MIAMI (AP) — The starting lineup changes almost daily. The leading scorer has various aches and pains, the leading rebounder has a bad wrist, the assist leader is dealing with knee soreness and the team’s 3-point record-holder is wearing a cast on his shooting hand.
There’s still a belief within the Miami Heat — a team that had the best record in the Eastern Conference last season — that a deep playoff run is possible. But with a 22-20 record one game into the season’s second half, and stuck in the No. 8 spot in the East, the Heat also know that it’s time to start putting wins together.
“It’s the start of the second season,” coach Erik Spoelstra said Tuesday after a 112-111 win over Oklahoma City. “I feel something. I think the locker room feels something. But we also have to prove it. We know that. A lot of it just ends up being talk at this point. But we feel encouraged. Even with all the moving parts and injuries and missed games, we feel like something is happening.”
It’s been one step forward, one step back all season for the Heat. They had a season-best four-game winning streak in December, a season-worst four-game losing streak in November. They didn’t get to the .500 mark for the first time until the 30th game and their current spot — two games over .500 — matches their best of the season.
They’re up to 18 different starting lineups this season, seven in their last nine games. Jimmy Butler leads Miami in scoring; he has missed time with a knee injury and had an aching wrist on Tuesday, when the Heat went an NBA-record 40 for 40 from the foul line, with Butler making 23 of those shots.
“I think that’s what I signed up for, to be able to play at a high level no matter who we have alongside each other,” Butler said. “I don’t have the hard job. Spo does. He’s got try to mix and match guys, make guys feel comfortable while trying to tell them where to be on the floor, and how to run what play, when to run what play. It’s a lot going on.”
Bam Adebayo missed the game with a bad wrist, Kyle Lowry with a balky knee, Tyler Herro with a sore Achilles and Caleb Martin with a quadriceps strain. Ordinarily, all four would start. There’s hope that at least some of them will be back Thursday when Miami starts a two-game home series with the Milwaukee Bucks, with the second matchup set for Saturday.
Other Heat players won’t be back for a while, if at all. Duncan Robinson, the 3-point record holder in Heat franchise history, had surgery on his right hand. Rookie Nikola Jovic is dealing with a back issue. Backup center Omer Yurtseven had ankle surgery and hasn’t played this season.
And the season already has been a grind. Of the first 42 games, 29 have been classified by the NBA as “clutch” — defined as any game within five points with 5 minutes or less remaining. The Heat are 16-13 in those games, 9-6 in games decided by three points or fewer. There isn’t much margin for error, in large part because Miami’s 108.8 points-per-game average is lowest in the NBA.
“I like that feeling going into a locker room, when you feel a team starting to come together from the adversity,” Spoelstra said. “You wish every team would come together like that. It doesn’t always work that way. The last three weeks, you feel like this group has gotten closer. I think everybody’s kind of refreshed even though everybody’s kind of exhausted. There’s a feeling that in the second half of the season, we can do something special.”