Fun’s over, kids. It’s time to get back to work.
That means it’s time to return back to the real show; not All-Star weekend, but the LeBron James experience.
Leading a seven-game winning streak into the All-Star break, capped off by a blowout victory at Oklahoma City, LeBron has become the talk of the NBA world after going an NBA-record six consecutive games of scoring at least 30 points on at least 60 percent shooting in each of those contests. He spent most of the weekend staving off loaded questions that involved him being compared to Michael Jordan.
Throughout his career, LeBron has spent the majority of his career being compared and having his strengths and weaknesses observed under the most careful eyes of the NBA community. He ended the Carmelo Anthony comparisons once he separated himself via deep postseason runs and has recently put an end to the Kobe Bryant comparisons with this recent stretch of dominance, which includes a 32-point outing against Kobe’s Lakers in a Heat win.
Not all of the blocks in all of the exhibition games can convince me, or any logical NBA analyst, otherwise that LeBron has clearly stepped ahead of Kobe in terms of being the league’s best.
LeBron and the Heat don’t have time to think of who they’re taking with their lottery pick next year because they won’t have one. Instead, the Heat have championship aspirations and a stronger resume for LeBron to cement his legacy among basketball lore’s greatest players. A second championship will put LeBron in even greater company, while also staving off any notion that he can only win in seasons where there are 16 less regular season games.
Miami enters the second half of the season with a 36-14 mark and a strong four-game lead over the second-place New York Knicks for first place in the Eastern Conference. It will be the first time in the Big Three era where the Heat secure a number one seed in the East. They had previously recorded back-to-back second seeds the previous two seasons, making the NBA Finals on both occasions.
It’s claimed that every team’s schedule levels out. Alas, it seems as if the Heat were gifted one of the more unique schedules. They played only 50 games prior to the All-Star break while a team like the Los Angeles Clippers ended up playing 56 games. The New York Knicks and Minnesota Timberwolves are the only other NBA teams to play as little as 50 games.
What this means is a tougher road down the stretch for the Heat. That tough road starts out Wednesday and Thursday where they encounter a back-to-back featuring road games against the Atlanta Hawks and Chicago Bulls–both postseason caliber teams. The Heat have defeated the Hawks twice this season, but the Bulls are 1-0 in the season series after pulling out a rare victory on the Heat’s home floor.
Miami has lost three games at home this season, two of those games came against potential foes they’ll see in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
The Bulls certainly aren’t as daunting with Derrick Rose’s return seeming more and more unlikely to occur this year. However, it doesn’t take away from the fact that this is a Bulls team with arguably the best defense in the league and a hard-working attitude that is rivaled by no other team. This Chicago team prides itself on constant effort for 48 minutes.
While that’s going to end up causing the team to fizzle out as they did in 2011, it’s enabled the Bulls to a 30-22 record with a gutted bench and an absent MVP. The Heat have three contests with the Bulls, including the matchup this Thursday, and will have a number of opportunities where they can attempt to match the effort exhibited by Chicago and possibly give a more well-rounded performance on the boards.
In the first meeting, Chicago didn’t exactly out-perform Miami for a victory, but out-worked them instead. In the 96-89 loss, the Bulls held a 48-28 advantage on the glass overall and a staggering 19-4 advantage on the offensive glass. As a result, the Bulls were gifted with 15 more possessions than the Heat and were able to stave off any sort of run thanks to their stingy defense and work on the glass.
Offensive rebounds comes down to fundamentals and effort. If you find a man to box out, it’s more than likely that your team will secure a rebound. If not, then you end up getting outrebounded by 15 on the offensive glass. There will be an obvious need for everyone to step up, not just Chris Bosh and Udonis Haslem, on the glass if the Heat plan on beating the Bulls.
Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer combined for 24 boards that game. The entire Heat starting lineup had 18. That’s not good in case you didn’t know.
The month of March features the Heat playing in four back-to-backs and a grand total of 18 games in 31 days. They will play at least four games in each full week of March. Fortunately, the competition is thin for the most part with the lone exceptions being a trip to New York March 3rd, a home meeting with the Indiana Pacers on the 10th, a road game against Boston on the second night of a back-to-back, and a meeting with Chicago at the United Center on the 27th.
Oh, let’s not forget to include that road game against the San Antonio Spurs four days later!
Not even two games against struggling Orlando and the Philadelphia 76ers–a recent punching bag of the Heat’s–can cancel out the level of difficulty that arises from the number of back-to-backs they will face. However, none of those games are important than the Heat’s last meeting of the season with the Indiana Pacers.
The Pacers have turned into a cocky bunch knowing that they are 2-0 in the season series against the Heat. It wasn’t just the fact that they won, but how easy they made it look to befuddle the Heat on both ends of the floor. The first meeting, an 87-77 Indiana victory, had the Heat scoring their lowest amount of points on the season and eight points from five bench players.
Paul George scored 29 points on 27 shots in the win, but it was the Pacers 55-36 rebounding edge, including a 22-7 advantage on the offensive glass, that truly told the story. Size wasn’t too much of an issue in the last year’s postseason series between the two, but 36 combined rebounds from George, Roy Hibbert, and David West isn’t something you can just write off.
Especially when you let the same thing happen in the next meeting. Miami wasn’t beat up on the boards too heavily (only a 34-25 edge this time around), but they were beat up by David West who went off for 30 points on only15 shots to go along with seven rebounds and five assists. On the other end of the floor, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh combined for 30 points on 27 shots to go along with eight rebounds and five assists.
The Pacers shot 58 percent from the floor. It was the second time in two meetings where the Pacers were allowed to do whatever they wanted and a second time where the Heat proved inefficient on the offensive end, stifled by the Pacers size and their own lack of bench support.
Miami has one more opportunity to bring Indiana back down to Earth. However, give up a rare loss at home to a motivated Pacers team and that could spell trouble come postseason time. This is a potential Conference Finals matchup and the Pacers are still seething after giving up a 2-1 series lead in a series they felt they should have won.
Miami has no excuses. They’ve added Ray Allen and a healthy Chris Bosh since then. At all costs, the Heat must use Bosh to abuse the slower West and Hibbert, possibly getting them into foul trouble which would free up the lane for the drives of LeBron and Dwyane, who both need to exhibit the type of chemistry they put on full display when taking three straight against the Pacers in last year’s second-round.
The Knicks could prove to be a challenge as long as they keep making 19 three-pointers per game against the Heat. For some reason, I don’t think that’s going to happen in a seven-game series against a Heat defense that performed an excellent job at limiting the Knicks’ perimeter opportunities in their 4-1 first-round victory last year.
The Heat will be facing off with three potential Eastern Conference contenders (Bulls, Pacers and Knicks) they are currently a combined 0-5 against. This second half of the NBA regular season will put the Heat to the test if they’re capable of continuing the same success that enabled them to go a combined 12-4 against those three teams in the past two postseasons.
With the way LeBron James has been playing as of late and finally realizing that he is a once-in-a-lifetime player capable of anything, the Heat should find themselves in good position to wrestle through the grind-out Eastern Conference.