LeBron James and the Miami Heat have been playing their best basketball since the calendar flipped to February, and according to the King himself, it's all because the club has been trying to demonstrate that they're still the league's best team.
Interestingly, though, the Heat don't seem concerned with notifying the rest of the NBA that they're capable of reaching another level. They're busy trying to prove it to themselves.
Chris Tomasson provided LBJ's explanation for his team's recently scorching stretch on his Sulia page:
"'I think people are recognizing what we're doing,''' James said of the 10-game streak. "'I don't think we're trying to send a message to the rest of the league. We're trying to send a message to ourselves.'"
There's no question that a 10-game winning streak is a good indicator of how well the Heat have been playing lately, but by looking at the way they've been winning, a trend emerges that should leave future opponents downright terrified.
In brief, the Heat have turned their chief weaknesses into strengths. Here's a little background:
To start the season, Miami struggled (relatively speaking) in a few key areas.
First, its defense lacked the same rabid, aggressive style that it possessed during last season's playoff run. But in February, the Heat have generated a season-high 17.2 turnovers per game, the culmination of a four-month upward trend in the category.
It's safe to say that Miami's ball-hawking ways have returned.
Also on the defensive front, the Heat have basically stopped allowing opponents to shoot threes. In yet another season-best metric, Miami is only allowing just 19.5 attempts per game from long range and is holding opponents to a paltry 34-percent conversion rate.
It makes sense that as Miami's overall defensive intensity and activity have ratcheted up in February, opponents would find it more difficult to get quality looks, let alone make them. No team can put pressure on perimeter players like the Heat can, and we're starting to see the results of a renewed effort in that area.
The Heat have finally cracked the league's top 10 in defensive efficiency.
Defense aside, the most-discussed shortcoming that plagued the Heat early in the year was an inability to secure rebounds. Unsurprisingly, a marked uptick in rebound rate has helped Miami make the most of its opponents' misses.
Over the last three months, the Heat have steadily increased their rebound rate, and for the first time all year, that figure eclipsed the 50-percent mark in their February games. That means Miami is finally outrebounding its opponents.
Put the defensive improvements together with a season-best string of rebounding efforts and all of the upward trends combine to make Miami look a lot more like the dominant outfit that everyone remembers from last year's postseason.
And offensively, well, what more needs to be said of the Heat?
LeBron James is playing at a historically efficient level, and the team as a whole has enjoyed a massive offensive spike. Overall, Miami has increased its average points per 100 possessions by a whopping seven points over its January figure. Now, instead of a very good figure of 108.9, the Heat are pouring in a league-best 115.8.
Really, nobody should be surprised by what Miami's doing. After all, most have believed all along that the Heat would "shift into that extra gear" or "flip the switch" eventually. And if history is any guide, February is when they tend to do that.
Miami in last two Februaries, so far: 21-3. Got on the same scary, "we're killing everyone" vibe last year at this time, too.— Zach Lowe (@ZachLowe_NBA) February 24, 2013
With little to prove to the rest of the league, the Heat are out to show themselves that they're still the team to beat.
So if James is serious that he and his team are trying to send a message to each other to that effect, one thing seems certain:
That message has been received loud and clear.
*Team stats via NBA.com unless otherwise indicated.
**All stats accurate through games played Feb. 23, 2013