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Surging Heat have playoffs in sight after dreadful start

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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.”

Watch Harrison Barnes nab a game-saving steal to put Mavericks past Clippers, 97-95

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DALLAS (AP) Harrison Barnes thrived in a new position on Thursday night, and so did the Mavericks.

Barnes made the go-ahead basket, then stole the ball from Blake Griffin with 3.9 seconds left as Dallas beat the Los Angeles Clippers 97-95.

Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle started a big lineup, with Barnes moving from power forward to small forward.

“I have a little bit more energy from not banging with as many bigs,” Barnes said.

Barnes made a 14-foot jumper with 1:06 remaining for the game’s 11th lead change, making it 96-95. After he stripped Griffin, Wesley Matthews made a free throw with 0.9 seconds to play before J.J. Redick missed a 3-point attempt that would have won it at the buzzer. His shot bounced off the far side of the rim.

“We had a great shot on the last play,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “That was great execution, and it was a 3, would have been a game-winner. Make, miss, we will live with that.”

Griffin scored 21 points, including nine in a row in the fourth quarter, but he missed his last three shots and turned the ball over four times in the game.

“I got to take care of the ball on the last play of the game,” Griffin said, “if you trust me with the last play of the game.”

Dallas expected Griffin to have the ball.

“I have to give credit to our coaching staff,” Barnes said. “They scouted that play well before the game. We knew it was coming to Blake. I just tried to play good defense, and I was in the right spot and the right time.”

The Clippers had their three-game winning streak snapped. Dallas, battling from behind for a playoff berth, had lost four of six.

“I don’t care about the race,” Rivers said. “I care about how we play.”

Seth Curry led Dallas with 23 points. Barnes finished with 21 and Dirk Nowitzki had 14.

The new lineup had Nerlens Noel starting at center and point guard Yogi Ferrell on the bench.

Curry started at point guard and had four assists.

“We’re going to give this a look,” Carlisle said. “It may be the rest of the year, it may not.”

Noel finished with 12 rebounds, two blocked shots and two steals, including one in the final minute.

DeAndre Jordan had 14 points and 18 rebounds for the Clippers. Chris Paul scored 15 points and Austin Rivers had 13.

The Mavericks led by as many as 12 points in the second quarter. But after trailing 44-32, Los Angeles finished the first half on a 22-4 run for a 54-48 halftime lead.

Paul had 13 points in the first half, and Jordan already had a double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds. Nowitzki and Curry each had 10 points for the Mavericks.

Dallas started the third quarter with a 13-2 run to regain the lead at 61-56. The Mavericks took a 79-77 lead into the fourth quarter.

TIP-INS

Clippers: Redick’s four-point play in the second quarter was the 31st of his career. … The Clippers outrebounded Dallas 25-15 in the first half, but only 20-19 in the second.

Mavericks: Barnes has scored 20-plus points 35 times this season. He totaled 19 games of 20-plus in his first four NBA seasons with Golden State. … Dallas scored 21 points off 17 turnovers, nine in the second half. The Mavericks committed only nine turnovers for eight points.

THE LINEUP

Carlisle seemed pleased with the lineup change.

“We got to look at Curry at point with a really conventional team out there. We got a look at Noel with Dirk and Barnes. We got to see how things would shake out with Barnes at 3.”

THE MIGHTY FALL

Dallas’ J.J. Barea – listed at 6 feet, 185 pounds – was ejected with 5:29 to play in the third quarter after pushing the 6-10, 251-pound Griffin to the floor.

Crew chief Bill Spooner explained the call.

“The contact, in our judgment, was deemed unnecessary and excessive. The contact was to the shoulders and above to the throat. That is deemed as a flagrant penalty two.”

UP NEXT

Clippers: Begin a three-game homestand on Saturday afternoon against Utah.

Mavericks: Play the third game of a four-game homestand vs. Toronto on Saturday.

