Miami Heat: Have They Fallen Behind the Boston Celtics and Orlando Magic?

Robert FeltonAnalyst IIJanuary 24, 2011

MIAMI, FL - JANUARY 22:  LeBron James #6 of the Miami Heat posts up Jose Calderon #8 of the Toronto Raptors during a game  at American Airlines Arena on January 22, 2011 in Miami, Florida. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

After playing a nearly flawless December, which saw the Miami Heat post a 17-1 record for the month, the team appears set for an arguably more pedestrian record in January as they will enter Thursday's matchup with the New York Knicks only 6-4, including a four game losing streak, for the month.

Part of the team's problems stem from injuries. LeBron James missed the losses at Denver and Chicago, Chris Bosh has not played since he turned his ankle in the fourth quarter in Chicago and Dwyane Wade, who has battled injuries all season, has missed time with migraines.

Another factor that has caused Miami's slump could be fatigue. They played four games in six days, including three on the road and perhaps they were a bit tired after all the travel and lack of practice time.

The easy thing to do, though, is to assume that since Miami is losing right now, it is a sign that the team is simply "not good enough." It makes for an interesting "why the Heat have no hope of making it out of the East" write-ups, but the bottom line is: The Heat's recent struggles may actually be just what they need right now.

If Wade and Bosh had not been injured, Mike Miller would never have had the opportunity to play as many minutes as he has in recent games, thereby gaining much needed chemistry with his teammates. If LeBron had not been injured, we would not have seen the Heat bench step up in albeit a loss to the Bulls, allowing them to gain confidence and feel more apart of the team despite little playing time.

But most importantly, the losing streak is a reminder to the Heat that they are still a work in progress and still have a way to go to be the great team they potentially can be.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that it is only January, and the team is currently playing without three of its five best players, critics have cited the team's recent struggles as evidence that they have fallen behind the Orlando Magic and Boston Celtics in the East, and are simply not good enough to beat either of those teams in a seven game series.

"They are losing because they lack a solid post-up player!" said one critic who was eerily silent when the Heat's "weak interior" effectively shut-down the post-up games of the Lakers, Magic and Knicks.

"They are losing because they have no bench!" argued another critic adding, "Miami is a three man team. The rest just garbage." Don't tell him that Mike Miller, who just scored 32 points and added 10 rebounds in a starter role against the Raptors and may be finally rounding into shape. He's one of those horrible bench players the critics are always harping about.

As a matter of fact, Miami scored 120 points in the game against the Raptors with no Bosh or Wade. LeBron himself scored 38. That means that the roles players outside of James accounted for 82 points. You can't say the Heat lack depth yet can still score 120 points without their second and third leading scorers.

Bottom line is: The Miami Heat are as good as they have been said to be and are still, at least, the second best team in the East when at full strength. And I still believe that they can play some highly difficult matchups when they're at full strength.

Like the one that would have Wade and Miller at the guard spots, Bosh and James at the forwards and Udonis Haslem at center. This will be a tough matchup for Boston or Orlando. That whole, "the Heat can't guard Rondo or Jameer Nelson" is nullified if the Heat plan to go at either of these guards with Miller.

At the beginning of the season, I contended that the biggest threat to Miami's title quest was not the Orlando Magic, but the Boston Celtics.

I still see no reason to change that opinion, despite the fact that the Magic have posted a 13-5 record since the trades for Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu and Gilbert Arenas. Their lack of solid wing defenders (who's going to guard Wade and LeBron?) a proven clutch performer (Is Hedo the go-to guy?) a center who can make free throws in the fourth (Howard is 58 percent on the season) and back-up size in case LeBron, Wade and Miller decide to drive to the basket to pick up fouls on the foul prone Howard, will not allow them to beat the Heat in a playoff series.

It may not be a popular opinion, but I just don't see Orlando beating a full-strength Miami. Regardless of what Dwight Howard does, he's not enough to overcome the glaring advantages the Heat have at the two, three and four position.

The Celtics are another story. They actually matchup better with a full-strength Heat team fairly well, assuming Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen are healthy in time for the playoffs. They have great wing defenders, a solid bench, excellent defense and experience galore. But they would be vulnerable to the Heat's athleticism, better rebounding and potential matchup problem if they played Wade at the one. Can Rondo contain Wade?

Miami Heat are hurting right now, but Heat fans should not spend too much time worrying about this team's play until we see where they stand when March arrives.

A full-strength Heat team is still a top four team in the league and with the recent struggles by other supposed "elite" teams (Spurs getting pasted by 24 against the Hornets, Lakers losing to the struggling Mavericks and Clippers, Celtics losing to the Wizards) I think the Heat have more than enough time to right the ship and establish itself as the best team in the East.