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Injuries part of story for Heat-Bulls and Kings-Pelicans play-in finales

ASSOCIATED PRESS
                                New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson goes to the basket ahead of Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis on Tuesday.
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ASSOCIATED PRESS

New Orleans Pelicans forward Zion Williamson goes to the basket ahead of Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis on Tuesday.

MIAMI >> When injuries affect the Miami Heat, coach Erik Spoelstra almost always delivers the same three-word outlook.

“We have enough,” he says.

That theory is about to be tested — and will be a theme in the NBA’s win-or-go-home finales of the play-in tournament on Friday night.

All four teams — Miami and Chicago in the Eastern Conference, New Orleans and Sacramento in the Western Conference — have serious injury concerns going into their matchups to decide the No. 8 seeds on the playoff bracket. Miami and New Orleans have home-court edges Friday; the winners will face No. 1 Boston and No. 1 Oklahoma City, respectively, in Round 1, starting Sunday.

The Heat will be without Jimmy Butler (sprained right MCL) and Terry Rozier (neck) for their game against the Bulls, who had guard Alex Caruso go down to a sprained ankle in Wednesday’s win over Atlanta. Miami is hoping guard Duncan Robinson, who has missed 10 of the team’s last 15 games with a back injury, can play.

The Pelicans will be without Zion Williamson, who scored 40 points in a losing effort against the Los Angeles Lakers on Tuesday night before injuring his left hamstring in the final minutes. On Wednesday, the team announced Williamson would be sidelined at least two weeks.

“It was tough news, for sure,” Pelicans coach Willie Green said. “But the message to the team is that we faced adversity before and here it is again, staring us right in the eyes. And this is an opportunity that we can take advantage of.”

The Kings, meanwhile, have been without would-be starters Kevin Huerter and Malik Monk in recent weeks because of injuries.

“We will do this the hard way,” Spoelstra said. “That has to be the path right now. We’re going to rest up, treat up, rally around each other up and get ready for Friday and again, embrace these competitive games. It’ll be competitive in front of our home fans and we’re going to bring a hell of a game on Friday night lights and do this the hard way. That’s just the way the deal is right now.”

The Bulls-Heat game is a rematch of the East play-in finale last year, a game where Chicago led by three with 3:47 left and got outscored 15-1 the rest of the way.

“I remember that plane ride back home vividly,” Bulls guard DeMar DeRozan said. “Everybody was just frustrated. That feeling sucked. I know for me, that’s one thing that’s on my mind once I realized we were going back to Miami — to not have that same feeling.”

Sacramento got into the West play-in finale by ousting Golden State on Tuesday. New Orleans missed a chance to be the West’s No. 7 seed by falling to the Lakers on Tuesday. If the Pelicans lose to the Kings, they’ll be the first No. 7 seed to miss the playoffs since the NBA introduced the play-in for the 2021-22 season.

The Pelicans were in the play-in that season, too, as a No. 9 seed. They advanced to the playoffs by winning twice without Williamson, who was injured then as well.

“I have a ton of confidence in this group,” Green said. “We’ve been in this scenario before. We’ve been in these types of games before. So, they’re well aware of what’s ahead.”

MATCHUPS

EASTERN CONFERENCE

NO. 9 CHICAGO (39-43, 1-0) AT NO. 8 MIAMI (46-36, 0-1)

Friday, 7 p.m., ESPN

Season series: Split, 2-2

Play-in appearances: 2nd for Miami (2023), 2nd for Chicago (2023).

At stake: Winner plays No. 1 seed Boston in Round 1, series starting Sunday. Loser is eliminated.

Outlook: Here they go again. Just like last year, it’s Chicago at Miami with the No. 8 seed in the East on the line in an elimination game. The Heat have huge injury issues with Jimmy Butler, Terry Rozier and Duncan Robinson ailing, and the Bulls had to finish Wednesday’s game without Alex Caruso. No Bulls team has gone to the playoffs with a losing regular-season record since the 1986-87 team did it at 40-42. Miami made the finals last season after 44 regular season wins; this season, 46 wins might not even be enough for a playoff berth.

WESTERN CONFERENCE

NO. 9 SACRAMENTO (46-36, 1-0) AT NO. 7 NEW ORLEANS (49-33, 0-1)

Friday, 9:30 p.m., TNT

Season series: Pelicans, 5-0 (includes one In-Season Tournament win)

Play-in appearances: 1st for Sacramento; 3rd for New Orleans (2022, 2023).

At stake: Winner plays No. 1 seed Oklahoma City in Round 1, series starting Sunday. Loser is eliminated.

Outlook: One way or another, New Orleans will make history on Friday. Either the Pelicans will become the first team to go 6-0 in a season (without a playoff series) against an opponent since Denver against Minnesota in 1994-95, or will become the second team in NBA history to go 49-33 or better and not make the playoffs (joining the 1971-72 Phoenix Suns, who went 49-33). The Pelicans will be without the injured Zion Williamson (hamstring) and the Kings will still be without Kevin Huerter (shoulder) and Malik Monk (knee). New Orleans has had leads of 15 points in all five games (15, 17, 23, 41 and 50) and the Kings led only one of the five matchups by more than nine points at any time.

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