MIAMI (AP) -Dwyane Wade sat on a courtside stool after Miami Heat practice Monday, one bag of ice on his left knee and another on his right shin, discussing the season that has left his body sore and ego bruised.
From behind, a playful teammate threw a cup of water on the back of Wade's neck. He laughed.
Even a lousy team is permitted occasional hijinx, and the Heat are desperate for reason to smile. They've lost 10 consecutive games to fall to 8-28, the worst record in the Eastern Conference.
A year and a half after winning the NBA title, Miami is all but eliminated from the playoffs before midseason. The losing streak is the Heat's longest since late 2001, before Wade and Shaquille O'Neal came to town.
``I don't even know our record,'' Wade said. ``I don't know how deep the hole is.''
Biscayne Bay is shallow by comparison. Assuming the Heat need a 41-41 record to make the playoffs, they would have to finish 33-13. That's not likely, even with O'Neal expected to return Wednesday against Chicago after an eight-game layoff because of a hip injury.
``We understand the situation we're in,'' forward Udonis Haslem said. ``Obviously we've got to start winning. It has to start now. It can't start after we lose five more.''
There's little reason to expect a turnaround. Yes, O'Neal appears on the verge of coming back, but at 35 he also appears to be a spent force. And while the Heat play their next seven games at home, they're only 4-11 in Miami this season.
``We haven't played that well anywhere,'' guard Jason Williams said.
Like many losing teams, the Heat have assumed a soap-opera quality. During an 0-5 trip that ended Friday, Pat Riley raised the possibility of stepping down as coach at the end of the season to focus on his job as team president, then tried to dismiss the idea. There also were rumors O'Neal might be traded, which Riley denied, perhaps because there's no market for a rapidly aging Shaq with 2 1/2 years left on his contract.
Are the Heat frustrated? Angry? Stunned? Embarrassed?
``We're past all that,'' Haslem said. ``You're a month late for that one.''
Riley agreed.
``We've experienced just about every emotion,'' he said. ``We went through the gamut. Right now they're a little upbeat, from the standpoint we might have everybody back together.''
Thirteen players practiced Monday, a rare abundance, but that's no guarantee Riley will find a successful combination. He has used 12 starting lineups, none producing more than two wins.
The return of O'Neal should help, especially with backup center Alonzo Mourning sidelined for the season by a knee injury. But O'Neal is averaging only 13.9 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, both career lows.
He took part in about half of Monday's practice.
``He did some explosive things,'' Wade said. ``He was dunking the ball and getting up and down. It was good to get him back in the mix.''
However, the Heat are only 8-20 with O'Neal in the starting lineup. They've won two games in a row only once all season. They rank among the NBA's worst teams in scoring, rebounding and shooting defense. They even shoot free throws badly.
Injuries provide an easy alibi. Along with O'Neal and Mourning, Wade, Williams and Dorell Wright have spent time on the sideline. But the Heat are enduring a dismal winter in large part because of a lousy summer in 2007, when they lost James Posey, Eddie Jones and Jason Kapono to free agency while failing in their bids to acquire Charlie Bell or Mo Williams.
As a result, even Riley is stumped for a solution. He ranks third in coaching victories with 1,203, but that number has climbed slowly this season - and not at all since Dec. 22.
Riley's beyond even talking about a playoff berth. He knows his team is 3-17 against the East, which makes it difficult to sell the notion of mounting a charge in the conference standings.
At this point, he's merely looking for something to salvage.
``We've been searching all year,'' Riley said. ``This is now about a major effort every single night - mentally, physically and spiritually. We have to play the game a lot better than we have played it. We have to show a lot more resolve. Then you let the chips fall.''

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