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Tuesday, December 21, 2010
Heat not yet inducted into NBA's elite

By Michael Wallace

LeBron James
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images Sport
LeBron James: 6-for -17 Monday night in the Heat's loss to Dallas.

MIAMI -- Here's all you need to know about the Miami Heat after 30 games this season: They are better than 24 of the league's other 29 teams. But right now, there's a fine line of demarcation that separates how good the Heat are and how much better they need to become to be taken seriously as a championship-level squad.

And that line stops at Dallas, San Antonio, the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston and, perhaps, Orlando. For the fifth time in six tries this season, the Heat found themselves turned away at the velvet rope that leads to the club entrance reserved for the NBA's elite.

LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh aren't accustomed to this type of red-carpet rejection. At least not this close to the South Beach scene. But with Monday's 98-96 home loss to the Mavericks, the Heat dropped to 1-5 this season against the teams that would most likely stand between Miami and its mission to cash in on all the hype for the NBA's ultimate hardware -- the Larry O'Brien Trophy.

But right now, the Heat can't even drop Larry's name at the doors of the elite club and get the hookup.

For as much as the Heat (21-9) accomplished during their 12-game winning streak that saw coach Erik Spoelstra and his high-profile players mend some fences, Miami is still neither as tenacious nor as tough in crunch time as the Celtics.

Despite all the dunks, circus shots and improved tempo Wade, James and Bosh have demonstrated over the past three weeks before Monday's setback, they still lack the chemistry and balance Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan have enjoyed for years with the Spurs.

The Heat are neither as deep nor as healthy as Dallas, which swept the regular-season series for the seventh consecutive season and now has won 14 in a row over Miami, yet still can't explain that meltdown against the Heat in the 2006 Finals. And it's not even fair to mention the Heat in the same breath with the Lakers and the championship-caliber chemistry Kobe Bryant and his crew have out in Los Angeles.

So where does this leave the Heat after Monday's loss to the Mavericks? Somewhere between the vulnerable team they were after that debacle in Dallas on Nov. 27 in the first meeting and the vaunted squad that ran off 12 straight wins by an average of nearly 20 points a game before coming full circle with another humbling setback at the hands of the Mavericks.

At least the Heat haven't lost their grip on the big-picture perspective. Monday's loss didn't require another players-only meeting like the one Wade called after that first loss to Dallas, which dumped the Heat to a mediocre 9-8 record. This time, Wade, Bosh and James were in a place far different than they were three weeks ago: on the same page.

The Heat know where they are. But more important, right now, they realize where they aren't.

“We are 30 games in, and these elite teams have been playing together for a long time,” Wade said. “That's why we play a regular season of 82 games, so we can get prepared for when it's money time, playoff time. I think it's safe to say that we are confident, even now, to compete with any team for seven games [in the playoffs], and it's going to be a tough series. We have 52 games to get this ship right. We are going to win some games against some good teams and we are going to lose some.”

The Heat's $400 million roster project wasn't assembled to tread water. Wade, Bosh and James are here to win championships. That's what they promised. And that's their ultimate goal this season. So it's tough to grade the Heat on a long learning curve. You have to hold them to the fast track.

And what we learned about the Heat during that winning streak, which was tied for the second longest in franchise history, was that they are better than the Wizards, Bucks, Warriors, Kings, Jazz, Hawks, Cavaliers and Knicks of the league. But we knew that already.

Any NBA team worth anything this season has had a winning streak at some point or another. Boston. Dallas. Chicago. San Antonio. Miami. But at some point this season, the Heat must separate themselves from the very good and promising (Jazz, Thunder and Bulls) and join the league's elite.

You get away with very few breaks against those top-tier teams. The Heat were able to survive that sluggish start against the Knicks and get out of New York with a win Friday. On Monday, Miami fell behind by 13 against the Mavericks in the first quarter and seemed a step slow the rest of the night.

Bosh got his desperation 3-pointer to drop to help save the Heat against the Wizards the other night in Washington. But that same shot rimmed out when he needed it to fall late against the Mavericks.

The Heat will get another test against the elite, on Christmas Day in Los Angeles against the Lakers. Before Monday's game, Bosh suggested the Heat showed during the win streak they were done with “measuring stick” games. Wade disagreed moments later and said the Heat were in the midst of one of their biggest weeks of the regular season, considering what they faced Monday against the Mavericks and will see Saturday in Los Angeles.

In either case, they won't be held totally accountable until they prove themselves against the legit contenders in April, May and, perhaps, June. For now, the Heat know they don't quite measure up.

“At the end of the day … they have a lot more experience playing together,” Bosh said of the top teams. “They've been through a lot more. We're still going to see those teams down the road, and we're still going to get better. Eventually, when we match up with these teams down the road, I have confidence that we'll be the better team.”

The Heat can depend on that confidence to carry them through the season. And their talent will keep them in the championship discussion. They just can't count too many victories against elite teams among the 21 wins on their record.

The Heat have shown us they're good enough to belong in Club Upper-Echelon.

But for now, they must still prove they deserve access to the league's VIP lounge.