Winners of 12 in a row after their more difficult than necessary 95-94 nail biter victory over the severely shorthanded Washington Wizards, the Miami Heat have played exceptionally well following their 9-8 start.
Their defense is second in the league in points allowed, and despite the much maligned assumption that they did not have a dominant big man to allow them to score easy baskets in the paint, the team has played much better on the offense end, currently 11th in the NBA in scoring without their 4th and 5th best players in Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem respectively.
However, what are some of the things that their recent play has told us about the type of team Miami Heat is becoming?
Here are a few items that I have observed from the team that has contributed to its recent stretch of solid play.
The popular belief prior to the start of the season was that Dwyane Wade and LeBron James would not play well together. This was based on the idea that since each needed the ball in his hands for his game to be effective, they would not complement each other well.
Following the 9-8 start, the theory began to gain serious traction as too often Wade and LeBron seemed loss in their offensive sets and Wade was driving into the teeth of tough defenses rather than playing off LeBron and moving the ball around. The offense looked stagnant and unimaginative and neither player appeared to use his athleticism to create offense.
There was also too much one-on-one from Wade and LeBron in the beginning, which just plays into the hands of teams like the Celtics and Lakers, who would much rather them try to win the game themselves with perimeter shots and isolation plays, rather than trying to move the ball around and make quick cuts to the basket to score.
However, during the 12-game win streak, LeBron and Wade have played extremely well off of one another as the movement off the ball has allowed Wade to score around 40 percent of his field goals off assists from James or other teammates. This was not occurring during the rough stretch.
The duo have also orchestrated some amazingly synchronized fast breaks which have put tremendous pressure on the transition defense of their opponents.
James and Wade in transition has quickly become the most devastating offensive weapon in all of the NBA. The Heat have two of the best finishers in the game and trying to stop them on the fast-break in nearly impossible for most teams.
Since LeBron made his "decision," there has been no shortage of critics who have chimed in on his indiscretions, hurling vitriolic attacks his way simply for the purposes of their own edification.
He has been called a liar, a deserter, an egomaniac and—perhaps the most questionable charge of all—a choker.
Seriously, LeBron James was referred to as a guy who "chokes in big games." Before I address the complete lack of historical insight of that allegation, let's look at a few examples of LeBron's choking during the 12-game win streak.
His critics predicted that his homecoming in Cleveland would be ugly and that he wouldn't be able to handle the pressure of returning.
LeBron choked all right...with 38 points, eight assists, and five rebounds. Then before the game in New York, the cover of the New York Post suggested he was "LeChicken" and was a "LeChoker." James responded with a triple-double (32 points, 10 assists and 11 rebounds). In both cases, James was booed the entire game and rose to the pressure on a huge stage.
Now, these two performances will not quiet the incorrect belief that LeBron doesn't come through in the clutch, but they show that LeBron's mental toughness is more attuned than what people give him credit for.
When you look at James' past performances in "big games," though, any objective observer would conclude that he almost always came through, even if he was eventually let down by his supporting cast.
Game 7 in 2008 against the Celtics—that would have been a good time to choke. The Cavs faced insurmountable odds against the league's best team on the road. So what did LeBron do? He scored 45 points and nearly willed his Cavs over a deeper Celtics team, eventually losing by five.
Or how about the Orlando series? Surely LeBron choked in that one; his team was the top seed in the East and lost to the Magic, probably because of James' poor performance. Oh, he averaged 38, eight and eight for the series? What did he do in the close out game? Just 25, seven and seven.
Look, a person has a right to dislike James, but you can't say he chokes in big games. It's simply not an allegation that can be substantiated. Even if you take his supposedly "disinterested" series against the Celtics this year into account—if 26.8 points, 7.2 assists and 9.3 rebounds per game were not enough—then how much should he have done to prove that he is a winner? Maybe 34, 12 and 14? And if he had the supporting cast to win a title, why would his number have to continue to rise for him to win?
When Jordan won with the Bulls he had help from Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, so his numbers went down.
You can't argue that James had the supporting cast to win and that he needed numbers that would dwarf those of Bird, Jordan or Magic just for his team to have a chance.
You can't have it both ways.
