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Mar 3, 2015 4:44 PM

A trying Heat season now hitting the stretch run

The Associated Press

MIAMI (AP) To say the Miami Heat have been presented with a new problem every day since last season ended, that would be an exaggeration.

But not by much.

For the Heat, strange has become normal. Players who weren't in Miami when the season began now find themselves in key roles, arguably the team's most vital player saw his season end after a major health scare threatened his life, and a roster that needed rebuilding after LeBron James left last summer has needed constantly, almost-daily rejiggering since.

"This year," Heat guard Dwyane Wade said, "there's been no normal. Not for us."

And yet, somehow, the Heat find themselves still in the mix for an Eastern Conference playoff spot, hanging on to the No. 7 position on the bracket with 23 games left starting with Wednesday's home matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers.

"No one out there feels sorry for us," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "And we don't feel sorry for ourselves, either."

Here was Miami's opening night starting lineup: Wade, Norris Cole, Shawne Williams, Luol Deng and Chris Bosh. Of those five, Wade and Deng remain in the Heat mix, Cole and Williams have been traded and Bosh's season is over because of blood clots on a lung.

In all, 21 players have seen time already this season for the Heat, who have been to the last four NBA Finals and are now seeing things from a decidedly different vantage point. Nearly two dozen starting lineups have been used, four players left in a trade, two players were acquired in that same trade, two players were waived, two players have had seasons end because of injury or illness and finally four others have been signed to either free-agent or 10-day contracts.

"Never seen anything like this," Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. "I doubt very many people have ever seen anything like this."

Miami's starting center, Hassan Whiteside, got turned down by basically every other NBA team but has essentially become an overnight success with the Heat. The leading scorer in Monday's win over Phoenix, Tyler Johnson, entered the night with 64 points in his NBA career. The team's two most recent additions, former Kansas State teammates Henry Walker and Michael Beasley, are playing with no guarantees past next week.

Walker was most recently in the NBA Development League. Beasley spent most of this winter playing in China before getting a third stint with the Heat, "which has to be a record for anyone who is 26," Wade said.

"With this team, expect the unexpected," Spoelstra said. "But I think it's built character with this group. It really has."

It has been one blow after another.

James left for Cleveland in July, and the Heat had to rebuild their roster after plenty of free agents already knew where they were heading. And it wasn't just James who needed to be replaced; Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis departed as free agents and Shane Battier retired.

Josh McRoberts was one of the key offseason signings in what the Heat hoped was a coup. He would miss all of training camp with a toe injury, then saw his season presumably end with a knee injury after 17 games and only four starts.

The Heat envisioned Bosh and McRoberts complementing each other in big ways. When Spoelstra put together Miami's playbook going into the season, he had Bosh or McRoberts touching the ball on 70 percent of all plays. That rate is now at 0 percent, after Bosh got sick and saw his season end in the biggest blow by far of this trying season.

"You wake up and you're on eggshells," Wade said. "I think everybody is, because something might happen."

Something usually does.

And it's usually bad, too.

The playbook has been rewritten at least twice so far, and is still getting tweaked now that the Heat are more up-tempo after landing Goran Dragic from Phoenix on what was perhaps both the best and worst day for Miami in this regular season. While the Dragic trade was being finalized literally, in the very same moments as the NBA was approving the deal that looked like it would make Miami a playoff contender again Heat officials were learning that Bosh's season was almost certainly over and that the pain in his side was actually a life-threatening matter.

"You're facing the abyss," Heat President Pat Riley likes to say, "and the only thing looking back at you is your character."

It's one of Riley's favorite quotes, albeit one that he borrowed from a movie, though it certainly applies to his Heat this season. The collective character of the Heat has been tested countless times, and with a playoff spot anything but guaranteed, there's certain to be more white-knuckle moments down the stretch.

"You don't quit until time has run out on you," Wade said. "It hasn't ran out on us yet. For whatever reason, we're still right in there, in the fight, in the battle."


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