The Utah Jazz? Slim Pickings. The New York Knicks twice? Two easy wins. The Los Angeles Lakers? So much for that competition. The Houston Rockets and their eight-game home winning streak? Have fun starting that again.
The Miami Heat have been on a tear over the past 30 days and following a 15-1 December where they set an NBA record for consecutive road wins in a calendar month with 10, it might be about time to begin to consider the Heat as championship contenders once again. With a much improved record against teams over .500 and a brand new mindset going into the new year, the Heat have become arguably the most dangerous team in the NBA.
Coming into December, the Heat appeared to be in dire straits as hit 9-8 and had lost four of their past five games. Two of the losses came against elite teams in Orlando and Dallas, but the other two were inexcusable defeats to Memphis and a 16-point home loss to Indiana. Ever since the Heat's 118-90 win at Cleveland, the team has had a sudden burst of confidence and ambition that they didn't have prior to December 2nd.
Miami was out of sync to say the least prior to their date with Cleveland. They appeared to go into every game with the impression that their talent alone would be enough to put any team out of their misery. There was a fair share of impressive wins with a 26-point win over Orlando and a 27-point win against Phoenix, but there was no win that worthy of recognition.
They had already lost two games to Boston, one to Orlando, one to Utah and another to New Orleans which wasn't helping their case out in the media either as the blame game was already being implemented. Whether it was calling for the trade of Chris Bosh for a capable big man, the outcry for a quality point guard or the firing of coach Erik Spoelstra, the media and critics were already planning out just how bad of an idea this was.
Then the Heat won a few games, and now the championship talk has arisen again. They've lost only one game since November 29th and have beaten two division leaders and a number of playoff caliber teams in the run. They also ran the table on a four-game road trip with wins over Milwaukee, Utah, Golden State and Sacramento. It's tough to believe that only a month ago this team was just struggling to keep its head above water.
In reality though, the 9-8 start was all the team could ask for. It allowed the Heat to work through adversity early in the season rather than late, while also allowing the team to build up a capable enough chemistry to compete against teams that have been together for years already. The largest problem of attempting to find a way for Dwyane Wade and LeBron James to thrive in the offense at the same time has already been worked on and is already looking like the dynamic duo that we envisioned.
The progression of the big three has obviously been the reason for the Heat's recent success as we see Wade and James make it an issue to attack while also developing a more consistent mid-range shot and Bosh crashing the boards and attacking as well rather than settling for a contested jumper. The cohesion of the big three was one of the biggest tests for Miami as each player was a former No. 1 option sacrificing stats in order to win a championship.
Not only that, but the role players of the team have begun to step it up as well with Mario Chalmers leading the way. Since an injury kept him out early in the season, the Heat organization have begun to implement Chalmers into the rotation. If you look at his stats of five points per game on 38 percent shooting, you'd assume he was playing even worse than before, but he is actually making a strong case for a starting spot as he continues to develop his three-point shot, 38 percent right now and attempts to limit his mistakes.
Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Joel Anthony and Erick Dampier in the middle have all done their part with defense and a little offense mixed in. Ilgauskas's jump shot, Anthony's shot-blocking and Dampier's presence and rebounding are all aspects that have helped out the Heat since being abused early in the season in the paint by the likes of Emeka Okafor and Brook Lopez.
All of this, and Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem have barely played over the past month. While Miller is in the midst of finding a place in the rotation, the Heat call on the 37-year-old Juwan Howard off the bench as their back-up power forward rather than their warrior in Haslem. Since being reduced to the role of sixth man, Haslem has adjusted to the role better than any other starter being sent to the bench.
With the sudden change in direction from just about every player on this Heat team to turn them from mediocre to upper tier overnight, it raises the question if Miami should be considered an elite team. Against the top three teams in the league, San Antonio, Dallas and Boston, the Heat are 0-4 with two losses apiece to the Mavericks and Celtics. Three of those losses came earlier in the season when the team was beginning was to find its identity. The other loss was a 98-96 defeat at home to Dallas.
Miami has begun to prove that they are capable of beating the better teams in the league and have done so with big wins against the likes of the Los Angeles Lakers, Utah Jazz and New York Knicks twice. Even without wins against Boston or Dallas, the Heat and their recent stretch of winning 15 of the past 16 games is a reason enough to consider them the fourth elite team of the league. They have handled themselves through adversity and have won just about every game.
One of their most important wins over the past month was a 95-94 victory in Washington the night after their huge win at Madison Square Garden. Despite being down the entire game and facing what seemed to be an insurmountable deficit with less than a minute left, Miami still managed to find a way to win through free throws and a few lucky breaks.
Elite teams of the league always find ways to win against the less fortunate of teams and in a game that had loss and trap game written all over it, Miami managed to pull out a victory to continue the win streak. It was a feat that not many other NBA teams could pull off, and it was a defining and unheralded win over the Heat's recent success. It proved that the Heat could also win close games and not just blow outs either.
Whether it's in a fast-paced, slow-paced, defensive-minded or offensive-minded game, the Heat have been finding ways to win. Whether they're dropping 125 on Houston or 89 on Atlanta, the big three and company are becoming the elite team we envisioned with just about every way you could win a basketball game. Winning 15 of 16 might not convince those who doubt the Heat still, but the way they have won games is proof enough to consider this team part of the rare NBA elite.
And there's only room to go up.