Watch DeMar DeRozan score 40 as Raptors beat Heat, 101-84 (VIDEO)

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MIAMI (AP) DeMar DeRozan scored 40 points, marking the first time he’s had that many in consecutive games, and the Toronto Raptors pulled off their 19th double-digit comeback of the season to beat the Miami Heat 101-84 on Thursday night.

DeRozan shot 14 for 25 from the field and 12 for 13 from the line. He needed 38 shots to score 42 against Chicago on Tuesday.

Norman Powell scored 14 and Delon Wright added 13 for Toronto, which never led until midway through the third quarter. The Raptors allowed 33 points in the first quarter, then held Miami to 35 points over the next 27 minutes.

Playing with 13 stitches in his right hand, Hassan Whiteside scored 16 points and grabbed 14 rebounds for Miami. Rodney McGruder and Goran Dragic each had 13 points for the Heat, with Dragic shooting just 5 for 18.

He wasn’t the only Miami player to struggle. The Heat shot only 39 percent, 26 percent from 3-point range. The 84 points tied for Miami’s second-lowest total of the season, and was the first time the Heat failed to reach 90 at home.

The Raptors trailed by 15 points early and eventually led by as many as 17 – a 32-point turnaround. No one in the NBA has been better at pulling off big comebacks than the Raptors, who have come from behind six times since the All-Star break alone.

“It talks about toughness, heart,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “Our give-a-crap level is pretty high, and it’s one of those things where when you count us out, we find a way. My thing is just find five men who are going to play hard.”

Neither team moved in the Eastern Conference playoff standings. Toronto (43-29) remained in the No. 4 spot, pulling within a half-game of No. 3 Washington. Miami (35-37) stayed No. 8, now just a game ahead of No. 9 Chicago and No. 10 Detroit.

TIP-INS

Raptors: DeRozan has two 20-plus-point halves against Miami this season. He had 22 in the second half on Nov. 4, and 24 in the first half of this one. … P.J. Tucker started for Serge Ibaka, who served his one-game suspension for fighting Chicago’s Robin Lopez on Tuesday. … Toronto outrebounded Miami 51-36.

Heat: Wayne Ellington played, one day after the birth of his son. Wayne Ellington III arrived Monday afternoon. … Miami’s three second-quarter field goals were a season-low for any quarter. The previous low was four, done four times. … McGruder reached double figures for only the second time in his last 14 games.

DEROZAN HISTORY

DeRozan became the second player in Toronto history to have a season where he scored 32 or more points at least 20 times. He was an 11-year-old when it last happened – Vince Carter had 28 of those games in 2000-01.

WAITERS UPDATE

Heat guard Dion Waiters missed his third game with a sprained left ankle, and remains in a walking boot. There’s still no timetable for his return, but the Heat said the swelling in his ankle continues to decrease.

UP NEXT

Raptors: Visit Dallas on Saturday. It’s the second time this month Toronto faces Miami and Dallas consecutively.

Heat: Visit Boston on Sunday. Miami is 0-3 against Boston this season, losing by eight, 10 and three points.

Sacramento King’s Ty Lawson denies violating DUI probation

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DENVER (AP) — Sacramento Kings point guard Ty Lawson has denied that he violated his probation in a Colorado drunken driving case by drinking and failing to complete community service.

Lawson and his attorney Harvey Steinberg made the assertion Thursday during a brief appearance in a Denver courtroom. In addition, Steinberg said Lawson wanted his vehicle equipped with an interlock device that would test him for alcohol consumption so he could prove he’s not drinking.

The judge agreed and plans to hold a hearing in May before deciding whether the former Denver Nugget should get a more severe punishment.

Probation officials allege Lawson tested positive for alcohol three times in the past six months.

He was arrested twice on drunken driving charges in 2015, first in Denver and then in Los Angeles.

Russell Westbrook posts 35th triple-double; Thunder roll past 76ers

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Add another first for Russell Westbrook – a triple-double without missing a shot.

Westbrook recorded his 35th triple-double of the season with 18 points, 11 rebounds and 14 assists and the Oklahoma City Thunder cruised to a 122-97 win over the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday night.

