Things are looking good for the Heat entering the stretch run.
The Heat rolled into the All-Star break on a seven-game winning streak, a full four games in front of the rest of the Eastern Conference, in prime position as they pursue their second straight championship.
And yet, on a scale of 10, where do they stand?
"I'd say we're a 7," Chris Bosh said.
That may seem to low to some, with the Heat on a 59-win pace.
Still, Bosh's perspective makes sense, in light of the expectations.
“We haven’t put a string of wins together on the road yet,” Bosh said. “We’re going to be facing that challenge, and we have plenty of opportunities when we start back playing.”
As LeBron James put it:
“You know, we’re at a ‘7’ and I think that’s exactly where we want to be right now. We don’t want to be at a ‘10,’ with 50 games played. Right now, we’re about at a ‘7,’ but our ‘7’ has an arrow that’s going up. And that’s exactly where we want to be. And we look forward to getting all the way to ‘10’ at the latter part of the season.”
So what should be the five goals as they go forward?
(All quotes for this piece were collected through the course of the author's coverage of the Miami Heat for the Palm Beach Post. All statistics were accurate as of Tuesday afternoon.)
Carmelo Anthony didn't even play in the teams' second meeting, and Miami lost anyway.
It's not wise to make too much of regular-season results.
During the 2010-11 season, the Heat dropped six of seven games to the Bulls and Celtics during the regulation, only to eliminate each by a 4-1 count in the postseason.
As he said after the latest frustrating loss in Indiana:
"We’re not worried about it. We don’t need victories vs. top four teams to prove what we’re capable of doing. We don’t need ‘em. We’d love to have ‘em, but we don’t need ‘em.”
More on the Pacers in the minute.
First, though, let's address the Knicks, who have played Miami twice this season, and beaten the Heat twice, by 20 points each.
The first game, on Nov. 2, felt a bit fluky, with the Knicks energized by a crowd desperate for anything to cheer in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy.
The second game?
That was a bit more troubling for the Heat, considering that Carmelo Anthony missed the game with a minor injury.
In the two games, New York connected on 37-of-80 shots from three-point range, appearing to find a formula to beat Miami, spreading the floor and moving the ball.
The Knicks have had some troubles since, falling off the Heat's win pace, and the Heat are in the middle of the pack in three-point percentage against (36.0).
Still, there are enough All-Stars on the Knicks roster that their confidence is sure to swell if they convincingly beat the Heat once (or twice) more.
The Pacers continue to give the Heat big problems.
The Heat hasn't been able to master the Indiana Pacers.
Still, after the Heat lost 102-89 at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Feb. 1, the second definitive loss to Indiana this season, their coach did master the obvious:
"Clearly, we need to get better against them," Erik Spoelstra said.
Clearly, because it's clear that Indiana isn't going away.
The Pacers not only survived the season-long absence of Danny Granger, they grew from it, with Paul George emerging as a legitimate go-to star, one that Heat players (who don't think all that highly of many members of the Pacers) clearly respect.
In that Jan. 8 meeting, George wasn't shy about attacking LeBron James, and he finished with more points (29 to 22) and rebounds (11 to 10).
George spoke of the assignment during All-Star weekend:
"LeBron is such a tough cover and tough matchup, you kind of have to try to work him on the other end, just to tire him out or something. You give him energy to keep going and going, he has that battery to keep going. You have to keep him honest on defense."
And on the other end?
"You try to limit him getting to the basket, try to get him to take contested jumpshots. For us, Roy Hibbert does a great job of protecting the paint, so it kind of plays into my hands, when I know I have a guy who can protect the paint, and all I have to do is keep him from getting a full head of steam going to the paint."
Of all the remaining games on the schedule, March 18 in Miami, the last meeting between the Pacers and Heat, may prove to be most important.
If only to keep George and the Pacers from getting their own head of steam, as a potential Conference Finals encounter looms.
Miami seems intent on riding Ray Allen, so he needs to regularly produce.
There have been many times this season when Ray Allen just hasn't looked right.
Uncomfortable with his role?
With his teammates?
With the limitations that every 37-year-old encounters?
It's hard to say, and Allen hasn't spoken all that much to the media of late, slipping out early after games.
Still, it's fair to say that, after the Heat invested $3 million to secure one of the all-time floor spacers, they would feel better about their playoff prospects if he provided more consistent performances in the season's closing stretch.
First, the good:
He's made five critical shots in the closing minute. On a per-minute basis, Allen is averaging an identical number of shots, makes and points as he did last season in Boston, when he was limited by an injured ankle. And he's done about what was anticipated on defense, which wasn't much.
Still, there are two trends that have become troubling, now that he has played 48 games with his new team. For someone with a sky-high basketball IQ, he has too often taken the ball into the trees and, as might be expected given his advanced age and atrophied athleticism, into a block or a turnover.
And then there's the road thing.
Traditionally, his home-road splits have been fairly even.
This season, he's at 49 percent at home, and 39 percent on the road.
"I never worry about Ray," Erik Spoelstra has said.
A few efficient road efforts during the season's final 32 games, and Heat fans can shake some of their concern, too.
Lately, the Heat has not given up much easily.
Something's happening here.
Slowly but surely, the Heat have shored up two areas in which they had been uneven and inadequate, respectively, earlier in the season.
That was the defense for stretches of the first three months.
But look at the numbers now:
Only seven teams are holding opponents to a lower shooting percentage, with Miami (44 percent) not that far behind last season's stinginess (43.4).
That was the rebounding.
And while the Heat will never be outstanding in that department, they posted a plus-1.4 margin in the first eight games of February.
If that holds up, it will be the first of five months this season that they have held an edge.
They've done that while taking better care of the ball than in previous months, averaging just 11.4 turnovers.
In short, they're starting to look more like the team that stormed past the Thunder in the NBA Finals, and the goal should be to keep that going.
This is where the Heat's stars should be down the stretch.
Want to annoy Erik Spoelstra?
Suggest that he should be getting his guys more rest.
Spoelstra didn't take kindly to that notion at Tuesday's practice, and he won't if anyone tosses it out there again.
"We're not going to start talking about maintenance now," Spoelstra said.
He went on to call it "absurd."
And, perhaps, with 32 games left, it's a bit early.
Still, there's no question what matters in Miami these days, and it's not setting franchise records for wins. It's all about May and June, and getting there in the best physical, mental and emotional condition possible.
That was one reason for loading up on swingmen, to relieve LeBron James and Dwyane Wade of some of the burden. James is averaging 38.5 minutes, a minute more than he did last season, which was lockout-compressed. Wade is also up slightly, from 33.2 to 34.1.
The next 57 days will feel a bit like last season, with Miami playing a league-high 32 games.
So the goal should be to go hard for the next month, rack up wins, lap the East competition and wrap up the top seed to render those final two weeks as meaningless as possible.
The Heat lost an NBA Finals series with home-court advantage, and won one without it, so catching the Spurs or Thunder isn't all that important.
Better to give James, Wade, Chris Bosh and some of the older vets (Shane Battier and Ray Allen in particular) a chance to catch a breather.