at.”