Additionally, I can give you tons of examples of games in which Kobe didn't "give his all" (Game 6 verses the Celtics in 2008, Game 7 against the Suns in 2006, Game 3 against the Pistons in 2004, Game 4 against the Spurs in 1999, etc.), but he would never be called a "choker."
By winning these games in the hostile environment, James is showing how tough he really is.
Before the season started, detractors of the Heat openly questioned the team's decision to start 6-9 Joel Anthony at center because it would make the team too small up front and vulnerable to tough interior offenses.
I thought the level of defensive intensity that Joel Anthony could bring to the Heat would compensate for his lack of size and he could become a Ben Wallace-type, who could bring toughness to the starting center position.
However, as the season began to play out, those early warnings, began to appear prophetic as Anthony struggled mightily against big front-lines of Boston and the bullying of David West and Emeka Okafor with the New Orleans Hornets. Anthony was working hard, but just getting pushed around in the paint and since he was not a serious offensive threat, defenses were leaving him to gang-up on Wade and LeBron.
Perhaps the low-light of his early stint at center was the game against the Phoenix Suns, where Anthony missed three wide open layup attempts in the paint. We know he's not a scorer, but that was painful.
Since then, coach Erik Spoelstra has inserted Zydrunas Ilgauskas into the starting center position and the team has prospered as a result. Granted, big Z is no all-star caliber big at this point in his career and he is slow afoot, but his 7-3 size and fairly reliable jump-shot have forced defenses to play Wade and LeBron with more single-coverage and he has chipped in shot blocking and rebounding as well.
Anthony though has brought intangibles that have contributed to the team's 12-0 record thus far in December. His hustle and defense have been stellar (his unheralded D on Amar'e Stoudemire was exceptional) and his shot blocking (he's blocked 12 shots in just the last three games) has improved since he's been coming off the bench.
Many of their wins have followed a familar pattern: The Heat get off to a slow start, the opposing team gains confidence and begins to feel as though they can score the upset over Miami. The halftime score will be either tied or a three point margin at the most. Then in the second half, the Heat, as if saying, "alright, let's turn on the defensive intensity and win this thing," shut down the opposing teams and win going away in the second half.
The Heat's ability to "turn it up" when a team has managed to keep the game close in the first half shows an incredible confidence and assurance from a team still figuring each other out. It also suggests a great ability by Spoelstra to implement effective adjustments in his defense to allow the Heat to perform so well in second halves.
According to ESPN.com, over the course of their win streak, the Heat have been outscoring their opponents by an average of 0.8 ppg in first halves (50.2 to 49.4). But in second halves, the margin grows to 15.8 (53.8 to 38.0) as their defense has dug in.
But while it's great to see the team come out fighting in the second half of games, slow starts will certainly be their undoing if they try it in upcoming games against the Dallas Mavericks or Los Angeles Lakers.
In fact, their slow starts nearly came back to bite them in the game against the Washington Wizards, when the Wiz, fresh off the Gilbert Arenas to Orlando deal, had the Heat on the ropes and were a few made free-throws away from snapping their win streak. Washington was up 8 with 2:30 minutes remaining in the game, Chris Bosh's big three-pointer and Wade's clutch free throws allowed the Heat to steal the win from the Wiz, but it was not one of their most cohesive efforts.
But while it would be great to see the Heat come out of the gate and jump on teams early, perhaps the sight of them responding to adversity will benefit them more in the long-run.
Over the course of the 12-game winning streak, the Heat have gotten steady, yet little praised performances from its supporting cast, particularly perimeter players James Jones and Carlos Arroyo.
Arroyo, easily the most criticized point guard in the NBA, has done an admirable job defensively against some of the league's premier point guards like Brandon Jennings (who he outscored 18-13 during the streak) and Chris Paul (who he held to a mere 11 points and 5 assists).
But he has really shown his value as an offensive threat from the perimeter when defenses have sagged off of him to help out on one of the big three.
Arroyo is averaging 7 points, 2 assists and 2 rebounds so far this season, but more importantly, he is shooting 52 percent from 3-point range. Prior to the streak, he was viewed as a questionable shooter so defenses had been leaving him wide open.
It also didn't help the fact that, the Heat's sloppy offensive flow in the early going forced Arroyo to shoot awkward, out-of-rythmn jumpers from the corners But since those kinks have been ironed out, Arroyo has made himself available to receive kick-outs from Wade and LeBron and backing up and knocking them in.
