MIAMI (AP) -When the Miami Heat take the floor Thursday night, it'll be in throwback uniforms from their inaugural season.
In that sense, they'll look like an expansion team.
The question is, have they finally stopped playing like one?
Sure, Miami's record is 6-15, only good enough for the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. But back-to-back victories against the Los Angeles Clippers and Phoenix earlier this week gave Miami its first winning streak of the season, and maybe its first true batch of optimism as well.
``Going out West really helped us off the court as well as on the court,'' Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. ``It helped us get to know each other a little more, helped us as men respect each other a little more, respect what each other does, and it's still coming. It's not there yet, but it's still coming, and I think these next six games coming up ... are going to show how close we have become.''
The Heat play five of their next six at home, starting Thursday against the Washington Wizards.
Point guard Jason Williams, who missed the last two games of the six-game West trip with a sprained ankle, will probably play Thursday so the Heat will have its primary rotation together again. Penny Hardaway won't be around, though. The 36-year-old forward was waived Wednesday.
Miami used only seven players in Monday's win against Phoenix, more out of desperation than anything else.
But it worked.
And unlike games at Utah, Portland and Golden State, where Miami wasted chances to win in the final minutes, the Heat found a way to hang on against the Clippers and Suns.
``The last five games has been a marked improvement offensively, also in crucial fourth-quarter situations defensively,'' Heat coach Pat Riley said.
So now, Riley is breaking the next 23 games into three segments - and it's a chunk of time that'll likely define Miami's season.
The first batch is 11 games, seven at home and four on the road. The next part is a five-game, eight-day road trip to Dallas, Memphis, Minnesota, Milwaukee and New Orleans. And the final segment is a seven-game homestand from Jan. 16-29.
``Over the next three segments of these games is when we've got to find a way to get even and get over the hump,'' Riley said. ``It's not much fun getting off to the kind of start we got off to and I just hope that whatever other things that were going on have been lifted. There seems to be a little lighter air to the team. I think they've gotten through it and gotten closer together.''
The season's first 19 games were nothing short of disastrous for Miami.
Some offseason moves didn't quite work out as planned. Wade was sidelined because of knee rehab at the start of the year. Shaquille O'Neal's preseason thigh injury is still problematic, and his relationship with Riley has been the source of much debate after word leaked of a practice-court argument between the star center and the star coach - who, maybe only half-kiddingly, said he was talked off the ledge of his 19th floor Los Angeles hotel room last week by his wife.
No, Riley didn't jump.
But for whatever reason, the West coast swing provided his team with a jump start.
``Even though we've got veteran guys, we're still finding out a lot about ourselves and I think we found out a lot about ourselves these last two games, the way we were able to finish out games,'' Heat forward Udonis Haslem said. ``We've definitely learned from our mistakes.''
And with 61 games left, there's certainly more than enough time for the Heat to find their stride.
``It's not there yet,'' Wade said. ``But it's a lot better than it was seven games ago.''
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