Miami Heat: LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Company Facing Tough Three Game Test

Allen LevinCorrespondent IIDecember 23, 2010

The Miami Heat have finally appeared to have found their identify and have gained some momentum after winning 12 out of their last 13 games. A 12-game winning streak, which propelled them from third place to first in the Southeast standings and put them within 3.5 games of the best record in the Eastern Conference, was put to an end by the red-hot Dallas Mavericks.

However, the Heat have finally started to find their groove and were decimating teams before their loss to the Mavs Monday night. Miami has been criticized for their weak record against elite teams as they are a combined 0-4 against the Boston Celtics and Dallas Mavericks. While they have had some solid wins in the Jazz, Hornets and Hawks, they still have failed to beat a true title-contending team.

Over the next three games, the Heat's new-found swagger will really be put to the test as they have a two-game West Coast swing against the Phoenix Suns and Los Angeles Lakers before they head back home to play the New York Knicks. While the Suns and Knicks aren't elite, they are still playoff-contending teams that will give the Heat a run for their money.

But, Miami's true test comes against the two-time defending champion Lakers in a highly anticipated Christmas Day matchup. LA has won eight out of their last 10 games and will be looking to prove why they should still be considered the team to beat in the NBA. This Christmas Day showdown will be a matchup of the league's biggest stars in LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant, who are arguably the three best players in the NBA. But, before the Heat meet the Lakers, they will have a tough task against the new-look Suns tonight at 10:30.

Phoenix retooled their roster, sending small forwards Hedo Turkoglu and Jason Richardson to the Orlando Magic for Marcin Gortat, Vince Carter and Mickael Pietrus as part of a six-player deal. With the Suns having the stigma of being an offense-first team, this deal really shakes up their roster and style of play.

Gortat and Pietrus are both defensive-minded players and will certainly boost the team's defense on both the perimeter and in the paint. In Carter, they get a still highly capable scorer that can go off for 30 points on any given night. While Carter is facing knee problems right now, it doesn't appear to be an injury that will be season ending.

The Heat will be facing a motivated Suns team behind an always dangerous Steve Nash. Miami will need to forget about their loss to Dallas and come out fast and strong in order to beat Phoenix. This is a crucial game for Miami as they will need confidence heading into Los Angeles Saturday. The zone defense that the Mavericks employed against the Heat really threw the team off guard and limited Wade and James to taking jump shots. For the Heat to pick up the W, they will need their two superstars to constantly attack the basket and draw fouls. If they can do that, they should be headed to Los Angeles with their swagger intact.

However, a win in Phoenix will be essentially meaningless if they fail to win against the Lakers. A lot of people around the league are looking at this contest as a statement game. This game is a potential NBA Finals matchup. So a win by Miami could prove just how dangerous this team is going to be this season, while a loss shows that the Lakers are still top dog in the league.

Miami will be in a hostile environment at the Staples Center, where the Lakers are 10-3 this season. This game will most likely come down to defense. The Heat boast one of the best defenses in the NBA. They are second in points allowed at a stingy 91.5 points per game; they lead the league in both field goal percentage and three-point percentage allowed as well. They can be a very tough team to score on and their success largely hinges on their defensive effort because that usually translates to fast-break and transition baskets.

The Lakers are a solid defensive team as well, but they have been relying more on their offense this year. They rank sixth in the league in points scored at 105.5 points per game. They are also a stellar rebounding team as they trail only Kevin Love and the Timberwolves for best rebounding squad in the league.

The Heat will need to play through the barrage of boos that will almost certainly be headed their way by the Lakers faithful. Additionally, they will have to limit the Lakers role players. LA is 14-1 this season when Kobe attempts less than 20 field goals, which shows just how lethal his teammates can be. Miami might have trouble against Pau Gasol, who is having a great season so far with 19.6 points and 11 boards per game. Miami's big men will have to put up a superb effort especially when it comes to limiting the Lakers' offensive rebounds.

This game will likely be a back-and-forth matchup, with each team trading punches throughout the contest. It will most likely come down to the fourth quarter and test the poise and mental toughness of each team. If LeBron and D Wade can close out games like they have been recently (other than the Dallas game), then the Heat have a chance to show just how legitimate of a force they are going to be come playoff time and against top-tier squads.

Following the Lakers game, the Heat will return home to face the much-improved New York Knicks. Led by a dominant Amar'e Stoudemire, the Knicks have seen a total turnaround from last year and currently sit wit the East's fifth seed. While the Heat destroyed New York in the Big Apple a week ago, it was still a tie game going into halftime.

The Heat should beat the Knicks, but this can be a trap game, especially if Miami beats the Lakers and are feeling cocky. Regardless, this would still be a big win for Miami, being that the Knicks are a playoff team and have shown that they have the talent to beat top teams, such as last night's double-digit victory over the Thunder.

With the Heat set to face a string of subpar teams over the next few weeks after these three games, this will be a huge way to gauge Miami's status among the elite teams. After the game against the Knicks, the Heat face five teams in a row with a sub .500 record, which means they can bulk up their record. But in order for that record to look legit, they will need to ultimately win the showdown with the Lakers.

With plenty of people still not convinced that Miami has totally put it together, this three-game swing will show Miami's colors and really prove just how far they have come since their players-only meeting following a loss to the Mavericks almost a month ago. Let's see if the NBA is about to feel the HEAT.