LeBron James can let his breath out now: The Miami Heat are on a roll. After struggling briefly to find cohesion and rhythm under the heat of the national spotlight, James and Dwyane Wade have become unstoppable over the past two weeks. The team now stands at 18-8 and are exactly where everyone ought to have expected to find them after a third of the season: in first place in the Southeast Division.
The Heat have beaten good teams and bad during this streak, but they now face a stretch of key tests of their long-term mettle for playoff matchups and even two potential NBA Finals previews. Read on for the five biggest games between now and the end of the year for the Heat.
The Heat are among the hottest teams in the NBA, but so too are the Knicks. Amar'e Stoudemire's new crew are 16-8 and have won eight in a row. That streak may well be over by the time the two teams take the court Friday: The Knicks have a showdown with the mighty Celtics in Madison Square Garden Wednesday.
The Heat, too, need to win another game to enter the game against the Knicks on their streak, but that contest is against Cleveland. In all likelihood, this game will feature the Eastern Conference's two hottest teams and hottest commodities. This could easily be a Conference semifinals preview, and the winner will gain a ton of confidence going forward.
The game will also test James' mettle, as he will take the floor in New York for the first time since spurning them this summer. That renewed scrutiny will be a good test of the team's building immunity to the hoopla that follows them.
Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs are 19-5 and look poised to make a serious run toward the Finals this season. Therefore, this game could be a Finals preview between two teams playing at their best.
The contest will also be a great litmus test for the Heat, whom Dallas beat handily 106-95 in Texas last month. If the Heat return the favor, it will prove they can run with the big guns out West and begin to erase their early-season struggles.
The Suns are off to an unsteady start this season, but they remain the kind of team that seriously taxes an opponent's defensive resources. The Heat will need to be disciplined, quick and smart to beat Steve Nash and Phoenix, and must do so on the road, en route to Los Angeles.
If the Heat can put a sturdy beating on the Suns, it will prove their focus is unshakable. By not looking past the Suns, they can prove to America (and perhaps to themselves) that they never look past a game toward a seemingly bigger game. That is a crucial test for the team to pass.
Kobe Bryant will be waiting eagerly for the chance to torch this super-team, and the Heat will have to be ready to take Bryant's best and keep playing. The key to this game will be James and Wade working together to keep the offense active and quick, avoiding the sloth that sometimes comes with too much dependence on James.
The Lakers' team defense is too good for that: Only a good, active offense will allow the Heat to beat them, and that has been their greatest strength during the win streak. Of course, they can also gain confidence for a possible Finals showdown by beating Kobe on his home floor.
It all goes full circle for the Heat during their year-end gauntlet, and this game will tell us a lot about how much each team has grown during the 11-day interim between games. A superior team on its home floor should win this contest every time, so if the Heat cannot glean enough information about the Knicks to win easily in this game, it will sound some alarm bells. The key matchup in this one: Bosh against Stoudemire, the latter of whom has been sensational in a spotlight all his own this season.