March 24, 2017

MIAMI (AP) They have won 24 times in their last 31 games. They put together the NBA's longest winning streak this season, a 13-game run that was beyond surprising. They are on the cusp of doing something never accomplished in NBA history.

This Miami Heat comeback tale has been an epic one.

And now comes the toughest part - finishing the job.

None of the other 125 teams in NBA history who started 11-30 or worse made the NBA playoffs. The Heat, with 10 games left on their regular-season schedule, are in position to change that. They held the second-worst record in the league in mid-January, are tied with San Antonio for the best record since, and hold a one-game lead over Chicago and Detroit for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot entering Friday's games.

''These guys want this so bad,'' Heat coach Erik Spoelstra - a reluctant coach of the year candidate who cringes when players lobby on his behalf - said Thursday after a loss to the Toronto Raptors. ''They want this opportunity to be in the playoffs. We've fought, scratched, done everything we possibly can to put ourselves into a position to fight for it.''

More fighting and scratching awaits.

Of Miami's final 10 games, a stretch that starts Sunday in Boston, eight are against teams still battling for either a playoff spot or playoff positioning. The only two exceptions are a home-and-home next week with New York, which earlier this season was seven games ahead of the Heat in the standings and now are eight games behind Miami (35-37).

''We've dug ourselves out of a deep ditch,'' Heat center and NBA rebounding leader Hassan Whiteside said.

True, but they're not on firm playoff footing yet.

Under normal circumstances, Whiteside almost certainly would not have played Thursday. He needed 13 stitches to repair a cut in his right (shooting) hand on Tuesday, and a similar injury two years ago left him sidelined for three games.

Not only did he start Thursday, he led the Heat with 16 points and 14 rebounds. Afterward, he had icepacks strapped to both of his knees, covered his right hand in a clear plastic bag so the stitches wouldn't get wet in the shower, and had his newly sprained left ankle wrapped.

''He's a tough dude,'' Heat point guard Goran Dragic said.

He hasn't been the only one.

Factoring in that Chris Bosh's on-court tenure with the Heat was declared over when he failed a physical in September, Miami has had at least two players unavailable to play in every game this season because of health reasons. Since Jan. 1, it's been at least three every game - and often more.

A huge blow came last week when shooting guard Dion Waiters sprained his left ankle. He's at three missed games and counting, and the Heat offense has struggled since.

''This is that time of the year,'' Spoelstra said. ''Everybody is feeling it, so this is the mental toughness we have to get to.''

The Heat have no practice Friday, though most players will be in the training room for treatments. Practice resumes Saturday, preceding the flight to Boston. And then Sunday, the 10-game sprint to the finish begins.

''I want our guys to enjoy this,'' Spoelstra said. ''I don't feel that we're putting any undue pressure, but everybody will feel like when they lose that the world is collapsing. This playoff race is still going on. And I think we need a day to get away from it, to decompress and to get back to work on Saturday.''

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