Heat erasing all remaining doubts - NBC Sports

Heat erasing all remaining doubts
As rest of East fades, Miami playing at a higher level than ever before
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LeBron James is in the midst of a statistical season that compares favorably with the game's all-time greats.
March 1, 2013, 8:03 am

Even when the Heat were losing as much as winning on the road, when their record against the other top teams in the East was 0-5, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade found themselves amused by the skeptics.

One extended winning streak, Wade said, would quiet the critics.

One extended winning streak, James insisted, was on the way.

Then came a 12-1 February.

And now there are no doubts.

For all the hubris from deep in the heart of Texas, for all the absurdly consistent play from Gregg Popovich's team, seemingly regardless of who is in the lineup, the Spurs find themselves with a fight to the finish in the Western Conference, with the Thunder and Clippers right there with them at the top of the standings.

In the East, there now is nothing but distant noise in the Heat's rearview mirror, the Knicks having leveled off, the Pacers caught in the process of reinventing themselves with Danny Granger, the Bulls still waiting on Derrick Rose, the Nets again making P.J. Carlesimo appear very interim.

It has reached the point in Miami where the greatest concern seemingly is whether LeBron is creating too many highlights pregame instead of placing primary focus elsewhere, considering the recent surprisingly close margins against the Cavaliers and Kings.

Of that debate, the one of whether LeBron should back off his pregame dunk show, coach Erik Spoelstra simply scoffs, "theater of the absurd."

After February, we again know who the Heat are.

And who everyone else in the East isn't.

Oh the Knicks still are hanging on to their twin 20-point blowouts of the Heat in the first two games of the four-game season series, with the third installment a Sunday nationally televised game.

And the week after that, in another nationally televised Sunday game, are the Pacers, who also stand 2-0 against the Heat.

But where there might have been hope of a legitimate challenger emerging, someone able to possibly steal a series, there no longer can be optimism of taking four games over a seven-game span.

"I do think sometimes they get a little bored and need something to jumpstart them," Kings coach Keith Smart surmised this past week. "Now, instead of looking at the opponent, they are playing vs. themselves saying, 'How good can we be?' "

The ostensibly obvious answer for the increasingly dominant stance is the MVP play of James, who is having a statistical season for the ages, one up there with Chamberlain, Robertson and, yes, Jordan, whether your measuring stick is PER, PAR or a simple eye test.

Yet he was every bit as dominant in November, December and January, sweeping the Eastern Conference Player of the Month nods for those months, as well. And the Heat weren't nearly then what they are now.

Instead, two factors have the Heat not only again looking as championship favorites, but as something far better at the end of February than even at the season's midpoint:

-- Dwyane.

-- Defense.

For months, Wade insisted that February was the target date for a full recovery from his July arthroscopic knee surgery. All the while, Charles Barkley and various other pundits were pouncing on a player lacking lift.

Now? Now there is a 33-point show against the 76ers that overshadowed a mundane 16-11-10 triple-double by James, then 39 points to complement James' 40 against the Kings.

The EuroStep is back. As are the alley-oop finishes.

"I am as good as I am going to get," Wade said. "I felt like in January I was a little ahead of schedule because we talked about all summer that February would be the time when I would start feeling very well, but I felt very well in January and I think I showed it with my play and just being consistent. Now it is just about taking care of your bumps and bruises that you are going to have throughout this time of year and keep going."

Growing younger, as Spoelstra likes to put it.

"He's getting stronger and more explosive every game," he said.

Of course, no facet is as significant to Spoelstra as a defense that ranked 20th in the league in November.

Give it time, he stressed then, that Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis were better team defenders than individual defenders, and that such cohesion would take time. Factor in the knee and hamstring issues of Shane Battier in December and January, and the early-season defense was nowhere near where the late-season defense stood last season.

"Our guys sensed it," Spoelstra said. "They owned it, that we weren't playing the way we were capable of it earlier in the year and now we're just doing it a lot harder and a lot more focused."

Now? Now the Heat are back in the league's top 10, which, when factored in with their across-the-board league-leading shooting percentages, is more than good enough.

"The consistency wasn't there in the first 20 games, but our guys understand what our identity is, and in order to get to that level, it takes a great deal of effort and focus," Spoelstra said. "It's not schematic, it's a lot of the sweat-equity stuff."

The expectations are for even more.

More from Wade, who seems to be enjoying being again cast as co-star instead of supporting player.

And more from the defense, where Spoelstra insists there has to be another level.

"There better be, yeah," he said. "Because it always has to go up another level as everybody else's game goes up."

At times over the season's first three months, the Heat looked more vulnerable than dynastic.

Then came February, with its victories over the Clippers, Lakers, Thunder, Hawks and Bulls, the latter three on the road.

Now? Now the distancing that James and Wade predicted would come with a burst that would blow aside the competition.

The Heat are blowing into March like a lion.

"I knew eventually we would get there," Wade said. "We had some new guys to work into the mix and it kind of changed a few things that we normally do. I knew we could eventually get back there. So now it's happening, finally."

As for the confidence, that never wavered.

Beat the Heat in four of seven? Center Chris Bosh said just go ahead and try.

"People have been saying that for a while. It's only happened once," he said, with the Heat's only playoff-series loss among the eight during the Big Three era coming against the Mavericks in the 2011 NBA Finals. "When it's go time, when it's time to put it all on the line, we feel we're the best team out there.

"During the season, late season, early playoffs, late playoffs, when we're playing our best, we're the best team in the league."

Ira Winderman writes regularly for NBCSports.com and covers the Heat and the NBA for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. You can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/IraHeatBeat.

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