Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Heat gaining rhythm entering homestand
By Michael Wallace
Is Thursday's game between the Heat and Clippers an NBA Finals preview?
MIAMI -- Moments after finishing off the Toronto Raptors for Miami's second straight win on the heels of consecutive losses, LeBron James huddled with the team's television crew to assess his best performance of the young season.
It might as well serve as a declaration to the league.
“I'm on my way. I'm getting there,” James said. “I ain't where I want to be, but I'm getting there slowly but surely, and I have to continue to work my habits, continue to get a great feel out there, and then …”
James paused and smiled.
Well, and then what?
“Watch out,” James said.
James was referring to the traction he's gradually gaining with his game and his team as the Heat try to round their way into form after a sluggish first week of the season. But more than anything, James is in steady pursuit of the level of impact he's accustomed to having on the game. In other words, it's November, but James is on a midseason mission.
After demanding his team play with more urgency and chemistry in the wake of road losses to Philadelphia and Brooklyn, the Heat have responded with two of their most cohesive offensive performances in decades as they start to work through the kinks and challenges of a new season.
In the process, Miami has tallied 63 assists the last two games, with 32 coming in Sunday's victory against the Wizards and 31 in Tuesday's win over the Raptors. It's the first time in 18 years the Heat have had at least 30 assists in consecutive games. It doesn't appear to be a passing fad.
If James and the Heat did experience symptoms of a championship hangover entering the season, they've reached an ideal point early in the schedule where they can shake off the cobwebs and build on their last two efforts.
Miami plays seven of its next nine games at home, starting with Thursday's marquee showdown with the Los Angeles Clippers in what could be a NBA Finals matchup.
James admitted that chemistry and conditioning issues have contributed to some uneven stretches that have left the team searching for consistency dating to early in training camp.
Establishing cohesion has been a challenge, with teammate Dwyane Wade sitting out last Wednesday's game in Philadelphia with knee soreness and center Chris Bosh missing the Toronto game after the birth of his daughter.
At the same time, James is using the initial weeks of the season to regain his rhythm and conditioning -- a process he routinely has handled late in the summer.
James and the Heat appear to be turning a corner on many of those fronts and have primarily addressed some communication issues that cropped up as concerns amid last week's losses.
“We have to continue to communicate, obviously,” James said. “We had great communication. We're connected. Once we get on the floor, we made it happen. We'll continue to work our habits. We understand what it takes for us to win. It's something we know, and we have to go out and do it.”
In typical fashion, James has led by example with his play. After struggling with his offense in the Heat's season-opening win against Chicago, James scored 25, 26 and 25 points over his next three games. But that stretch also saw James commit a combined 15 turnovers as he tried to force plays and sort through coach Erik Spoelstra's fluid rotation.
There was a more assertive and attacking James in play Tuesday. In becoming just the fifth player in NBA history to reach double figures in 500 consecutive regular-season games, James shot 13-of-20 from the field and made all eight of his free-throws. He also had eight assists, eight rebounds, a block and just one turnover in 36 minutes.
It was late-season LeBron.
“I don't want to ever take it for granted, his greatness,” Spoelstra said. “I don't want to get to a point where that's normal, because he's not a normal player.”
If Tuesday served as a reminder of that notion, then Thursday stands to offer perhaps the best chance to make another strong statement to open a four-game homestand.
James hasn't been alone in trying to re-establish a comfort zone with his game. Wade is also coming off his most complete game of the season in Toronto and seems to be getting back on the same page with James, with the two delivering one of their familiar highlight-reel lob-and-dunk plays in transition. The ball movement has been as contagious within the team as last season's Harlem shake, with everyone getting in on the action in recent days.
Starting point guard Mario Chalmers has had 15 assists the last two games, Rashard Lewis added five off the bench Tuesday, and Ray Allen dished six on Sunday. All but 15 of Miami's 78 made shots the last two games have been the result of teammates setting up others for open shots.
“We know what works for us; it's just sometimes we don't always do it,” Wade said of the Heat kicking some of their more stubborn habits. “We just have to continue moving the ball and understanding that we are at our best when everyone is involved. It keeps everyone alert. That's the recipe for success for us, keeping everyone involved.”
Despite the positive signs of late, Heat players still caution they are far from a finished product. There will be hiccups and flat-out adversity along the way. They believe that's all part of the sharpening process that shapes them into peak form.
“We've all been together for a while now,” James said. “So we know where we are right now, where we need to get to in order to be at our best and what it takes to get there.”