The Heat must feel like Sisyphus.
In Greek mythology, the king of Ephyra was punished by being forced to try to roll an immense boulder uphill.
The Heat isn’t being punished necessarily — although some fans around the league might argue that its sub-.500 record is its comeuppance for all the winning it did during the LeBron James era.
But after a brutal 11-30 start this season, the Heat has come close to reaching .500 — only to have that boulder fall on them again as it did on Friday night against the New York Knicks.
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That 98-94 loss was the third time in 2017 that the Heat came within one win of reaching .500, only to lose that opportunity. The other losses occurred March 19 against Portland and March 23 against Toronto.
“We know what that game cost us,” Heat forward James Johnson said of the Knicks. “There’s a karma to the game. We didn’t come out like us. We didn’t play hard enough to win that game.”
The Heat (37-39) will get a chance to play harder Sunday night, when it hosts the Denver Nuggets (35-40).
Both teams are locked in tight playoff battles. Miami, Chicago and Indiana are tied at 37-39 but the Bulls are in seventh place with the Heat in eighth. The Pacers are in ninth. The Bulls would win a tiebreaker with the Heat.
Denver is in ninth place in the Western Conference, two games behind Portland.
Only the top eight teams in each conference qualify for the playoffs, and there are less than two weeks remaining in the 82-game regular season.
“Denver has been sitting on that eighth spot for a long time, and now they are in this crazy, competitive battle with Portland,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “You can expect a desperate game on their part.”
The Nuggets, on a three-game losing skid, have three players who are questionable for Sunday: point guard Jameer Nelson (calf); shooting guard Will Barton (foot) and forward Darrell Arthur (knee). Barton averages 13.7 points, Nelson averages 9.2 points and 5.1 assists, and Arthur averages 6.2 points.
Then again, the Knicks on Friday came into AmericanAirlines Arena with a 28-47 record and without the services of two of their top three scorers in Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose as well as Joakim Noah and Lance Thomas, who have started 61 games combined this season.
And yet, the Knicks took it to the Heat.
“Those are the most dangerous teams because they have nothing to lose,” said Goran Dragic, who missed a layup in the final eight seconds that would have tied the score.
“They just play freely — no pressure — and if they miss a shot, they don’t care.”
Dragic acknowledged on Saturday that the Heat misses starting guard Dion Waiters, who is still out with an ankle injury. Waiters has missed seven consecutive games, and the Heat is 3-4 during that span.
“When Dion is on the floor, maybe I get two or three more open spot-up shots,” Dragic said. “Now I’m more handling the ball, and those [same] shots are not available. I can still create shots for others and myself. I had that layup [attempt].
“But when you don’t start the game with a lot of energy, you are playing with karma.”
It’s clear from the “karma” comments from Dragic and James Johnson that the players feel they tempted fate by not giving their best effort.
That’s why Tyler Johnson, James Johnson and Rodney McGruder went to the Heat’s practice gym after Friday’s loss to work on their games.
“I missed a couple of free throws down the stretch, and I didn’t want to take that home with me,” Tyler Johnson said of his postgame workout.
“I wanted to release some stress. It’s not fair to take that back to your family.”
Certainly, the Heat players have let fans know — through their words and also their actions of having battled back from a poor start — that Miami wants to push that rock all the way back up the mountain.
Reaching the playoffs where every team starts afresh on the same level in terms of having to win four games to advance — would certainly do the trick.
Sunday: Nuggets at Heat
When/where: 6 p.m.; AmericanAirlines Arena.
TV/radio: SUN; WAXY 790, WAQI 710 (Spanish).
Series: Heat leads 32-27.
Scouting report: The Nuggets have dropped three in a row and five of their past seven to fall out of the eighth seed in the West. The Heat won 106-98 on Nov. 30 in Denver and has won four in a row against the Nuggets. The Nuggets’ Will Barton (foot), Jameer Nelson (calf), Darrell Arthur (knee) and Mason Plumlee (abdominal contusion) are listed as questionable.