Posted Feb 22 2011 10:14AM
This isn't the same team that began the season, which is the good news for the Heat. Here's the great news: This won't be the same team that finishes the season, either.
A long and strange trip that's been turbo-fueled by hype, both realistic and ridiculous, reached the All-Star break in the manner in which it began: with a sunny forecast, seeing as it's Miami. But there's a twist. LeBron James is playing differently than he did on Day One. Same for Dwyane Wade. And Chris Bosh, especially.
By next month, when Udonis Haslem returns and Mike Miller works up a sweat, the Heat should be a healthy and complete team for the first time all year, and perhaps a better one as well.
"Can't wait," said Wade.
Whether that's good enough to beat Boston in a projected Eastern showdown -- the Heat are 0-for-3 against the defending conference champs -- is another story. For now, it's all about continuing to receive MVP-like performances from James and Wade, hoping Bosh keeps playing like he's still in Toronto, and getting the best of what the supporting cast can offer. Winning 73 games was long ago dismissed as a pipe dream, and Jeff Van Gundy has since apologized for that. But Miami is positioned to make a run at a title anyway.
"We want to reach another level or another two levels, which we're capable of," said coach Erik Spoelstra. "And I think that makes us more unique than most contenders because we don't necessarily know what our ceiling is."
Yes, strange as it sounds, the Heat remain a work in progress, 56 games into the season. The great unknown about this team is what comforts Miami and also what concerns everyone else. In a best-case scenario, the Big Three won't be required to do all the heavy lifting every single night, even if, when pressed, they probably can.
"The only thing that can stop us is us," said Bosh. "We have to stay healthy, of course, and focus every game and hold each other accountable."
The big adjustment after the 9-8 start, the curious Shoulder Bump and the 5-alarm media-generated panic was made by the two players who created this hysteria in the first place. Wade and James simply stopped deferring so much to each other and started playing like stars. There was a sudden shift in team dynamic when that happened, and the Heat took off, winning 21 of 22 at one stretch.
"We tried something else early in the season, and it just wasn't working," said James. "Me and D-Wade were trying to shoot less and make sacrifices and it was hurting our team. Until we turned the switch and said, 'OK, we'll be ourselves and let everyone else catch up to us.' When we started to win games, we knew everything would be all right.
"To be honest, the chemistry is improving every day. We still haven't been together as a whole but the meat of our team is there."
The struggle in November was humbling to a degree, and forced Wade, Bosh and James to connect more closely with Spoelstra, who believed defense would save the season. (That, along with more consistency from his three meal tickets.) James is averaging 26 points, 7 rebounds and 7 assists. Wade is at 25 points, 7 rebounds and 4 assists. Bosh is at 18 points and 8 rebounds. The biggest adjustments came from Wade, just from a health standpoint, and Bosh from a mental funk caused by a poor start and hearing plenty of skepticism about his toughness.
"It took time," Wade said. "We knew it was going to take time but given your competitive instincts, we wanted it to happen immediately. We wanted to be perfect the first day we stepped on the court. But great things don't happen that fast. It takes time. Right now we're still in a building mode. We're 75 percent of where we want to be, the other 25 percent is going to take a lot of hard work and time to get there. I like our chances."
Haslem is targeting a mid-March return from an injured foot while Miller is trying to improve his rhythm and increase his scoring from six points a game, half his career average. Both players will factor heavily in whatever Miami musters against the Magic and Bulls and to a larger extent, the Celtics this spring.
"We understand we're behind some teams as far as chemistry, and we have lots of work to do in that area," said James. "There are teams out there that are just better than us right now."
Yes, that appears to be true. The Celtics are deeper and bigger, while the Lakers and Spurs, if Miami sees either in June, are more championship-tested. The immediate question is how much better can the Heat get between now and the postseason?
"We're not the same team everybody saw on opening night," Wade said. "We're a team now, not a bunch of individuals sharing the same floor."
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