The steep climb from 11-30 all the way into contention, and into the percolating pressure of a playoff race, can be exhilarating but also exhausting.
And for the Heat’s best players, it has also been physically debilitating, with Goran Dragic sustaining a recent eye injury, Dion Waiters sidelined by an ankle injury, and Hassan Whiteside now hampered by both ankle and hand injuries.
Whiteside, who played through the pain of a lacerated hand to collect 16 points and 14 rebounds in Thursday’s loss against Toronto, said he believes his sprained ankle, sustained late in Thursday’s game when he landed awkwardly after a jump ball, is not serious. He was in some discomfort on Friday, but was walking without a limp and did not have anything on the ankle during a public appearance on Friday night.
“Just sprained it,” he said late Thursday night, with the Heat given Friday off in advance of Sunday’s game at Boston. “I'm going to get treatment and we'll know from there. It's not serious, not crazy like Dion's. More an annoyance.”
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The hand also continues to give him discomfort but “nobody is going to feel sorry for me,” he said. “They're going to be physical with me every time. I don't want to look back and be like, ‘Damn, I wish I would have played. We would have been in the playoffs right now, in April.’ I'm going to give what I can give. I lost a couple rebounds I normally would have grabbed.”
While Whiteside suffers through physical impairments, Dragic is suffering through his worst shooting slump of an exceptional season.
Dragic, who’s shooting 47.5 percent from the field this season, is 24 for 71 over his past four games (33.8 percent), including 5 for 18 on threes.
“I need to get better first,” he said after shooting 5 for 18 overall on Thursday. “[Thursday] was not a good game for me. I'm not worried about [the shooting slump]. I had some good open shots that I usually make and the bounce didn't want to go in. I'm not going to worry about that as long as my head is clear and I know my teammates trust me. So I'll be back.
“For me, personally, I am that kind of a guy who has a bad game and I'm always thinking too much.”
He said he planned to use Friday “to clear my head, spend some time with my family and have a fresh start, reboot myself.”
For Waiters, there has been some progress from an ankle injury that has sidelined him three games. Though he’s in a walking boot, he no longer needs crutches. Miami is 9-20 without him this season.
Though the Heat entered Friday in the final Eastern Conference playoff seed, the remaining path is difficult: a three-game road trip to Boston, Detroit and New York; followed by home games against the Knicks and playoff contender Denver; another three-game trip (to Charlotte, Toronto and Washington) and two home games against playoff teams Cleveland and Washington.
“It's going to be tough,” Whiteside said. “We're going into the lion's den in Boston. We want to come in there and try to get that one. It's not going to be an easy game.”
Coach Erik Spoelstra told his players to “decompress” Friday.
“This is the time of year, everybody is feeling it,” he said. “This is the mental toughness we have to get to. I’m not discounting guys aren’t feeling the weight of the wear and tear of an 82-game season, but everyone’s feeling this way right now.
“These guys want this so bad. They want this opportunity to be in the playoffs. We’ve fought, scratched, done everything we can to put ourselves in position to fight for it. I want our guys to enjoy this.
I don’t feel we’re putting any undue pressure, but everybody will feel like when they lose the world is collapsing. This playoff race is still going on.”
Has the energy expended from climbing out of an 11-30 hole taken a toll?
“We've dug ourselves out of a deep ditch,” Whiteside said. “It can get frustrating, but guys are still, ‘Next game, next game.’”
Guard Wayne Ellington said he doesn’t sense that the Heat’s energy is at all depleted.
“It has definitely been a grind,” he said. “All these games are playoff games for us. That can be to our advantage if we get into the playoffs.
“I like the position we're in because every game matters. Some teams in the playoffs don't have to worry about that. They could in with a lackadaisical mindset of let's finish the season out. We're in grind mode. That's going to carry over for us.”