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Tuesday, February 4, 2014
LeBron embraces road challenge for Big 3

By Michael Wallace

LEBRON’S TAKE:
There is no bigger fan and defender of the Miami Heat’s roster depth than LeBron James.

But even James knows there’s a limit to how frequently he should have to praise the progress of Michael Beasley, applaud the readiness of Roger Mason Jr. and Rashard Lewis or rely on Ray Allen for heavy minutes to help the Heat get through some major challenges this season.

At some point, the Heat’s three marquee players are going to have to get on the same page -- and stay there. James is hoping his team can use the month of February -- yet again -- to take another bold step forward as they enter the stretch run looking to defend a second straight championship.

That means James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh must lead the way. But first, they’ll have to sustain the sort of chemistry and cohesion that has been fleeting through the first half of the season.

“As much as we love our depth -- when guys are out we got guys to step in -- our team is built for [key] guys to be in the lineup,” James said. “We’re built on chemistry and we’re built on a rhythm. And that’s what we’ve had these last few games. We’ve been in a great rhythm.”

The Heat open an extended Western road trip Wednesday in Los Angeles against the Clippers, looking to build on one of their best Big Three performances of the season. James, Wade and Bosh combined for 71 points, 25 rebounds and 17 assists in Monday’s 102-96 home win against the Detroit Pistons.

It was just the fifth time this season the Heat’s star trio collectively contributed at least 70 points. Those productive nights were seemingly routine during the first three seasons James, Wade and Bosh played together in Miami. But with Wade bouncing in and out of the lineup to manage his knee rehab this season with the bigger picture in mind, it’s been difficult for them to establish and maintain continuity.

Although Wade will continue to be judicious with his rest and rehab schedule, James is hoping to see more collective performances like the three stars had Monday. The Heat will certainly need to be at their best on this trip, with five of the six opponents boasting winning records. After playing the first four games against the Clippers, Jazz, Suns and Warriors, then James, Wade and Bosh will head to New Orleans for All-Star Weekend. After that, the trip resumes against the Mavericks and Thunder.

That means there’s plenty of time over the next three weeks to work themselves into a familiar rhythm.

“It’s going to be a challenging 22 days for myself, D-Wade and C.B.; it is what it is,” James said. “We have to try and figure it out on the road. We’ve got some really tough games. We look forward to it.”

Bosh said the Big Three has only shown flashes of the level of play they’ve grown accustomed to in past seasons. But in victories against the Knicks and Pistons, there has been somewhat of a return to form. Since they became teammates, Miami is 62-12 when James, Wade and Bosh reach at least 70 points.

“We have that good non-verbal communication going right now,” Bosh said. “It’s getting there. It’s still a work in progress. Now, it’s time to take the show on the road, and it will be a good test for us.

PROGRESS REPORT:
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra says he would like to dial back on some of the extended minutes Allen and Chris Andersen have played recently in an effort to avoid burning out the veteran reserves at this stage of the season.

The Heat have one of the oldest supporting casts in the league built around James, Wade and Bosh, with Allen (38), Andersen (35) and Shane Battier (35) all in their mid-to-late 30s. Even the Heat’s extended rotation includes Rashard Lewis (34), Mason Jr. (33) and Udonis Haslem (33).

Allen, who battled knee tendinitis earlier this season, played at least 25 minutes in 11 games during January as he often logged extra time as a fill-in starter for Wade. Andersen has missed games with a sore back and bruised knee in recent weeks, but has seen his playing time increase amid experimentations with bigger lineups. Andersen has played alongside Bosh for extended stretches.

“I would like to start to work Ray back down to a more comfortable level -- really just not overextend guys now,” Spoelstra said. “[Andersen] can play now close to 30 minutes at a high-intensity level. I don’t want to go to that tank every single game.”

If Wade can maintain his normal minutes, Allen will easily slot back into his usual 20 or so minutes off the bench as the primary sixth man. The recent play of Greg Oden, who has now contributed brief but impactful stints in four of the past six games, should allow Spoelstra to keep Andersen’s minutes manageable.

“Physically, it’s been different because we’ve been dealing with some minor injuries,” Spoelstra said. “It’s been a little more consistent this year. We’ve had some moving parts; everyone’s going through that. Those are different excuses if we want to lean on those. What we need are more excuse in how we can win and how we can play to our identity.”

INJURY REPORT:
The Heat didn’t report any injuries in the aftermath of Monday’s win against Detroit, with the entire roster expected to be available for Wednesday’s game against the Clippers. Point guard Chris Paul (shoulder) is expected to miss the game, but reportedly is likely to return to the lineup later this week.

DID YOU KNOW?
After leaving Miami on Tuesday to head west, the Heat won’t play another home game until the Bulls visit AmericanAirlines Arena on Feb. 23. That span of 19 days between home games is the longest in Heat franchise history. The three total home games Miami has in February also are the fewest the team has ever played in a full calendar month.

QUOTE OF THE DAY:
“When I’m out there on the court, I don’t really think about anything. I just go out there and play. I think that is the best way to do it.”

-– Greg Oden, on focusing his thoughts on making gradual progress each time he’s on the court instead of pondering the potential for another disastrous knee injury.