He did so while making all six of his field-goal attempts and all six of his free throws. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no NBA player previously has had a triple-double without missing a shot attempt or free throw.

“It’s amazing, especially for a point guard, because he’s shooting threes, twos, inside, outside,” said Oklahoma City center Enes Kanter of his teammate’s perfect shooting. “For a point guard, he’s doing an unbelievable job, playing his game, having fun.”

Westbrook’s perfect shooting night could partially be attributed to a conscious decision to not shoot a 3-pointer in a game for the first time since March 14, 2016. He said he wasn’t aware during the game that he hadn’t missed a shot.

“I was just trying to play, trying to take my time,” Westbrook said. “I’ve been watching some film, trying to pick my spots better. I found ways to continue to get my teammates involved throughout the game and it just happened that way.

The Thunder have won 16 straight games against Philadelphia, a run that stretches to the 2008-09 season, the franchise’s first in Oklahoma City. That dominance was perhaps most evident in the final rebounding numbers on Wednesday: Oklahoma City 54, Philadelphia 25.

“It’s a fantastic example for our young guys on the physicality of playoff-type teams,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said. “That side of it to me stood out more than it has in a long time. … You look at the discrepancy on the boards, the rebounding differential, and it felt that.

“It’s a reminder. If you want to play late in April, if you want to play in May, maybe June one day, that’s the physicality that the playoffs bring.”

Nik Stauskas led the 76ers with 20 points, reaching the 20-point mark in consecutive games for the first time in his career.

After 11 lead changes in the opening minutes, the Thunder seized control with a 14-3 run near the end of the first quarter that put them ahead 29-22. Oklahoma City pushed its lead to 14 at one point before settling for a 63-50 halftime lead.

Philadelphia scored to start the third quarter, then the Thunder scored the next 15 points to build a 26-point lead and the triple-double watch intensified. Westbrook’s 10th assist came when Taj Gibson rattled in a 15-foot jumper at the 9:10 mark and the 10th rebound came with 7:08 left in the quarter.

It was the 13th time this season, and the 27th time in his career, Westbrook clinched a triple-double in the third quarter. He left the game with 2:39 left in the quarter and didn’t return.

Westbrook has recorded five triple-doubles against Philadelphia, his highest total against any NBA team. He needs six triple-doubles in Oklahoma City’s final 11 games to tie Oscar Robertson’s single-season record, set during the 1961-62 season.

Kanter posted his 17th double-double of the season for the Thunder with 24 points and 11 rebounds. Victor Oladipo (18 points) and Doug McDermott (13 points) also reached double figures for the Thunder.

TIP-INS:

76ers: Jahlil Okafor, who missed Monday’s game at Orlando with right knee soreness, started against the Thunder and played 17 minutes, scoring six points. … Dario Saric scored 12 points, extending his double-figure scoring streak to 21 games, the longest by a rookie this season. … Stauskas matched his season high with five 3-pointers, going 5-of-5 from behind the arc in the first half.

Thunder: With its 41st win of the season, Oklahoma City is assured of a .500 or better record for the eighth straight season. Only two other teams, the Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs, have as long a streak. … Westbrook has 72 triple-doubles and needs six more to tie Wilt Chamberlain for fourth on the NBA all-time list.

SURGERY FOR EMBIID

The 76ers said before the game that rookie center Joel Embiid will undergo surgery on a torn meniscus in his left knee. Team spokesman Mike Preston said the 7-footer, who has been plagued with injuries during his professional career, will have the surgery “in the coming days.”

Brown said “there has been tremendous due diligence … and research” about the decision concerning surgery and that Embiid “took an active role” in making the decision. Brown wouldn’t say if he thought Embiid would return by the start of next season: “That’s stuff we will talk more about and learn more about.”

Embiid missed his first two NBA seasons with a foot injury. He played in 31 games this season, averaging 20.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game but hasn’t played since Jan. 27, when he scored 32 points in a loss to the Houston Rockets.

QUOTABLE:

Philadelphia guard T.J. McConnell on guarding Westbrook: “It’s not a one-person job. It’s an entire team.”