Uphill battle for LeBron-less Heat

LeBron James says his former teammate Dwyane Wade is "just trying to will their team, trying to get some wins" with his recent strong play. Issac Baldizon/NBAE/Getty Images

MIAMI -- Dwyane Wade is surrounded by change and desperation.

Just take the other night, for example.

When Wade entered the Miami Heat locker room and looked two stalls to his left this time a year ago, there was the reassuring, veteran presence of neighbor Shane Battier to keep things in perspective in tough times. That same locker is now occupied by rookie Tyler Johnson, one of three players Miami plucked from the D-League this season who are now in the Heat's primary rotation.

When Wade scanned the room and looked to his far right, he spotted the empty locker that belongs to promising but unpredictable big man Hassan Whiteside. The talented center with the shaky temper served a one-game suspension last Wednesday after his second ejection in as many weeks.

Whiteside occupies the locker space that had been held by steady and reliable Ray Allen.

And if those differences aren't astounding enough, consider this: A Heat team that made a habit of advancing to the NBA Finals the past four years is now desperately fighting just to make the playoffs.

With Chris Bosh sidelined for the rest of the season as he recovers from blood clots in his lungs and LeBron James now back in Cleveland leading the surging Cavaliers toward the playoffs, Wade is the last stalwart standing from the Heat's Big Three. And when James returns to Miami for the second time to meet his former team Monday, he anticipates facing a determined Wade and a desperate squad.

"The team has been up and down, obviously, with the injuries and trades and things of that nature," James said of the Heat team he led to consecutive NBA titles in 2012 and 2013. "But they've got a lot of guys over there with championship DNA. So that's all that matters."

After gradually working his way back from multiple hamstring injuries, Wade has elevated his play amid the Heat's push for one of the final two playoff spots in the East. He has averaged 28 points and shot 51 percent from the field over his past five games in his most productive stretch of the season. James joked after Sunday's win in Orlando he didn't need to study film to see exactly what's gotten into Wade recently.

"That's five or six straight [scoring] 25-plus," James said. "I don't need to read the scouting report. I just know him. He's been in a good rhythm. He's just trying to will their team, trying to get some wins."

And yet, it remains an uphill battle for the Heat.

Miami (29-36) enters Monday's matchup against the Cavaliers (43-25) tied with Boston for ninth place in the East with 17 games remaining. Six of the Heat's next eight games are against teams in playoff position, starting with a Cavaliers squad that has posted the NBA's best record since mid-January.

The Heat and Cavaliers split their first two meetings this season, with each winning at home. Considering the stakes now for the Heat, feelings of urgency should overshadow any sense of nostalgia Monday.

"I know what it means," Wade said of his team's predicament heading into the final weeks of the regular season. "We're in a tight race right now. And every night, when I leave the game, I want to say that I gave everything I could to this team to help put us in position to get a playoff spot."

In recent years, the Heat could afford to be concerned only about where their play stood in the playoff months of April, May and June. But that's no longer the case with Indiana, Charlotte, Miami and Boston heading into the week separated by a single game in the standings for the final two playoff spots.

The Cavaliers -- appearing to be a lock for the second seed -- held out Kevin Love on Sunday to begin the process of resting and preserving key players for the postseason. There's also a chance LeBron sits out Monday as a precaution after tweaking his right knee midway through Sunday's win in Orlando. Meanwhile, the Heat are battling with a patchwork supporting cast around Wade to avoid missing the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season.

"It's very important," Wade said of maintaining a playoff pulse. "Without March and April, we don't get to April and May. So it's a different year, and you have to have a different mentality. We understand the importance of now. We have a tough schedule coming down the stretch. We have no room for error."

Wade is the only remaining starter from Miami's team that lost to San Antonio in the Finals last season. Despite the injuries and adversity that contributed to the Heat starting 27 different lineups this season, there's still a level of pride that won't allow this team to accept anything less than a postseason berth.

Losing Bosh last month could have been a crippling blow for the Heat, yet there remains hope.

"He was always our biggest key when I was there," James said of Bosh, who is expected to fully recover and resume playing next season. "With myself and D-Wade, you kind of knew what you were going to get out of us. But when C.B. played well, we were unbeatable. More than anything, his health is more important than basketball. I'm happy he's doing extremely well right now. He's doing what he needs to do to get healthy and not worrying about basketball."

Wade and veteran forward Udonis Haslem are the only players on the current roster who have played on all three of the Heat's championship teams, including the 2006 title run. And since Wade and Haslem arrived in Miami in 2003, the Heat have missed the playoffs only once -- and that happened when both sustained season-ending injuries well before the end of a franchise-worst 15-67 finish.

So there's stubbornness because there's a standard.

"We have championship expectations around here regardless," Haslem said. "So we expect to get into the playoffs. It's a different situation than we've been in in the past, but the goal doesn't change. It's why we've especially got to be leaders now -- through these times, the injuries, suspensions and so many different guys in and out of the lineup and different rotations. These guys look up to us to be leaders, vocally, physically, mentally, we've got to be that rock because we've seen it all in this league."

Yet the league hasn't seen a team reach the Finals and then fail to make the playoffs the following season since 2004, when the Lakers petered out after the breakup of Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. The Heat, however, have incentive to fall back. Miami retains its first-round draft selection in June should it fall within one of the top 10 picks in the lottery. Otherwise, the pick goes to Philadelphia.

The Heat just happen to be tied with Boston and Utah for the 10th-worst record in the league.

So competitively tanking would give the Heat a first-round pick to add to their assets this offseason, in addition to the prospects of bringing back a rejuvenated roster that could feature Wade, Bosh, Whiteside, Goran Dragic, Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts.

There's a case to be made for the Heat to fall back the rest of the way this season and keep their pick. But that logic doesn't jibe among the mainstays in the locker room determined to push forward.

"We're not built like that," Haslem said. "If any of this was easy, we'd be nervous. Josh goes out, we respond. [Bosh] goes out, we respond. D-Wade is in and out, depending on how he's feeling, and we still don't go away. We respond. That says a lot about this team. That tells you all you need to know."

LeBron returns to town having hit his stride with the Cavaliers.

Meanwhile, the Heat have been stumbling since his departure.

But with Wade in a recent groove, they're still standing -- just barely.

"Right now, if anybody doesn't focus and lose three in a row, it could be over for you," Wade said of pushing through nagging aches and setbacks. "You just have to find a way to win. If you're not hurting yourself -- some nights you just can't do it, and you might feel like you might hurt the team. But if you feel like you can give something, it's that time of the year for it."

Wade is giving everything he's got right now. There's no sense in looking around the locker room anymore. The Heat's playoff hopes hinge on what Wade sees when he looks in the mirror.

And his best right now still may not be enough.