5 Keys to the Miami Heat Getting on a Track to the NBA Finals

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2016

5 Keys to the Miami Heat Getting on a Track to the NBA Finals

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    The world did not come to an end for the Miami Heat when LeBron James left shortly after the 2014 NBA Finals came to its sad conclusion, deciding to go back home to Cleveland.

    After a difficult 2014-15 season that saw Erik Spoelstra's team miss the playoffs , the Heat are back among the Eastern Conference leaders. They are 21-13 and find themselves in third place in the Eastern Conference, just a game behind the Chicago Bulls. LeBron and the Cavaliers are just slightly ahead of those two teams.

    The Heat are clearly on the right track, but there are five keys to a continued climb to the top of the mountain and a return to the NBA finals.

Get C Hassan Whiteside Back in the Lineup and Keep Him There

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    Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    Why are the Miami Heat an improved team this year? Because they're getting contributions in a number of unexpected areas.

    Center Hassan Whiteside is one of those players providing consistency on the offensive end. The third-year player from Marshall is averaging 12.5 points per game and 11.3 rebounds per night.

    Whiteside split his time between Memphis and Miami last year and showed signs of what he could do. The Heat are taking advantage of his talent. Not only is he scoring and rebounding in double figures, but he is shooting 61.4 percent, which ranks third in the league.

    Whiteside missed Monday's game against Indiana with soreness in his right knee and could miss Wednesday night's game against the New York Knicks as well.

    While the injury does not look severe, the Heat need him back in the lineup, where he has been helping them develop into a good team. If the Heat becomes a great team this year, it seems certain that Whiteside will have a lot to say about it.

Establish a Winning Record in the Eastern Conference

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    During the glory days of the Big Three era in Miami, the Heat had the rest of the Eastern Conference on the run.

    Every time Miami took the floor against a conference opponent, that team knew it had to be on top of its game, or the chances were good that it would lose.

    Good teams win their conference games. That's something the Heat are not doing this year. Miami is just 11-11 in games against the East. While the East has made up a lot of ground on the Western Conference this year, there's no reason Miami should be 10-2 against the West and just .500 against the East.

    Instead of intimidating opponents, it seems like the Heat are providing an open invitation to opponents to compete hard and steal games. They are just not good enough against potential playoff opponents this season.

    They have to show significant improvement in that area the rest of the way.

Establish Greater Trust on the Floor

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh know the Heat are going in the right direction, but they both know that they aren't where they need to be yet.

    If you look at Miami's 21-13 record, it comes with an inability to get hot and string wins together. The Heat have won as many as three games in a row this season but haven't been able to win more than that. The consistency tends to disappear from their game at that point. 

    That comes from a lack of trust and familiarity with the younger players on the team. Wade and Bosh know what it takes to win, and both players understand that it's not about point, rebound or assist totals. Some nights, those numbers will be there, but there are other nights when the shooting will suffer and the Heat won't make a lot of eye-catching plays.

    That's when the teamwork and hard work have to kick in. 

    “We have to have trust in each other,” Wade said, via Jeff Zillgitt of USAToday. “It’s hard to get to, but it’s also simple. We have our moments where it’s there, and we have moments where we revert and it’s not there. Once we get to the point where guys really don’t care about numbers, we’ll be better off for sure.”

    Great teams learn how important teamwork is. The sooner the Heat learn this, the sooner they'll become a team that is capable of being dominant in the Eastern Conference.

Continue to Improve on Defense

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    Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

    The Heat are playing effective defense on a nightly basis this season. They are among the best defensive teams in the league because they play aggressively and intelligently.

    According to the NBA.com's advanced defensive metric, the Heat are tied with the Golden State Warriors for the third-best defensive rating in the league, giving up 98.5 point per 100 possessions. Only the San Antonio Spurs and the Boston Celtics have better defensive ratings than the Heat (and the Warriors).

    Miami must continue to show off its ability in this area and perhaps improve a bit as the season progresses.

Keep Wade and Bosh as Fresh as Possible

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    Issac Baldizon/Getty Images

    Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are no longer supermen who can do as they please when it comes down to winning time in the NBA.

    They are established veteran stars who still have plenty of ability. But Wade, 33, and Bosh, 31, have to get their share of rest, and their minutes have to be watched.

    Erik Spoelstra has been through the wars many times and knows it's not about winning three or four extra regular-season games by playing Wade and Bosh extra minutes. It's about making sure both men still have plenty left in the tank once the playoffs start.

    Bosh is averaging a team-high 18.9 points per game and 8.1 rebounds per night. He is averaging 33.5 minutes per game. Wade is right behind Bosh with an average of 18.5 and is averaging 29.9 minutes per night.

    Spoelstra has to be careful not to overuse Bosh and Wade. That might mean reducing their minutes over the rest of the season. They have to be fresh for the playoffs, and that won't happen unless their coach makes a concerted effort to save their energy.