Heat still struggling, and now hit road for 6-game trip

MIAMI (AP) When the Miami Heat return home from their road trip, the season will officially be half over.

It's already seemed like a marathon.

Barely seven months removed from being a game shy of the NBA's Final Four, the Heat were the first team this season to reach the 25-loss mark. Only Philadelphia and Brooklyn are keeping Miami from having the league's worst record, and it's a paper-thin buffer right now between the Heat and the cellar. Injuries have piled up as well, further adding to the struggle of rebuilding.

''It's not so much frustration,'' Heat forward Justise Winslow said, talking about the team's collective mood. ''It's more just like sympathy.''

Banged-up and usually beaten, the Heat start a six-game trip in Phoenix on Tuesday night. The good news is that the first three games on this swing are against teams that are like the Heat, well below the .500 mark. The bad news is that Miami hasn't beaten anybody on the road in more than a month, and seems to have a different lineup every night.

Just in Sunday's loss to Detroit alone, the Heat were without Goran Dragic, Hassan Whiteside, Dion Waiters, Josh McRoberts and Winslow. McRoberts is out indefinitely with a stress fracture in his left foot, and Whiteside (scratched right eye) and Winslow (right shoulder stinger) did not travel with the team Monday - though that doesn't mean they can't meet the Heat somewhere on this trip.

''We'll get guys back,'' coach Erik Spoelstra said.

Dion Waiters hasn't played since late November because of a torn groin muscle; he was on the team flight Monday, a sign that his return might finally be coming. Whiteside got poked in the eye during Miami's game at Boston on Friday, when Winslow got hurt on the final play of the game.

At this rate, there will be a point where Miami starts thinking more about the future than the present. Plenty of trade talk in the next few weeks will involve the Heat, who have a ton of salary-cap space to use this summer and will undoubtedly hear from contending teams looking to add a player or two for the looming playoff runs.

And unless there's some seismic improvement, Miami's NBA draft lottery odds might look pretty good as well.

''I know this about Erik's teams: They're going to play really, really hard,'' Detroit coach Stan Van Gundy said of Spoelstra, his longtime friend going back to when they were both part of the Heat staff.

Just take some examples from Sunday's loss: James Johnson dove on the floor to salvage what looked like a sure turnover, setting up a 3-pointer. He leaped into the Detroit bench a couple minutes later to save a ball, and the Heat got another 3 out of that possession. Rodney McGruder thwarted a 4-on-1 Detroit fast break later in the game as well, though the Pistons wound up scoring on that possession.

That's sort of the theme for the Heat season so far. Even when things go right, it's not right enough.

''I'm seeing the guys out there diving on the floor, making winning plays, putting their bodies out there, putting themselves out there,'' captain Udonis Haslem said. ''That's how you become a championship team.''

Even with Whiteside's numbers looking good - averages of 17.3 points and 14.3 rebounds per game - he's far from a lock for the All-Star team, in part because there's no true center designation in the roster-choosing process. No one currently playing for the Heat has ever been an All-Star, and it's probably reasonable to think that won't change in the next few weeks.

For comparison's sake, last year's Heat lineup featured players with a combined 38 All-Star trips.

Dwyane Wade's now in Chicago, Joe Johnson is in Utah, Luol Deng is with the Lakers, Amare Stoudemire is in Israel and Chris Bosh is in basketball exile, sidelined by concerns about his blood-clot situations and now seen with Heat teammates only in photos from New Year's Eve gatherings.

''It is what it is,'' Winslow said. ''Take it with a grain of salt. Not going to make any excuses. We're all basketball players. We get paid to do this. We get paid to show up on time, get paid to have your brother's back on the court.''

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