If he continues to shoot that well, he will make the Heat very hard to defend.
James Jones also has allowed the team to spread the floor with his perimeter offense. He is shooting 45 percent per game and averaging 7.2 points per game. Although Jones is nowhere near the all-around player Mike Miller is, his consistent offense has been a welcomed sight.
It has been largely reported that the biggest weakness for the Miami Heat is their interior defense and rebounding. And after their best interior defender and rebounder in Udonis Haslem went down with a foot injury, it was thought that the team would be so porous upfront that it would be a virtual red carpet down the lane for premier centers and forwards.
However, during this 12-game win streak, the Heat have proven more than capable of defending the paint, despite their supposed "lack of size."
Here are a few stats that may surprise you: The Miami Heat are currently 7th in the league in rebounding, which is remarkable since they are playing without two of the team's best rebounders in Haslem and Miller.
The team also ranks 9th in the league in shot-blocking and amazingly enough block more shots per game than presumed "bigger teams" like the Lakers (11th) Spurs (10th) and Celtics (24th).
Additionally, according to Synergy video data, opponents are shooting only 37.2 percent in the paint against the Heat. The league-average conversion rate in the paint is 45.8 percent. This means that the team with Chris Bosh and Zydrunas Ilgauskas is currently leading the league in basket protection.
Part of the reason for the Heat's success defending the paint comes from their effective rotation defense which simply builds a wall between the offensive player and the paint and whether it's Wade helping out or LeBron James, The Heat rarely give up open looks at the basket to big men.
Miami has protected the rim as a unit to great effect. So while the Heat don't have the luxury of calling upon a defensive minded center like Dwight Howard to police the lane, the team has all chipped in to protect the paint.
Don't believe me? Look at some of the games that premier bigs have had against the Heat's interior defense:
-New York Knicks forward Amar'e Stoudemire, riding a streak of 9 straight 30 point games, was held to 24 on 11-28 shooting by the Heat's interior defense.
-Milwaukee Bucks center, Andrew Bogut, was held to 11 points on 4-12 shooting.
-And Dwight Howard was held to a quiet 8-15, 19 point performance (none of which were scored in the second half) before fouling out in a game against the Heat.
Granted, the last example was prior to the streak, but it does illustrate the Heat's ability to defend the paint better than most believed possible.
Generally, when a team is riding a 12-game win streak, there is talk about the chemistry they have displayed, why the team could be a legit title contender, and what advantages they have against their opponents.
But, in the wake of the Heat's 12-game "warming trend" the critics have been largely dismissive attributing the Heat's winning streak to an "easy schedule," and claiming that they will be "exposed" once they face "elite teams."
Now, I'm not saying that the Miami Heat have beaten any of the top teams in either conference during the winning streak, but I will say that an "easy schedule" does not necessarily guarantee a bakers dozen.
Over the last 10 games, the Lakers have had the easiest schedule in the NBA.
Their average opponent has won only 36 percent of its games, while the Heat's average adversary over their win streak has won 45 percent of its games.
The Heat are not beating the best in the NBA (the two or three teams that can be considered elite) but you can't tell me that dominating the same Knicks team that gave the Celtics a scare two days earlier, and beating the same Jazz team that the Lakers fell to are not signs of vast improvement.
Are they the team to beat in the East? No, Boston is still justifiably hailed as the beast of the East. But the Heat have certainly closed the gap during the win streak.
Nevertheless, over the course of the next week and a half, starting tonight against the Mavericks, the Heat can finally begin to dispel the belief that they are just a "decent team that has capatalized on a light schedule, but are not really threats to the Celtics or Lakers."
If they extend their win streak to 13 (if they beat the Mavs) 14 (If they beat the Suns) and 15 (if they beat the Lakers) 16 (if they beat the Knicks again) and 17 (If they beat the Rockets) they would have had an undefeated 17-0 run through December and beaten some solid teams along the way.
They can no longer be considered "no major threat to win a title."
Even if they lose one game, and emerge from December with a 16-1 record, they cannot be called a good team who cannot win, by even their most ardent critics.
Over the next week, we will see what the Heat are truly made of.