MIAMI (AP) - Here are some key members of the current Miami Heat rotation: A center who resuscitated his career in Lebanon, a forward who was playing for a bad team in China a few weeks ago, and a couple of graduates of the NBA Development League.
What a difference a year makes.
Forget a fifth straight run to the NBA Finals. These Heat will have to scrap to make the Eastern Conference playoffs, and now begin a daunting stretch starting Monday against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“We’re fighting, absolutely fighting, for our playoff lives,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.
Entering this week, Indiana (30-35) holds the No. 7 seed, with Charlotte (29-35) a half-game back in eighth. Miami (29-36) is another half-game back in ninth, a tiebreaker ahead of Boston (29-36).
Four teams, two playoff spots, one game separating them.
“I love it,” Spoelstra said. “We all do. We’re in a profession that we want to be in. We’re playing for something.”
When James left this summer, the Heat were reeling and a massive roster-rebuild was needed fast. Josh McRoberts’ season-ending injury and Chris Bosh’s season-ending illness both rocked the team months later. Hassan Whiteside, Michael Beasley, Tyler Johnson and Henry Walker were all added in-season to hold down spots alongside Dwyane Wade, as was Goran Dragic in a trade with Phoenix.
Somehow, Miami still has a pulse.
“All the changes, the trades, the injuries, the adversity, I think it’s strengthened us,” Spoelstra said. “It hasn’t really produced the type of results that we want it to, but every player in that locker room right now feels the significance of these games.”
Some things to watch this week around the NBA:
BEST VERSUS BEST: Atlanta at Golden State, Wednesday night. The top seeds in the East and West, not to mention the league’s only 50-win teams to date, going at it in a nationally televised matchup. Atlanta won the first meeting, 124-116 on Feb. 6.
PACERS CLIMBING: Indiana started 17-32, with losing streaks of six, seven and eight games. Look at the Pacers now. Frank Vogel won’t win coach of the year, but has done another marvelous job. This week, Indiana faces Toronto, Chicago, Cleveland and Brooklyn.
MILESTONE WATCH: Only 33 players have appeared in 1,200 NBA regular-season games. That club could grow to 35 this week, with Jason Terry and Vince Carter on pace to reach that plateau in the coming days.
BLAZERS-GRIZZLIES: Portland visits Memphis on Saturday, a matchup that may help eventually decide the West’s No. 2 seed. Memphis is 3-0 against the Blazers this season, 8-1 against in the last nine between the clubs.
SPURS-HAWKS: Sunday’s slate is highlighted by this, when Atlanta (and former San Antonio assistant Mike Budenholzer, who has made a Spurs-esque style work for the Hawks) host the NBA champions. Potential Finals preview? Maybe.
SMOOTH JAZZ: Here’s your 2016 Western Conference sleeper. Utah has won five straight and 12 of 15, holding teams to 85.5 points per game. Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors lead the way, but watch Rudy Gobert - averaging 10.5 points and 14.5 rebounds since returning to the starting lineup.
STAT LINE OF THE WEEK
Kyrie Irving, Cleveland: Maybe the stat line of the year, maybe the game of the year. Irving had 57 points on 20-for-32 shooting, including 7 for 7 from 3-point range and 10 for 10 from the free-throw line in Cleveland’s 128-125 overtime win at San Antonio. He also had five assists and four steals.
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