MIAMI – James Johnson wasn’t looking for sympathy.
When asked about the team being shorthanded following Sunday’s loss to the Pistons, the Heat’s enforcer cut off the question.
“Shorthanded?” said the 6-foot-8, 250-pound power forward.
“I didn’t notice we were shorthanded.”
When the man answering the questions is a second-degree black belt and has not lost any of his 27 MMA or kickboxing bouts, you just go with it.
Yes, the Heat were shorthanded, in fact, ridiculously shorthanded. Coach Erik Spoelstra had nine available players and four/fifths of his opening night starting lineup was out – guards Dion Waiters (groin) and Goren Dragic (back), forward Justise Winslow (shoulder) and center Hassan Whiteside (eye).
And Winslow, Whiteside and Josh McRoberts (foot) did not travel to the team to Phoenix Monday. In fact, this recent rash – the Heat have now lost 140 player games to injuries, including Chris Bosh – could not come at a worse time. The team left Monday for the six-game, 12-day road trip that starts Tuesday against the Suns (9 p.m.). The trip includes a back-to-back (Phoenix and Sacramento), two games in L.A., one against the Warriors and concludes with three days in Milwaukee.
And the Heat heads west with the third-worst record in the league (10-25) and having lost five in a row and seven straight on the road.
“We got a tough stretch coming but we got to continue to grow as a team,” Winslow said. “It may not be with W’s (but with) little plays, find ways to close out games.”
Miami does not know who will be available and when. The possibility that everybody returns still exists with the exception of McRoberts, who is out indefinitely with a foot injury, as Spoelstra said guys could rejoin the team at any point during the trip.
Dragic worked out Sunday and following the game sounded optimistic he could soon play. He said the back, which he injured Dec. 23 in New Orleans and has forced him to miss three games, is getting looser.
“The last two days were good for me,” he said. “A lot of improvement, so I’m hoping.”
Winslow suffered a shoulder injury on the last play of Friday’s game in Boston. He said he was not worried about the injury but the Heat will be cautious, as they have with most injuries in a season in which a lottery is a near certainty.
Whiteside was poked in the right eye late in the Boston game and he was wearing a patch on Sunday.
Waiters, who has missed 19 games, is ready to start practicing full speed and is eager to return. Waiters said Sunday if he’s traveling he’s playing, so the expectation is he returns soon.
“We all want to win,” James Johnson said. “We’re competitors. We don’t want no excuses. We don’t want no one to take it lightly and nobody is going to give us that. So we’re going to go out there and play as hard as we can and hopefully we can put some wins together on this road trip.”
Miami relied heavily on James Johnson, who led the team with 20 points and Tyler Johnson (11 points) off the bench, along with its backcourt of Wayne Ellington (18) and Josh Richardson (14) on Sunday.
Those four took 50 of the team’s 77 shots.
And while the Heat eventually wore down, scoring 32 points and shooting 27.5 percent in the second half after a red-hot start in which they shot 65 percent in the first half, the nine players who saw action (including a season-high 21 minutes from 36-year-old Udonis Haslem) played hard.
The signature play of the first half was James Johnson diving on a loose ball on the Detroit end, feeding Ellington who then nailed one of the Heat’s 14 three pointers.
“I’ll go to go to war with these guys any day,” James Johnson said. “We go hard, we play hard. … we got a little gassed. We got to learn how to fight through that.”
That will be a lot easier if the Heat can gain some reinforcements out West.