BOSTON — Dwyane Wade’s career all but ended Sunday.
Yes, Wade and his Miami Heat still are mathematically alive with two games remaining in this final regular season of the Hall of Fame shooting guard’s career. But after the way Sunday played out — with Miami losing a heartbreaker in overtime in Toronto, and both the Orlando Magic and Brooklyn Nets qualifying for the postseason with road wins over favored opponents — Miami’s playoff hopes are hanging by a thread.
Don’t believe it? Just ask the Heat, who waived reserve shooting guard Rodney McGruder on Sunday following their loss in Toronto to ensure they would avoid the luxury tax this season. The Heat did that instead of keeping McGruder for the chance he could help them in either of the final two games of the regular season or the playoffs, if Miami is fortunate enough to make it there.
And, after Sunday, it’s going to require quite a bit of fortune for the Heat to do so.
That is due largely because of the play of both Orlando and Brooklyn, which went on the road Sunday to pick up victories over the Boston Celtics and Indiana Pacers, respectively, to lock up two of the three Eastern Conference playoff spots that were still up for grabs when the day began.
For both teams, it was a day worth savoring. Orlando (41-40) hasn’t made the playoffs in seven years, which was the third-longest playoff drought in the league entering the season, behind only the Sacramento Kings (2006) and Phoenix Suns (2010). Once the Magic saw the Charlotte Hornets had beaten the Detroit Pistons earlier in the day, they took the court in Boston knowing that a loss could leave them in a do-or-die game in Charlotte Wednesday in their regular season finale.
“To be quite frank with you all, I said I’m going to keep an eye on Detroit, et cetera, et cetera,” Magic guard Evan Fournier said. “But I think when we saw the Hornets win, it kind of hit us. Like, ‘S—. We have to win. And, if we don’t, this game in Charlotte is going to be very, very hard for us.’
“So we really gave everything tonight, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Winning in Boston [to qualify for the playoffs] is way better than the Hornets losing in Detroit.”
The Magic didn’t have it easy, though. The Celtics used all of their main players Sunday, as coach Brad Stevens used the game as Boston’s final tune-up for the playoffs. But Orlando was able to get the win anyway, turning a four-point halftime deficit into a five-point lead after three, and eventually a 14-point lead in the fourth quarter, holding off a furious Celtics rally to get the win.
The way the Magic came back and won Sunday was a microcosm of Orlando’s season, which saw the Magic sitting at 20-31 after a home loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on Jan. 29, a point at which the playoffs seemed far more like fantasy than reality.
But Orlando won seven of its next eight games, including the final five going into the All-Star break, and used that momentum to turn around their season. Sunday’s victory pushed Orlando’s record to 21-10 since that loss to the Thunder — including wins in ten of the Magic’s last 12 games — to earn a trip to the playoffs for the first time since trading Dwight Howard.
“We always had faith,” said All-Star center Nikola Vucevic, one of the pieces who came to Orlando in exchange for Howard seven years ago. “What helped is we had stretches where we played well throughout the year. It’s not like we’d play a good team and we were just out of nowhere.
“We knew, if we could get ot a point where we were consistent with our play, we could get there, and we did that … the stretch before the All-Star break was big. It put it in our head that, ‘We could really do this.'”
A similar story happened in Brooklyn, where the Nets found themselves teetering after their own home loss to the Thunder back on Dec. 5, dropping to 8-18. But Brooklyn reeled off wins in their next seven games — and nine of their next 10 — to get back in the playoff mix, and then remained there the rest of the season.
The Nets officially booked their ticket Sunday, following a win in Milwaukee Saturday with another in Indiana. The Pacers, like the Celtics, were trying to win. But Brooklyn led most of the way and maintained a double-digit lead for most of the second half to secure the victory.
“There was another level of focus, another level of being locked in,” Nets Coach Kenny Atkinson told reporters in Indianapolis after Brooklyn’s win. “They wanted it so bad, there was an extra energy there in these past few games.”
While the Magic and Nets are both in the playoffs, it still remains to be seen where they will finish in the East. If Brooklyn beats Miami at home Wednesday night, the Nets will be the sixth seed. If Orlando wins in Charlotte and Brooklyn loses, Orlando will be sixth.
Boston and Indiana losing Sunday also ensures that the top five teams in the East — the Milwaukee Bucks, Raptors, Philadelphia 76ers, Celtics and Pacers — are now all locked into their seeds, though only two teams, the Celtics and Pacers, know they’ll be playing one another when the postseason begins next weekend.
And while there are still three teams — Detroit, Charlotte and Miami — that can snag the eighth and final playoff spot in the East, Sunday’s results have left Detroit in the driver’s seat to get it.
Despite losing to Charlotte at home — thanks to 31 points, eight rebounds and seven assists from Kemba Walker — Detroit controls its own destiny. Win its final two games — at home against the Memphis Grizzlies and on the road against the New York Knicks — and Detroit makes the playoffs.
In order for the Heat to make the playoffs, the following would need to happen:
Win Tuesday at home against Philadelphia, and in Brooklyn Wednesday
Charlotte to lose either at Cleveland Tuesday or at home against Orlando Wednesday
Detroit to lose both to Memphis Tuesday and New York Wednesday
Charlotte, meanwhile, needs to win both games and have Detroit lose one of its final two in order to get in.
With Detroit’s game starting a half-hour before Miami’s Tuesday night, it is almost certain that the Heat will know whether they still have a chance to make the playoffs by the time their game against the Sixers ends.
Had Miami won even one of their last four games — including a five-point loss to the Celtics, and two-point losses to both the Minnesota Timberwolves Friday and the Raptors Sunday — they’d have control of their own destiny.
The Heat, however, did not. And, because of it, coupled with Sunday’s results, Miami’s season — and, with it, Wade’s “One Last Dance” — is on life support.